In the world of soccer games there are really only two serious contenders for the championship title at this point: Konami's Winning Eleven games (Pro Evolution Soccer in Europe), and EA Sports' FIFA Soccer series. Like rival soccer teams eager to show off their newly acquired players at the start of a new season, these two series show up with a host of new features every 12 months in the hope that they'll finally score a convincing victory over the other. Traditionally, Konami's offerings have boasted more realistic gameplay, but have faltered in the areas concerned with presentation, specifically the lack of licensed team and player names. EA Sports' offerings, on the other hand, have generally felt a little more arcadelike than realistic, but the games have always looked extremely sharp and they let you take control of real teams comprised of real players wearing real uniforms. The line separating the two series has become increasingly blurred in recent years, and this year is no exception, as both games are still seemingly seeking to emulate the other's strengths. But to set aside the competition for a moment, FIFA Soccer 2005 is definitely the best FIFA game to date.
Every year, EA Sports makes a point of improving one key aspect of its soccer games--FIFA Soccer 2004 focused on off-the-ball player movement, for example. FIFA Soccer 2005 retains all of the off-the-ball functionality from last year's game and adds convincing ball physics (the ball doesn't stick to players' feet anymore) and some excellent first-touch gameplay mechanics into the mix. The ability for you to determine how your players control the ball at the exact moment it reaches them might not sound like a big deal, but its ramifications are extraordinary: playing a realistic passing style of soccer is now more feasible and satisfying; skilled strikers can create scoring opportunities out of thin air by embarrassing their markers with a single touch; and the satisfaction you'll get from humiliating an opponent with just one tap of the right analog stick is almost akin to scoring a goal against them.
Like the on-the-ball skill moves that allow you to beat opponents when you're en route to their goalmouth with the ball in your possession, first-touch controls are all performed by tapping the right analog stick in the direction that you'd like your player to take the ball. The actual animation that transpires when the ball arrives at your players' feet (as well as whether or not the move succeeds) is determined by their position in relation to the ball and their skill level. Some players are able to flick a ball back over their head and turn defenders without even thinking about it or ever letting the ball move more than a few inches from their body, while others will struggle to perform even simple turns without letting the ball stray far enough away from them so that opponents have a shot at stealing it. Also, like the on-the-ball moves, EA Sports has got the balancing of the first-touch controls nigh perfect--they're effective enough that you'll want to use them all the time, but the odds of your fancy footwork failing you are also significant enough that you'll still have to work pretty hard to create scoring opportunities for your team. There will be occasions, of course, when you're able to run a single player through your opponent's entire midfield and defense en route to a spectacular goal, but these moments of individual genius are few and far between--just as they are in real life.
For the most part, the only way you'll be able to beat opponents of similar ability in FIFA Soccer 2005 is to pass the ball around and to successfully pick out players that are making good runs off the ball. If you've played FIFA Soccer 2004, you'll know that many of the best runs made by your players are going to be those that you trigger yourself. Sending other players on runs is as easy as tapping the left shoulder button while you're in possession of the ball, and the system is as effective at beating defenders as it is easy to employ. If you prefer to play an even more active role in the movement of your players, you can actually assume control of a second player using the right analog stick. It's not a system that we've ever really felt the need to use a great deal (and our online opponents have invariably had the same attitude), but it can certainly make it easier to pick out your strikers with crosses into the box--provided you can retain possession of the ball while you're using the right analog stick for your second player rather than using it to perform tricks and turns with your first. While we're on the subject of controlling additional players, it's also worth mentioning that the goalkeepers in FIFA Soccer 2005 are often very slow to come off their line, which, since you can make them charge at the ball manually, is definitely a good thing. There are few things more frustrating in a soccer game than conceding a goal because your overly active CPU keeper was on a walkabout.
The other surprisingly significant improvement made to FIFA's gameplay this year concerns throw-ins, which in many previous soccer titles, including FIFA 2004, have made it far more difficult for the team awarded the throw to retain possession of the ball. EA Sports has effectively resolved the problem by allowing you to use the same off-the-ball controls during throw-ins that you can when in open play. When you're awarded a throw, you'll be able to control any of three players and move them around however you see fit while your opponent attempts to mark you with three of his players. The system is different to the jostling mechanic that has you battling for position before corner kicks (there's still no way to play short corners, incidentally), but it feels quite similar, and it affords you the opportunity to come up with some creative ways of gaining an advantage from the set piece.
