You know you've got a good sports sim on your hands when you realize that you enjoy playing it as much as (or more than) seeing the real thing - and that's exactly how I felt after I fired up FIFA Soccer 97 from Electronic Arts. It has a few minor problems, to be sure, and one annoying omission. But with a game as ambitious as this one - which includes over 4,200 players on 255 teams - achieving perfection is about as likely as a year without a soccer riot.
Just like every EA Sports title, FIFA Soccer 97 boasts a huge array of options and features that give you control over nearly every aspect of gameplay. Three skill levels and three game types - Action, Arcade, and Simulation - let you fine-tune the challenge to match almost perfectly your skill level and preferences. Newbies will probably get their game in shape playing in Arcade mode, where all teams perform equally well and no players tire; gamers who want a more realistic challenge will opt for either the Action game (unlimited substitutions, better player attributes, faster gameplay) or a Simulation, where skill ratings accurately reflect teams' performances and players tire during the course of play. Other game parameters you can control include length of half, clock type (continually running or stopping when the ball is dead), fouls (on, off, no bookings), offsides (on or off), pitch size (large, medium, or small, but you can only use this feature for Friendly games), and pitch condition. You can also opt for Indoor play, but the small pitch size means the game moves incredibly fast, which can take some getting used to.
That same level of flexibility extends to the various types of matches as well. In addition to Friendly games between any two teams (new teams can be created from the player database for these games), you can also see how you fare in long-haul affairs such as Tournaments, Playoffs, and League play, all of which allow human control for up to 16 teams. A Transfer feature means you can create a dream lineup for your run at a championship or simply keep your team authentic by mirroring real-life trades, but it's here that you run into the annoying omission I mentioned earlier: the lack of a Player Editor. Not only are you unable to create new players to reflect real-life additions to a team, but also there's no way to edit existing players' attributes - a true annoyance for those wishing to alter the fictional names used for all the U.S. teams.
But you'll be more than willing to forgive that oversight once you've got a few games under your belt, because out on the pitch, FIFA Soccer 97 delivers the kind of fluid, realistic action that's become a hallmark of EA Sports' titles. Diving saves and headers, bicycle kicks, volleys - all these and more are here, and so well animated that at times you'll think you're watching a televised match. Be forewarned, though, that you'll need a high-end machine to get a good frame rate: On my 133 with 32MB of RAM and a 2MB ATI Mach 64 Pro Turbo PCI video card, I had to either knock down the display size a couple of notches or turn off the grass textures in order to achieve smooth play. The polygon-based players look a little chunky when seen close up, but that's usually a moot point since you'll invariably play from a perspective far enough away to give you an idea of where your players are headed. The play-by-play is good, but as with almost any sports sim you'll inevitably hear a lot of the same comments over and over; if that bothers you, just turn it off.
Two- and four-button joysticks are supported, but the game really shines when you use the Gravis GrIP system: All six buttons and both "paddles" are supported for up to four players, giving you about as much control as you could hope for. In fact, it could be a little TOO much at first; the best tactic is to use the game's Practise (love that spelling!) mode to learn button assignments for situations such as throw-ins and corner kicks, as well as master the Passback mode where you control someone on offense other than the ball-handler. Passing can be especially tough to master, but again a little practice goes a long way in helping you master the basics.
In short, I really enjoy this game, but even I have to admit that it has a few rough spots, perhaps most noticeably in its goalie behavior. Play at Semi-Pro or Pro difficulty levels, and you'll see very good goalies doing some very stupid things, allowing the computer-controlled opponent to score much too easily. Heck, I once saw a goalie DUCK as a header came his way! Computer-controlled teams almost never commit fouls, a real drag for aggressive players like me who invariably receive two or three yellow cards (or worse) during a game. Knowing whether you have control of the ball is a little tough, too, because the only indicator is a circle surrounding the player you're controlling that brightens when he has the ball. It's all too easy to take control of the ball during a tackle and then lob it because the same button is used for tackles and lobs. I also have gripe with substitutions: There's no gauge to tell you how fatigued a particular player is, information that's vital in deciding who to sub and who to keep on the field.
But the funny thing is that I somehow seem to conveniently forget all that stuff when I load up FIFA 97, especially when I'm playing against friends (up to four can compete on one machine using the GrIP system, or with up to four machines over a network). If EA can find a way to get this thing working over the Internet, the world's most popular sport might be the most popular sport in cyberspace, too.