While the sport of soccer is much more popular outside of the United States, recent efforts have been made to nationally popularize the world's most prevalent game. Now in its seventh season, Major League Soccer continues to bring American audiences a version of the world's game they can call their own. In ESPN MLS ExtraTime 2002, Konami attempts to draw in fans of the sport with its television-styled production values and its official license. But the game itself will likely disappoint those looking for a suitable rival to EA Sports' superb FIFA 2002.
Bearing the official MLS and ESPN licenses has given this game both an authentic SportsCenter look and an admirable roster made up of some of the most exciting players in the game today. The combination of International and American players is part of the MLS' novelty; Colombian superstar Carlos Valderrama and Nigerian striker Daniel Amokachi play side by side with American talents such as cover athlete Clint Mathis, Brian McBride, Landon Donovan, and Cobi Jones. The recently ceasing operations in Tampa Bay and Miami have reduced the league to 10 teams, but this has also strengthened the talent pool across the board, making for more statistically balanced matches. Aside from featuring the official MLS trademarks and player likenesses, the game also lets you take control of a number of international and club teams, from across the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as a handful of custom fantasy teams.
There are numerous gameplay modes to choose from, including exhibitions, custom leagues, the MLS mode, training, and challenges. The MLS mode lets you play through the entire 28-game season, all the way to the MLS Cup playoffs. Winning or tied games earn the player transfer points, which allow for one-on-one player trades during the season and before the 20th round. Based on the class of players involved, each trade will cost a varying number of transfer points, giving you an incentive to play a great many games with your team to improve its pool of players. The training mode places you on a practice field with your chosen team and encourages you to practice such necessary skills as ball handling, one-two passes, and corner kicks.
Much like EA's recent Madden Football games, ESPN MLS ExtraTime 2002 features a series of challenges that let you relive a notable MLS situation and let you attempt to fulfill certain criteria. For example, the premier challenge puts you in the championship game of the 2001 MLS season, with an opportunity to re-create the final moments when the San Jose Earthquakes went from worst to first.
The create-a-player mode is fairly detailed, letting you custom-build a goalkeeper, midfielder, forward, or defender, with quite a bit of leeway in terms of their appearance, including facial hair, skin tone, and facial structure. Earned points from challenges can then be allocated to your custom players' varied statistics.
Graphically, ESPN MLS ExtraTime 2002 is functional but somewhat bland. The close-up character models are considerably lower in polygon count and detail than those found in competing games. The players on the field are fairly nondescript as well. The crowds at least are fairly well done considering the generally poor crowds used in most sports games. The animation in ExtraTime 2002 is hit or miss--while some of the animation routines are fairly impressive, such as how a player will block a high pass with an extended leg, knocking down the ball before commencing to dribble, other moments aren't quite as well done. It often seems like the player's foot doesn't connect with the ball during kicks, and when the game is examined with the closest level of zoom during instant replays or during the postgame ESPN-style highlight reels, then all of its subtle flaws become apparent.
The play-by-play commentary is performed by a single man in the booth, but his calls for the most part are spot-on, correctly indicating the action onscreen. His enunciation is a bit monotonous and robotic at times, especially when saying player names, but the quality of the content is fairly good. The crowd cheers and other noises throughout the game are also fairly well done, although not extraordinary. The music is similarly lacking in any special quality but is adequate for the game.
Playing ESPN MLS ExtraTime 2002 can be fun, if you can put up with some of the more annoying aspects of the game. While it may share some visual qualities with Konami's internationally popular ISS Pro Evolution series, it plays entirely differently. Players can perform a wide array of actions, including short, through, and lob passes, scoring-attempt shots, and all of the special move variants of these, such as headers and diving moves. While the game does have analog control, the output feels nearly entirely digital, in that there is little precision to players' movements, especially when on the run. It's difficult to move in any direction that isn't a 45- or 90-degree change from your previous bearing. Through various hotkey combinations, you can change the strategy and formation of your team on the field. Disappointingly, the effects of these play calls aren't immediately visible onscreen, leaving you bewildered unless you're consulting the instruction manual or have memorized all of the commands.
Switching between players is done using the left shoulder trigger, and you'll need to get very familiar with this, as both the manual and the semi-automatic player switching settings are fairly problematic. Quite often under the semiauto mode, control will switch while you're attempting to chase down a defender or a loose ball and will even switch to a farther player when you're trying to score a goal after a goalkeeper's blocked shot attempt. The manual mode compensates for this somewhat, but in addition to forcing you to constantly switch players, it doesn't always switch to the most ideal player--for instance, giving you control of someone tailing an opposing player as he makes a break for your goal instead of the defender in front who is better positioned to make the defensive play. Relying on the computer AI is also not an option, as it plays mediocre defense and will give up goals like they're going out of style.
While ESPN MLS ExtraTime is by no means a bad game, it just doesn't come close to being on the same level as competing sports titles. The game's roster and the entertaining simulation of the MLS season will undoubtedly endear the game to fans of Major League Soccer, while the challenge modes are a nice touch that adds considerably to the game's value. However, despite these traits, there are far more teams, real-life players, and options available in other soccer games that, when combined with their superior gameplay and graphics, make ESPN MLS ExtraTime 2002 suitable only for the most dedicated of MLS fans.