Soccer fans, scratch your heads a little. What is World Cup 98? Has EA Sports given birth to FIFA 99 nine months early? Or perhaps it's simply delivered us to the very end of the Road to the World Cup and created a bizarre FMV-driven game taking place entirely at the awards ceremony, perhaps a who-stole-the-trophy-themed cinematic RPG/mystery. No, World Cup 98 is neither of these things - although developers interested in licensing my concept for the latter can contact me through videogames.com. Basically, EA has stripped down the 400+ teams from FIFA 98, leaving only the 32 that made it, plus an extra eight that it wishes had. EA's also revamped the AI, revised player and team stats for the season, and expanded management - as well as given face-lifts to various option screens, jerseys, and grandstanding animations. Is it worth the price of an entire new game? Well, that's sort of a philosophical question.
World Cup 98 has left FIFA 98's awesome controls intact. It's both rich with control options and very easy to pick up. Sound impossible? Well, there is a ton of stuff to learn: slide tackles, flicks, lobs, header passes, header shots, volleys, plus special moves to get you out of trouble and aggressive ones to get you into it. The beauty of both versions of the game is that you can learn all those things gradually. All you need to know how to do to play is just run, pass, and shoot.
One of the only real flaws of FIFA 98 was in its all-too-forgiving AI. A corner kick to a star player almost invariably resulted in a header goal. This was true of CPU-controlled teammates as well. Whenever you indiscriminately lobbed the ball downfield, someone from your team was there to grab it. Unless you were really unevenly matched - and thankfully you could be, since the AI was good at incorporating stats into play - you could usually take the ball downfield and deposit it into the enemy goal with a minimum of mess. This time around, things are a lot more interesting. The CPU teams aren't just more aggressive, they're craftier as well, especially on defense. Variety of play is much wider as a result.
Adding to this wider variety of gameplay is World Cup 98's versatile new set of team and individual attitude and strategy settings. These affect play enormously. If you really want to see management in action, set your team's strategy to its offensive maximum, which positions all players closer to the enemy goal. Then set the individual players' attacking bias, which ranges from "conservative" to "attacking" to "the max." Then do the same with the aggression meter, which ranges from "calm" to (get this) "nutter." Then watch as the whole squad blows its cool and play bogs down completely, with half a dozen zealots swarming around the ball, all trying to be heroes. One enemy lob into your territory and suddenly there's no one there to defend it. It's great.
Graphically, both the original FIFA 98 and the follow-up are loaded with amazingly lifelike polygonal animations of dozens of moves. There is no denying the realism of the short flick pass or the sheer joy of sadistically slide-tackling the enemy goalie after he denies you your glory. Red card, shmed card, it's just so darn fun, and it looks so good you won't be able to resist. EA promised that the new version would offer a significantly higher frame rate and smoother screen scrolling, but there's really no significant improvement to either. The most noticeable visual improvements seem to have occurred in miscellaneous graphical trivia. The jerseys look better. Squad customization is now diagram-driven rather than menu-driven. Plus, post-goal grandstanding (and reciprocal goalie pouting) has been expanded to include a number of new animations. Some of these goalies get pissed. Unfortunately, product placement has gone from cute (Fuji ads on the sidelines) to irritating (the score is now brought to you by Snickers - right on the score panel - every time). Argh.
On the basis of AI improvements alone, World Cup 98 is highly recommended. There are so many more ways to play the game, from a tactical standpoint, now that the CPU is really going for it, ranging from finesse-style play for the passback-friendly, to straight-up bruiser techniques that will leave you with a very small squad by the end of the game. Unfortunately, it does lack FIFA 98's capacity to take one team through multiple round-robins on route to the World Cup, not to mention the charm of taking on the mighty French with righteous underdog teams like Antigua and Kazakhstan. Given the choice between the two, however, go with World Cup 98.