At Microsoft's X02 Europe event in Spain today, we visited EA Sports' booth to check out the latest, almost-finished Xbox version of the next installment in the long-running FIFA series of soccer games.
Since FIFA 2002 and the subsequent World Cup edition were outsold by Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer in Europe for the first time last year, EA Sports has decided to give the series what many gamers consider to be a long-overdue overhaul by developing this year's version from the ground up.
It'd be impossible to talk about FIFA 2003 without first mentioning its impressive visuals. All the stadiums in the game are faithful re-creations of their real-life counterparts, and the players who occupy the pitches therein are every bit as lifelike as the people they're modeled on. While it's not clear if all the thousands of players in the game will boast the same level of detail as those playing in the top flight, we were able to instantly recognize each and every player on the pitch during the three matches we played using different top European club sides.
One of the greatest criticisms of previous games in the FIFA series has been that the all-important ball occasionally seemed to move on its own to accommodate nearby players. We noticed a similar thing on one or two occasions today, but the movement was much less pronounced, and, for the most part, the ball behaved exactly as it should. We also found that we were able to shield the ball from opponents simply by positioning the player in possession of the ball accordingly. This has always been the case in Konami's Pro Evolution series, but it has never really been achieved satisfactorily in FIFA until now. Despite this, with much-improved movement of players off the ball, the game definitely encourages a give-and-go style of soccer by making sure that the player with the ball always has the option of passing to at least one or two nearby teammates.
This improved AI of the player's teammates is also apparent when defending. The version of FIFA 2003 we were playing didn't appear to have an option to have the controls shift from player to player automatically, but, almost as if to compensate for the fact that changing players had to be performed manually using a button, the players making their own decisions seemed more capable of doing so than in previous FIFA incarnations.
Unfortunately, the FIFA control system still lacks the intuitiveness of the Pro Evolution Soccer scheme, notably because the game incorporates a header button that is completely separate from the pass or shoot buttons, and because the pass button is also used to switch between players. The through balls, long balls, and shots work well, though, thanks to an unobtrusive power bar that determines the strength of the kick depending on how long the corresponding button is held down. Free kicks and corners have also been improved thanks to the implementation of a system not unlike those found in older golf games, in which stopping a moving bar as close as possible to the middle of an indicator determines how accurate the subsequent kick is.
Though, perhaps the neatest feature of FIFA 2003 is the employment of the right analog stick. It can be a little tricky to use mid-game, but doing so will make the player currently under control perform jukes, body swerves, and changes of pace in the direction the stick is pushed. We found this to be a very effective way of performing quick turns and runs down the wing, although it was arguably a little too effective when we weren't playing against a human opponent.
EA Sports really does seem to be taking the FIFA series in a new, more realistic direction with the 2003 edition, and although it was still a little too easy to score spectacular goals, EA Sports can hardly be blamed for not wanting to alienate the legions of existing FIFA fans who enjoy playing in matches with scores that often reach double figures. For more information, check out our previous coverage of the game.