As you'll no doubt have gathered from reading the previous page, FIFA Soccer 2005 plays an enjoyable and realistic game of soccer. The game isn't without its problems, though, and what's disappointing is that many of them really shouldn't have been difficult to avoid. The advantage rule (which Konami did a great job of implementing in Winning Eleven 7 International and has subsequently improved), for example, does not exist in FIFA Soccer 2005. So, if one of your players is fouled after releasing a pass that puts one of your strikers clean through on goal, there's a good chance that the play will be stopped before you unleash your shot so that you can take a free kick. Playing against CPU teams can also be a baffling experience on occasion as, no matter which of the four difficulty settings you've opted for, your opponents will often appear to pass the ball around just for the hell of it. There's nothing wrong with keeping the ball moving, of course, but when your defense is all but beaten and the opposing striker knocks the ball back to one of his colleagues who is in a less favorable position rather than going one-on-one with the keeper, it just feels wrong.
Perhaps the most disappointing feature of FIFA Soccer 2005 is its 15-season career mode. It's actually quite an engaging gameplay option, but every aspect of it has seemingly been designed with the impending arrival of Total Club Manager 2005 (which will feature "Football Fusion" compatibility with FIFA 2005, allowing you to enjoy the features of both games simultaneously) in mind. It's a terribly cynical thing to say, but the management aspect of the FIFA 2005's career mode is so cumbersome and unnecessarily time consuming that it's as much an advertisement for the upcoming management title as the billboards that appear in the game's stadiums. What are we basing this on? Here comes the list:
1. When you start a career in FIFA Soccer 2005 you'll only be able to take control of certain teams, most of which play in their countries' lower divisions, and some of which you'll almost certainly not even have heard of. It's not necessarily a bad thing that the game forces you to start your career at the bottom of the pile and work your way up, but if your dream is to one day manage a glamorous team like Manchester United or Arsenal, the only way you'll realize it in FIFA 2005 is to first string together some successful seasons with another team and then wait for a job offer. Will this be the case with Total Club Manager 2005? Perhaps, but we doubt it very much.
2. When you decide that you want to augment your team via the transfer market, FIFA Soccer 2005 makes it about as difficult as possible for you to search its player database. If you have a specific player in mind, then it's not too difficult to locate him provided he's still with the same team he plays for in real life. However, if you're simply interested in a type of player or one with certain abilities, then the only way for you to find that player is to check out the team rosters one at a time, click on player names, and then scroll through their attributes--none of which can be done quickly.
3. If and when you manage to find a player that you're interested in adding to your squad, you'll notice a figure next to his name that represents his value in career points. You earn career points by stringing together wins, keeping clean sheets, scoring goals, and basically playing well. To make an offer, you'll hit the negotiate button, at which point you'll have no opportunity whatsoever to participate in any kind of negotiation, but you will instead be presented with a screen that tells you whether or not you've succeeded in signing the player as well as a short explanation for his decision. Should you be crazy enough to try and submit an offer for a player whose list price you can't quite afford--perhaps thinking that the negotiate button will deliver on its promise--you'll simply be told that you don't have enough points.
Despite its numerous and significant flaws, the career mode in FIFA Soccer 2005 is still where you're likely to spend most of your time when you're playing the game solo. There's something very satisfying about taking charge of a team that's languishing in the lower divisions and turning them into champions. There are also a few management features in the game that are far less painful than those listed above; well, there's one anyway. When you assume control of your team you'll be handed 100 management points to spend on backroom staff. The people working under you include: coaches specializing in fitness, goalkeeping, defensive play, midfield play, and attacking play; a finance department; scouts; and a medical staff. As you progress through the game you'll be awarded additional management points to spend and, as you spend them, you'll find that the benefits of having a good staff are actually quite significant. A good fitness coach, for example, will improve the recovery rates of your players in between matches, while good scouts will be able to give you additional information on any players that you're interested in signing. We should also mention that the career mode features an option that lets you simulate matches rather than play them, which gives you the opportunity to jump into the action if you feel it necessary to intervene at any point. The only reason we could imagine you wanting to make use of this, though, is if you were looking to get through your first season or two as quickly as possible in the hope that you will receive a job offer from your favorite club.
Depending on your opinion, the most significant addition to this year's FIFA might well be the online play supported by the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of the game. The online features of the two versions are basically identical, save for the fact that the PS2 game replaces the Xbox game's quickmatch and optimatch buttons with one labeled "Play Now." It's also worth noting that the PS2 game can be played using a regular dial-up connection, although you'll only be able to use a headset to talk to your opponents if you're playing with broadband.
