Southampton 36, Real Madrid 0
With five difficulty levels and more realistic player skill levels FIFA 2003 is a challenge. The steps between the difficulty levels are very steep, and no longer is it possible to sprint and muscle past defenders and smack the ball into the top corner from 35 yards out. The computer controlled players now react much better and will attempt to block passes, as well as being able to run faster than the player on the ball, meaning that goals need to be well crafted, rather than just sprint and shoot.
Also, you are now required to manually aim your shot at goal. No longer will shots aimed at the corner flag mysteriously fly on target! Plus, the amount of time that your finger is on the shoot button will affect the velocity of your strike. If you hold on to the button too long then your strike from 6 yards will hurtle over the bar, and likewise if you just tap the button the shot will limply make its way into the 'keepers arms.
So the emphasis is now is on well-crafted, realistic goals rather than the spectacular goals of previous FIFA's. This enhances gameplay and creates an altogether more realistic experience. However, with time and practice you will still be able to reach the level when you can decimate the defences of the worlds greatest teams.
That brings me nicely on to the range of teams available. This truly is a global game, featuring many national leagues and international superstars. British fans can choose to lead their team to the Premiership (or SPL if you're north of the border), Americans can claim the MLS title for their team, and hell, you can even win the more obscure international leagues if you want to. This range of teams from all over the world really gives the game an international feel and represents the global nature of football better than any previous FIFA instalment, which cannot be a bad thing at all.
Graphically this is a major step on its predecessors with hundreds of individually modelled players. Football fans will recognise their heroes instantly. There are also several accurately modelled stadiums from around the world, including the Stade de France and the Yokahama International Stadium. This level of player and stadia detail is unmatched. Obviously there are still minor flaws, such as the crowd. Having said that though I'm yet to find a sports sim that will model each crowd member in a stadium individually instead of putting the standard 2D image in. The crowd are a graphical frustration rather than being a major flaw though.
The sound is good, with realistic chants and sound effects combining with commentary of BBC Sports legend John Motson and former Scottish international Ally McCoist. The commentary is of a good standard for a computer game, however the range of phrases is not particularly varied and it can become irritating hearing them say the same things over and over again. The two commentators acquit themselves well though with realistic dialogue and excitement, considering that they were not actually watching a real match when it was recorded. The soundtrack is a hit and miss affair with classics from Idlewild and Sportfreunde Stiller being the stand out tracks.
It is possible to download the FIFA 2003 "Creation Centre" free from the internet. This allows you to design your own players and teams. The major flaw is that when you introduce your custom people into a team, the squad lists for the other teams in that league are screwed up. For example, I introduced myself as a goalkeeper for the New York/New Jersey Metrostars, and then found that the other teams in the MLS were starting their strikers in goal, their defenders up front etc. This lead to a frustrating period of sorting out all the other teams just to get one new player in. Sure, it was cool to see a fairly accurate representation of myself playing, but I'm not sure it was worth the length of time it took to edit every MLS team. I'm yet to find any bugs with the actual game though.
In all this is an enjoyable game that is far more realistic than previous FIFA games from EA Sports. Graphically it is a big improvement, and the sound is satisfactory. There are no stability issues. The gameplay is improved, and at the harder difficulty levels it is quite a challenge. The challenge is surmountable though, and in time you will be able to lead your favourite team to a 36 - 0 rout of Real Madrid.