With Electronic Arts' FIFA series increasingly moving away from arcade-style gameplay and striving for the level of realism offered by Konami's Winning Eleven series of soccer games, it's just possible that a gap is forming in the marketplace for a soccer game that's easy to pick up and play and will allow even novice players to enjoy matches with spectacularly high scores. Sony Computer Entertainment Europe must think so, because its latest soccer game, World Tour Soccer 2003, boasts realistic graphics and a FIFPro license, as well as a fast-paced and easy-to-master style of gameplay that feels more like the older FIFA games than FIFA 2003 does.
Upon loading the game, you're presented with all the usual gameplay options, including exhibition matches, league competitions, and an unusual career mode in which you actually start out playing as a school soccer team, complete with playing fields and crowds small enough that you can hear individual comments and players who vary in size so much that certain camera angles can give the pitch the feel of an M.C. Escher optical illusion. Also available before you start playing is an option to create your own players and teams or customize the existing ones, which you'll need to do if you're serious about your soccer and wish to play with the correct team names. Thanks to the FIFPro license, most of the player names in the game are authentic, although you'll almost certainly stumble across a few deliberate spelling errors--particularly if you have a Dutch player on your chosen team.
World Tour Soccer 2003's career mode is certainly its strongest feature if you're planning to play the game solo, and although starting out back at school might seem a little extreme, it's certainly very rewarding when you work your way up to the big leagues and find yourself in a position to put in transfer bids for top players. Of course, sports games are best played with friends, and this is definitely the case here, since matches against the game's AI can seem a little too predictable at times. That said, the amateur, pro, world class, and master class difficulty settings offer a rigid learning curve that'll take you ages to beat.
Before you jump into a match, World Tour Soccer 2003 presents you with a wealth of options, allowing you to do everything from change the weather and time of day (neither of which dramatically affect the gameplay, unfortunately) to turn fouls and the offside rule on or off. These options are useful in that they allow you to customize the game to your liking by effectively altering the level of realism, but it's unfortunate that there are one or two very obvious options missing. Referees, for example, can be set to lenient, fair, or strict, but there's no option to randomize their setting, which would force players to work out which ref is officiating their match for themselves. It's also unfortunate that the game doesn't allow you to decide for yourself whether to play a match in your team's home or away uniforms. The game actually does a very good job of ensuring that the colors worn by the referee (yes, he's on the pitch throughout the whole match) and the two teams aren't too similar, but the system isn't flawless, and it's a real shame that players don't have an option to play in their preferred or more-obviously different colors.
It's difficult to not be impressed by the game's visuals when you start a match and watch your players walk out into the stadium for the first time. Not only are the stadiums among the most impressive ever to appear in a sports game, but the players themselves are also instantly recognizable, for the most part. More time was obviously spent on the big-name players in the game than on those who will be lucky to ever get in a match, but since you'll almost certainly choose to play from the furthest-away camera angle of the three available to get a better view of the pitch, this makes very little difference during the gameplay.
Unfortunately, once the ball leaves the center spot, it quickly becomes obvious that while SCEE's early soccer games prided themselves on realistic ball physics, World Tour Soccer 2003 features a ball that appears to move on its own from time to time--particularly when the player in possession is dribbling with it. What's also a little disappointing is that accurately passing the ball requires next to no effort, even when playing a high ball across the entire width of the field. Through balls are similarly unchallenging, and they can be used to devastating effect against the AI. When you're in possession of the ball, teammates actually seem reasonably intelligent and are certainly capable of making some interesting runs and getting themselves into good positions. The same isn't true when you're on forced to play on the defensive, though, and it often feels like the rest of your team is either wandering around aimlessly or standing still while you're chasing after the ball with your chosen player. Altering your team's tactics mid-game by tapping the right analog stick occasionally seems to wake your players up, but the system is designed with attacking formations in mind, rather than defense.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the gameplay in World Tour Soccer 2003 is that it's very difficult to head or volley the ball, with players seemingly preferring to chest the ball down to their feet. This is especially frustrating if you like to cross balls into the box for your strikers to get on the end of, and it can become positively infuriating when you play against the AI on higher difficulty settings and are forced to watch them head the ball after almost every corner kick. Fortunately, your goalkeeper should be up to the job of keeping most of those headers out of the net, and if you're feeling brave, there's an option to bring your keeper out toward the ball manually at the push of a button.
Depending on what your feelings on the real-life sport of soccer are, you'll either love or hate the fact that World Tour Soccer 2003 features deliberate foul and dive moves. Fortunately, you'll rarely get away with either (unless you turn the fouls option off), and, while other games might choose not to acknowledge the existence of such dirty tactics, the sad fact is that tricks such as these are very much a part of the modern game.
Visually, World Tour Soccer 2003 is impressive, for the most part, and the only real criticisms that can be leveled at it would be that the contrast levels generally seem a little low, and that certain animations in the game--notably when a player in possession of the ball tries to perform a quick turn without using one of the button-activated swerves or tricks--seem to require so many frames of animation that they can actually slow the game down. There are some really nice touches in the game, though, including players momentarily pausing to hold their heads if the ball hits them in the face, and players raising their arms to appeal for an offside call when one isn't warranted. World Tour Soccer 2003 also happens to be one of the first games in a long time to get David Beckham's haircut right (at least, it was correct at the time of writing), which is no small achievement.
Certainly the most disappointing aspect of the game is its sound. While the in-game commentary is actually rather good, the spot sound effects are so understated that at times you'll wonder if you've accidentally turned them down to minimum in the options menu. Even when hitting a thundering shot that cracks against a goalpost, the sound effects are barely audible, giving the game an eerily quiet feel--like a slow-motion sequence in a movie.
World Tour Soccer 2003 isn't a bad soccer game by any means, and if you're after a fun kickabout with your mates, you could certainly do a lot worse. As far as realism is concerned, though, the game lacks any real depth, and it has very little to offer after the first few hours of play. It's not too difficult to recommend as an alternative to FIFA, but with the sublime Winning Eleven 6 International just a few weeks away, the best that World Tour Soccer 2003 can hope for this season is a respectable third place.