Reminiscent of early installments in Electronic Arts' FIFA series, KickOff 97 offers easy-to-master, fast-paced gameplay, a wealth of season and camera options, and a remarkably simple, yet surprisingly efficient, control system. By refusing to get bogged down in the ultra-realism that has defined recent soccer offerings (after all, real soccer games end up in 0-0 ties), KickOff reminds us that video games should put fun first, even if it comes at the expense of realism.
KickOff's entire control scheme is based on two buttons: one shoots, one passes. Passing is easy, with each pass going right to the feet of the intended receiver. Shots can be bent using the directional, and height and velocity are determined by the length of time that the button is held down. Backheel and crossing passes, diving headers and give-and-go plays are all set up using various combinations of the same buttons. All of these plays can be worked on in the game's practice mode before actually hitting the turf, and they can be put to use competitively in friendly matches, World Cup matches, or the excellent challenge mode, where you have to beat thirty computer teams in thirty tries (leapfrogging opponents after a convincing victory).
The game does have its weaknesses, primarily in the defensive AI. The computer does your defensive switching for you, with the intent of giving you the player closest to the ball. Unfortunately, this is usually the player that the ballcarrier has just passed, not the defender with the best attack angle. The result is that you are constantly trying to chase down the ballcarrier from behind, a feat that grows steadily more difficult as the quality of your opponent improves. In addition, controlling free kicks is a bit of a problem, and an option for the goalie to quickly throw the ball out to a defender would be welcome in future versions. Also, the lack of online action in this day and age is almost unforgivable.
While these complaints are substantial and prevent the game from reaching the very top levels of soccer simulations, there is certainly enough fun and excitement in the game's straightforward, yet comprehensive, approach to recommend it. With a little improvement, future versions should produce a true contender.