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.
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.