The online options in FIFA Soccer 2005 include playing friendly matches or participating in tournaments with up to seven other players. The presentation of the menus and suchlike is adequate rather than impressive, and those of you with Xbox Live experience might wonder how it is that a company like Electronic Arts is able to take such an impressive online service and make it so mediocre. None of the menus are as quick to navigate as they should be, many of the options that you take for granted in other Xbox Live games are unavailable (such as checking your friends list to see who is online and what they're playing), and we invariably found that using the game's outdated lobby systems to check players' connection speeds was the only way to avoid matches that verged on being unplayable because the lag was so bad. EA will no doubt be working to rectify the game's connection problems (we were disconnected completely on more than one occasion). We're still looking forward to playing silky smooth games of FIFA Soccer 2005 online rather than being able to say that we've already had the pleasure.
Another thing that we've noticed about the online play in FIFA 2005 is that most players are so concerned with climbing the leaderboard that they're happy to drop their favorite team in favor of the likes of Brazil, France, Real Madrid, Arsenal, or Manchester United to improve their chances of winning. We know this, because your favorite teams are displayed when you challenge an opponent and on the subsequent team-select screen, and you can then watch your opponent scrolling through the game's numerous licensed leagues and teams. What those players don't realize perhaps, is that when you're awarded points after a match, the game's ranking system takes into account not only the previous rankings of the two players, but also their team choices. So, if you're able to beat Brazil using a little-known club, kudos won't be your only reward.
Whether playing online or offline, you'll be able to earn FIFA 2005 points for achieving certain milestones, such as winning a game by five or more goals, scoring a hat trick, or even just for accessing certain menu options. These points can be subsequently spent on unlocking additional content for the game, which is always a good thing. Although, on this occasion, the 80 bonus items up for grabs were less impressive than you might expect from an EA Sports title. The majority of the unlockable items are alternate third uniforms for major teams, while others include: official balls, training pitches, nighttime versions of stadiums, music tracks from INXS and New Order, and the famous Italian referee Pierluigi Collina.
Speaking of music, the game's soundtrack contains almost 40 different tracks from all over the world. The EA Trax selection in FIFA 2005 is about as eclectic as they come. You'll find artists such as The Streets, Scissor Sisters, and Morrissey playing alongside the likes of Debi Nova, Ivete Sangalo, and Los Amigos Invisibles. Predictably, with such a varied jukebox at your disposal, you'll most likely come across a few tracks that you want to switch off. The flip side, though, is that you'll inevitably like at least a handful of the tracks on offer. The English-language commentary in the game again comes courtesy of the BBC's John Motson and Ally McCoist who, for the most part, do an excellent job of talking about matches in an accurate and timely fashion. There are rare occasions, though, when they'll randomly spout something wildly inaccurate, such as "That could've been 2-2," when a shot that would've leveled a game at 1-1 narrowly misses the target, or "No, the ref has waved play on," as the referee stops play to award a penalty.
The game's visuals are, predictably, one of the areas in which all three console versions of FIFA Soccer 2005 differ. All three games feature instantly recognizable stadiums, team uniforms, and players (some of which boast strange-looking translucent hair), but the Xbox looks a lot smoother and is by far the most impressive. The GameCube version also looks more polished than the PS2 game, but we found some of the colors to be so bright that we had to break out the remote control for the TV to tone them down. All three games feature the same excellent player animations, but the stadiums are packed full of cardboard-cutout crowds.
Another area in which the three console versions of FIFA 2005 differ is the controls, though only as a result of their respective controllers. The PS2 version is the easiest of the three to get to grips with, thanks to its additional shoulder buttons, while the Xbox game requires you to use the uncomfortable black-and-white buttons for off-the-ball movement, in-game management, and fake shots--none of which are strictly necessary, but are all things you'll want to experiment with at some point. The GameCube controller doesn't really lend itself to FIFA in the same way that the others do, but if you don't know any different, then there's really nothing wrong with it.
So, as the final whistle approaches, how do we feel that FIFA Soccer 2005 has performed? Well, there's no doubt that this is EA Sports' best soccer game to date on the pitch, but it's really unfortunate that the career mode isn't more user-friendly. The game boasts the same level of detail as other EA Sports titles for the most part, but you might notice minor bugs and glitches as you spend time with the game. None of these little snags impact the gameplay or are really worthy of a mention here, but make the game seem a little rushed. Despite that, FIFA 2005 is a great game for fans of the sport.