Last year's FIFA 2000 proved that even the finest PC sports game franchises are susceptible to some questionable design decisions. It emphasized fast action over simulation elements and also replaced the play-by-play commentary of the veteran British broadcasting team of John Motson and Mark Lawrenson with the unremarkable ESPN announcers Phil Schoen and Julie Foudy. Fortunately, this year's version represents a renewed commitment to realism and offers plenty of innovation to the hit soccer series.
However, when you first fire up the program, FIFA 2001 seems anything but improved. The introductory sequence is simplistic, grainy, and uninspired, despite the generous audible assistance of Moby's hypnotic Bodyrock. The menu interfaces are missing EA Sports' standard high-tech gloss, so they're uncharacteristically unsightly. Every menu selection is also accompanied by awful-sounding sound effects reminiscent of a loud coin-op arcade machine, but, fortunately, the game lets you turn these off.
FIFA 2001 really shows its stuff once you get to the pitch, where it exhibits the culmination of a complete visual and practical makeover that'll satisfy anyone who can appreciate the accuracy of a sports simulation. Now, the players move and groove with more realism than ever before, as they stop and plant before changing direction, take a reasonable amount of time to gather in passes, and move at a decidedly measured pace even during speed bursts. Though the players in FIFA 2001 are still a bit faster and more capable than their living counterparts, these players aren't swivel-hipped supermen - they generally move just as you'd expect them to.
Nevertheless, they're still capable of executing a stupefying variety of actions. FIFA once again takes full advantage of every aspect of your ten-button controller, so much so that you'll probably still be practicing new moves even days or weeks after you first play the game. You'll want to work on advanced moves such as 360-degree spins and double stopovers, and you'll get to control a full roster of in-game team management decisions and set piece decisions. Though the game won't let you reconfigure gamepad buttons, the default controls should prove to be highly accessible.
Unfortunately, the gameplay does have some minor problems. For instance, goalkeepers are capable of occasional gravity- and physics-defying saves. Virtually any player can execute implausibly long-distance sliding tackles. Lob goals are made possible only if you lob "pass" toward the opposition net when no teammate is positioned in front of you. And when you play on the more challenging difficulty levels, the computer-controlled rearguards become unnaturally effective. Even so, such problems are all but completely overshadowed by all the great features in the game.
In general, computer-controlled team and player actions in FIFA 2001 are much better than those in the previous version. Lesser defenses play for the offside. Talented offenses work the "give and go" and feed looping timed balls to bursting strikers. Defenders slyly monitor ball carriers and don't commit until the time is right. Even if you prefer to play FIFA 2001 as more of an action game by cranking up the gameplay speed and selecting the lenient officiating option, computer-controlled FIFA players are always smart players.
They're also noticeably smaller than in the previous installment, which better reflects their real-world size. That means you'll do a lot more running to get to where you want to go. It also means you'll be staring at very small players from most angles in the game's four available camera views, unless you decide to observe through the field-mounted "action" perspective and apply manual zooming. Yet, even then, none of the cameras get nearly as up close and personal as they did in FIFA 2000. They won't usually even get close enough during the game's replay mode, even with its free-floating, manually adjustable viewpoints.
But when you do happen to get a good close look at the players, whether it's during the game, the replay, or the wonderfully rendered cutscenes, you'll see their downsized stature hides how impressive they really look. The 3D players in FIFA 2001 are bereft of the straight lines and jagged edges of prior editions, and are quite capable of demonstrating various degrees of emotion and fervor. Their faces are particularly striking - they are individually rendered right on down to hair color and hair length and are articulated with moving lips and shifting expressions. When you watch your little computer version of Ronaldo or Zidane throwing a fit over a carding and then actually listen as he verbally chastises the referee, you'll know you've found your game.
In addition to the realistic players, EA Sports has created a highly authentic environment for its latest FIFA. The grandstands come alive with undulating multicolored, humanlike shapes. Flags wave, songs are sung, and the crowd ebbs and flows in unison. In full sunshine, stadiums are lit with lens flare effects and later darkened by shadows that move across the pitch as the day wears on. When the weather grows inclement, thunder rolls in the distance as dark clouds travel across the skies, and thousands of individual rain droplets flash across the screen. That all these effects run so smoothly on the Pentium III 500 Voodoo3-powered test computer, even at 1024x768 resolution, really shows that EA Sports put a lot of work into optimizing the graphics.
Yet perhaps the most notable upgrade to the presentation of FIFA 2001 is not really an upgrade at all: It's instead the welcome return of veteran BBC and FIFA broadcaster John Motson as the commentator. Perhaps due to its real-world heritage, virtual soccer requires a knowledgeable British announcer, and certainly the poorly scripted banter of last year's Yankee team wasn't good enough. But the naturally witty Motson is, and he has more lines and better timing than ever.
The color commentary from Lawrenson is a bit less impressive - he's an Ed McMahon to Motson's Johnny Carson - but together they add the necessary spice to the game. Their phrases are delivered with just the right inflections and at precisely the right moments. When Motson proclaims, "Only the goaltender to beat now" followed by "I'll have to eat my words" if a defender slides in with an astonishing tackle, you'll realize just how impressive FIFA 2001 really is.
FIFA 2001 is also as deep as any good EA Sports game in terms of the sheer quantity of its features. The game offers no less than 17 national leagues from such divergent locales as Greece and Israel to more traditional soccer powers such as Germany and Brazil. 60 international sides are also along for the ride, for a grand total of hundreds of available teams and a player total that's more than a cool grand. These are mighty big figures indeed, especially when each side purportedly mirrors its real-life tactics, strategies, and player attributes. The old-time classic squads of last year's edition are unfortunately absent, as is the indoor game of distant FIFAs, yet there's more than enough in FIFA 2001 to keep you busy for a long time.
FIFA 2001's gameplay options are as seemingly limitless as the sheer quantity of teams and players available. You may want to conduct an almost-instantaneous quick game, a customizable exhibition, a full season, a knockout cup, or a custom league or tournament, in which you're offered just about any conceivable parameter for long-term competitions. Team managers may edit individual attributes, alter the color and appearance of team uniforms - many of which now carry actual team crests and sponsors - and buy and sell players with a bankroll based on real-life resource figures. Curiously, the game's practice mode won't let your team take the pitch without facing some form of computer-controlled opposition, thus somewhat limiting its effectiveness if all you want to do is figure out which button does what.
FIFA 2001 also promises to be a great multiplayer game. Apart from the usual allotment of modem, serial, and network modes, the game supports Internet play based on EA.com's new player-matching service. Various lobbies will be set up around the world, which will permit players to pick and choose the nationalities of their opponents, structure contests, and chat. This is fortunate, since FIFA fans have been waiting for just this type of service.
FIFA 2001 is much more than just an annual rehash - it repairs whatever damage was done by last year's version, heads in a more authentic direction, and offers numerous new features. It is the first serious revision of the series in a number of years, and it can be described only as the best FIFA to date.