EA Sports has produced some of the finest soccer games on any platform. Last year's two versions of the FIFA franchise came replete with more options, stunning graphics, and hours of gameplay than ever before. With terrific animations, dozens of special moves and in-game strategies, it begs the question: Is there room for improvement, aside from just keeping up with new hardware and processing speeds? Little, but there is some. EA tweaked the graphics, added commentary and celebrations, beefed up teammate AI, and "smartened" sideline control - making FIFA 99 a better choice for the neophyte, and an almost-essential upgrade for the die-hard soccer enthusiast.
All the moves you expect from an EA Sports FIFA title are here: flick passes, diving headers, slide tackles, and rainbow kicks. FIFA 99 adds new moves like directional chest-trapping to bring the ball down away from enemy players. You can fake the receipt of a pass. And draw fouls. And push the goalie down with the touch of a single button. It's now possible to volley an airborne ball directly to a teammate's head or feet. Shots on goal now include a chip shot and a poke shot to disarm the unsuspecting keeper. These aren't the same static goalies of last year's editions either. Instead of automatically grabbing and holding the ball every time, sometimes they kick the ball away, other times they fail to gain control and leave it in play, dangerously close to the goal. Plus, you can now have a hand in their control, and though this primarily means deciding when to pick up or drop the ball, it's now possible to charge enemy strikers. The threat of charging goalies makes offensive timing more of a critical issue.
Tactically, there's nothing new here. Still, EA deserves credit for showing that soccer is in fact a game of strategy. It was the first to implement a strategic component in the electronic soccer world - something that has existed in video (American) football gaming since the Atari 2600 days. The four plays from World Cup 98 return here: For the defense, an offside trap moves the defensive line forward to draw the enemy offsides. Offensive plays include an attack press to team up on defending ball carriers to force a mistake near the enemy goal and two breakaway plays. And as in previous versions of the game, three separate customizable formations are available on the fly. If you're willing to tire your team out fast, you can effectively have the bulk of your squad in your territory and enemy territory, by switching formation whenever the ball switches sides of the field.
All this strategy is further customizable with the various setup options. Control each formation's orientation, from defensive to attacking, as well as each individual player's attitude, from "calm" to "nutter." In addition, all the usual stat and cosmetic tweaks recur in this version, so you can still create strange races of bald, neck-beard-sporting, super-strikers that are all speed and no endurance. Nothing new over last year's edition, but filled with possibility nonetheless.
EA Sports has opted for a more realistic use of color this time around. Gone are last year's candy-coated primary and secondary colors and saturated look, in favor of lighter yet more subdued and browner hues. In general, the frame rate is better, and the overall visual effect is a smoother one, although (very rarely) a frame rate glitch occurs, and the game hiccups during a wide camera pan. Last year's angry goalie assault of the "cameraman" must have been a big hit with the kids, because dozens of new grandstanding and pouting animations have been added. Dancing wingbacks, obnoxious taunts, and goalie retaliations are great, but it's the mellow and abject goalie hanging his head after blowing the tying save that gets me every time. Speaking of color, commentary is tighter and more varied this time around with a larger script and, more importantly, improved response time. You don't have the old problem of commentators declaring "He's just given the ball away," two seconds late, when you've already recovered and scored.
The most significant improvement in this year's version is in the AI. On the enemy side, defenders mark tighter than ever before. For you Americans, that means they play man-to-man faster, rougher, and closer to the forwards. You might actually have to learn a few of those special moves this time around (at least half of them are fancy dribbles suited perfectly for this purpose). Teammate AI is also superior to previous attempts. Through-pass runs are easier to pull off, making for supersonic breakaways, but even basic strategy is more effective now: Send a wing back up the sideline and fire it into the box. Nine times out of ten, your man is there. Used to be you could get away with passing blindly, not because teammate AI was good, but because enemy marking wasn't so hot. There'd be time to chase the ball without losing your momentum. These improvements make FIFA 99 more of a game of skill that emphasizes passing and control over hotdogging.
One thing no previous soccer title has ever pulled off with any realism is sideline recoveries. In most games, whenever a player first arrives at a loose ball, the ball travels a few feet along the same vector as that of the player's approach. As a result, it's almost impossible to recover a loose ball at the sideline, since the CPU doesn't know that the ball is dangerously close to being out of bounds and that no real-life player would dumbly kick the ball forward and forfeit possession to a throw-in. This flaw is the reason why you always see electronic soccer players sprint up to the ball only to tap it out of bounds - it's not some desperate and ingenious defensive ploy; it's a weakness in the code. At first I was skeptical of EA Sports' claim to have built new "bounding logic" to remedy the problem, but the surprising and subtle results make for greater realism at the all-important periphery of play.
Last year's double dose of FIFA titles was a little confusing for soccer fans. Releasing FIFA 99 so soon after is also confusing. Who would buy three games with nearly identical engines in just over a year (first-person shooters notwithstanding)? FIFA Road to World Cup 98 had more than one hundred more teams than the later World Cup 98, which in turn had a wider array of in-game tactics and plays, and FIFA 99 has more of each than either of its predecessors. EA Sports has made terrific, if sometimes subtle, improvements to AI and control, making it the obvious choice of the three.