For the first time in three years, the FIFA series takes a step back from the previous year's game.

User Rating: 8 | FIFA Football 2004 XBOX
The last few installments of EA Sports' FIFA series have been the best in the series, combining satisfying gameplay with superb graphics and authentic leagues with a presentation that makes for an immersive soccer experience on the PC platform. FIFA 2003 managed to improve on its predecessors, FIFA 2002 and 2002 FIFA World Cup, themselves the best entries in the series up to that point. FIFA 2004 has the difficult task of improving on FIFA 2003, arguably the best game in the series, and for the first time in three years, the FIFA series takes a step back from the previous year's game.

FIFA does a lot of things right. The quality of the presentation, graphics, and sound return. FIFA 2004 looks and sounds just as good as FIFA 2003, and appears to share the same game engine. The graphics are gorgeous. Matches can take place on sunny or cloudy, or at night, and the game looks different in each of these scenarios, with colorful and vibrant colors during sunny days, dull and drab colors during cloudy days, or brightly lit during night matches. The stadiums look great, and are lively, with team specific chants just as last year. Player models and animations have improved as well. John Motson and Ally McCoist return in the broadcasting booth, and are as good as ever. A new selection of EA Trax rounds out the presentation elements.

This year FIFA has added a career mode, but it's lacking in many ways. You'll take control of a club, and have a set number of prestige points to apply to training your team or individual players. There are goals for each season, such as winning the league, scoring in every home match, and scoring more than 70 goals. Fulfilling them will earn you more prestige points, but only at the end of the season. However, when starting a new season, there doesn't seem to be a record of previous seasons anywhere, so it feels like playing discrete seasons rather than a true career mode.

Gameplay has been altered a bit. In FIFA 2003, you could do reasonably well without using the advanced controls, but it seems to get the most of FIFA 2004, you'll have to make use of the advanced controls. In FIFA 2003, it wasn't difficult to make a through pass to a player in the box, fake out your defender to create some space, and take a good shot. This was a good offensive strategy in FIFA 2003.

In FIFA 2004, the through ball pass is largely ineffective, even when you're not close to the goal. In fact, it's hard to get the ball to someone in the box, and if you do, they'll likely to be defended and you won't be able to get a clean shot off. You can't seem to fake out defenders by quickly changing directions anymore. Instead, there's a new feature, called jostling. By moving the right stick, your player will attempt to create space between his defender.

In FIFA 2003, you could instruct players without the ball to go on runs, but didn't have much control over them otherwise. FIFA 2004 takes it a step further with new off the ball controls, also seen in NBA Live 2004, in which you can control a player who does not have the ball with the right thumbstick. Once you get into a good position, you can then instruct the ball carrier to pass to this second player. It feels awkward, and breaks the flow of the game, since you have to stop, activate the mode, select a player by cycling through them, and then move them. I suppose with enough practice, you can make it worthwhile, but the developers could probably make this feature more accessible and intuitive in future installments. Fortunately, if you don't want to deal with this, you can still send players on uncontrolled runs.

In fact, the best way to score in FIFA 2004 is to take powered up shots from distance. You'll be surprised at the kinds of shots that will go in, which wouldn't have a chance in previous games. It's also curious that the CPU misses a lot of shots that it really shouldn't, when the goalie is out of position, or on undefended chances.

There are some questionable omissions in the PC version of FIFA 2004 that make you feel the game is incomplete and was rushed to release. Out of the box, you can't configure your gamepad, and you can't save instant replays. There is a patch available, but even after that, things aren't completely working. Using a Gravis Eliminator Aftershock, which is supported by the game, I applied the patch, and was able to configure my gamepad controls, but I couldn't use all of the buttons. FIFA 2004 does support force feedback, and the effects are apparent when you strike a post, or when you get tackled hard. Also, after applying the patch, you can save instant replays, but I was never successful in playing them back.

There are also some things missing from FIFA 2003. There are no options to select night/day settings for a match, and FIFA 2004 has no precipitation whatsoever, unlike rain in 2003 or snow in some previous FIFA games. The Champions League mode which was featured in FIFA 2003 has also been removed.

The gameplay and presentation across the PC and Xbox versions of FIFA 2004 are the same. At the expense of higher resolutions, the Xbox version is much more fluid, and does not have the control problems of the PC version.

FIFA 2004 has the unenviable task of matching FIFA 2003, and comes up a bit short with has control issues and gameplay changes that aren't necessarily a step in the right direction. Although this year the FIFA series takes a breather, FIFA 2004 by no means is a bad game. In fact, it's a great game, just not an improvement over FIFA 2003.