FIFA 2002 Preview

EA Sports' next football--we mean soccer--sim is nearly here. Read our impressions of a nearly complete build.

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Player models are extremely realistic.
Player models are extremely realistic.

EA Sports' latest look at football, international style, is on its way. FIFA 2002, this year's edition of the long-running series that has been entertaining soccer fans across the globe since the early 1990s, is set to debut within weeks. Development has entered the final stages, so expect to be kicking the ball around the virtual pitch not too long after you put away your Halloween costume.

Just don't expect too much in the way of surprises. A recent late alpha build shows that the design team members are spending most of their time fine-tuning the features that have made the game such a critical darling over the past few years. All the important options and modes of play can be found right where they were last fall. Friendly, season, and multiplayer modes top the list, with one new wrinkle joining them. World Cup qualifying play will be part of a FIFA game for the first time since Road to World Cup 98. You will be able to guide your favorite national sides (around 75 are included, from Bahrain to Belgium) from the AFC, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, and UEFA regional groupings through the lengthy tournament that determines who gets a trip to South Korea next year. You will also need to manage your roster, a task that could prove to be pretty challenging in its own right since you'll often have to work around the availability of star national players.

Ready for the opening kickoff.
Ready for the opening kickoff.

Career play still won't be part of the package, although individual season play should be so encompassing of the entire soccer world that most will be too busy roaming the globe to care. Thousands of real-world players are again being modeled for the game, representing hundreds of club teams from the 16 included national leagues. Every major organization will be represented, from the vaunted English Premier League and the German Bundesliga to the less prestigious Israeli Premier League and the Norwegian Tippeligaen. So you'll be able to go with the big boys hefting the serious bucks, such as David Beckham and the rest of the crew at Manchester United, or scrape by on a limited budget with the likes of Shmulik Levi and his teammates with Beitar Jerusalem.

The look of the game appears to be better than ever. In its alpha incarnation, FIFA 2002 is almost lifelike when viewed from up close, featuring realistic player models that come complete with accurate hairstyles and skin tones that range from dark to pale and blotchy. Those with shaved heads appear so true to nature that you feel as though you could reach through the screen and feel their stubble. It's hard to imagine a more accurate representation of the wide range of human features present in races and cultures from every corner of the planet.

Animations are nearly flawless at this point in the game's development. Players already sprint, kick, and tackle much like their counterparts on a soccer pitch near you. Added touches include players' heads tracking the ball in midair and revamped kicking and tackling animations to add a little diversity to scoring opportunities and beating up the opposition. Stadiums come with animated crowds jammed with cheering supporters, many of whom are waving team or national flags (depending on the occasion), and dynamic lighting effects that occasionally cause reflections off the heads of male pattern baldness victims.

Shootouts are an exciting conclusion to any match.
Shootouts are an exciting conclusion to any match.

Audio appears to be rounding nicely into form, with John Motson and Andy Gray back to handle all the play-by-play and color commentary duties in the broadcast booth. The FIFA series veterans continue with their tradition of serious--albeit stripped-down--analysis of each match, providing basic information spiced with just the odd additional fact or opinion. It makes for a dramatic and refreshing change from the overexcited commentators that EA Sports now uses in FIFA's NHL and Triple Play Baseball sister titles. However, a few more specific references to players and situations would be welcome additions.

Actual gameplay seems to be marked with some noteworthy, if subtle, changes in pace. The designers appear to have reconsidered the recent emphasis on arcade play in the series and toned things down somewhat. Pace is noticeably slower at the default speed than that seen in FIFA 2001. There is generally more time to develop the play and dribble. Instead of just firing the ball from player to player, you have more of an opportunity to work for an open passing lane and attempt to develop a good scoring chance.

Stadium crowds are more lifelike than ever before.
Stadium crowds are more lifelike than ever before.

Passing has apparently been totally reprogrammed to allow for more of a random element. Individual ratings now determine the accuracy of each pass, with the more skilled players being better able to move the ball quickly and accurately. At present, this results in far too many errant passes, though EA Sports is at only the 85 percent completion mark in terms of the AI. Additionally, the strength of each pass is governed by the length of time that you hold down the pass button. A light touch knocks the ball forward a few yards, while a heavier thumb boots it well downfield. This has the potential of adding a lot to the game in terms of realism, though it will certainly require FIFA series veterans to make a number of serious adjustments in their familiar style of play. Shooting has also been randomized--missing the net is now not only possible, but also likely in the presence of any sort of significant opposition. Again, the alpha build isn't finished in this regard, as some tuning remains to make it a little easier to hit the net (scoring at this point is nearly impossible).

Hitting the target doesn't seem to be a contentious issue in terms of FIFA 2002's potential overall success. Even in the alpha stage of development, it is clear that the design team is on the right track in terms of pulling the many features and enjoyable gameplay into one complete whole. While not much new is being brought to the table, the number of enhancements being made to an already fulfilling basic formula looks very promising.

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