With World Cup competition right around the corner, EA Sports has chosen the perfect time to release the next installment in its seminal soccer franchise for the GameCube. By this time next year, there will be a handful of soccer games available for Nintendo's new console, which makes the early appearance of EA's game all the more calculated. Soccer purists have preferred Konami's International Superstar Soccer series over the past half-decade due to its depth of play and realism, but FIFA 2002 has taken a step in the right direction toward lessening the gap between the two franchises and stands as the series' best outing yet.
As the precursor to next year's World Cup installment, FIFA 2002 includes all the necessary gameplay modes to mimic a club's march toward the world's biggest soccer tournament. You can warm up against up to three friends in the friendly mode, try to join the World Cup field in the qualification mode, battle it out against other teams in your league in the season mode or enter special tournaments that unlock hidden Easter eggs. You may even create your own tournaments for when you have a large group of friends over to play, but sadly it's impossible to choose which teams you wish to compete with and against. Multiplayer matches in FIFA 2002 are a great deal of fun, but if you don't have any friends around, the computer AI will challenge the most skilled players. If you're unhappy with the 400-plus teams from 16 leagues that are included in the game, you can always create your own players and teams. You can adjust a player's hairstyle, body size, and skin tone before setting his eight different player attributes to your liking. The higher the player's rating, the more he will have to be paid to be signed to a club.
Out on the pitch, FIFA's gameplay has undergone some refinements. The automatic passing of old has given way to a much more refined system for FIFA 2002. Passing is now much more skill-based and takes some time to get used to, but it makes playing FIFA far more realistic. Passing is now controlled by two variables--strength and accuracy. The longer you hold the pass button, the farther the pass will go, which lets you pass through players on your own team to reach streaking strikers further on down the pitch. If a player has an open lane toward the goal, small dots will begin to appear in front of him on the pitch. If you lead the player just right, he will sprint to the ball and prepare for an open run on the net. Give-and-go's have been mapped to the C stick so that all you must do is flick it toward a player, who will lead you with a nice return pass. This is handy for shaking pesky defenders, but it also can leave your player out of position if it's read by the defense. A variety of special dribbles have been included in FIFA 2002, but they are predominantly worthless. If you attempt to pull one off in traffic, the chances are high that you will be dispossessed of the ball. Another slight issue with FIFA 2002's gameplay is the lack of an ability to adjust team strategies on the fly. This option has been included in previous installments of the franchise, so it's puzzling as to why it didn't make the cut this time around. Strategies may still be adjusted from a menu, but it tips off the competition and slows down the game. Just about any aspect of the game can be adjusted to suit your needs, including the amount of assistance that is provided by the computer. FIFA games have always played a great game of soccer, but with its improved passing mechanics, this year's game provides the most realistic experience yet.
Despite being a port of the PlayStation 2 version of the game, FIFA 2002 for the GameCube is the best-looking soccer game on any platform. The attention to detail that has been given to the player models is impressive. Despite the inclusion of more than 400 clubs, it's very easy to pick out your favorite players even when the camera is zoomed way out. Player faces are fully animated and are capable of a variety of facial animations. This is one aspect of FIFA 2002 that EA Sports' Madden team should take notice of. Animation is smooth, and the head tracking is so accurate that it's easy to follow the ball regardless of how fast or erratic its movements are. The crowd is constructed of FMV clips and is the best yet seen in any of EA Sports' games. Gone are the pixelated sprites of old--they are replaced by a flowing, throbbing mass of people that mimics the real thing with startling accuracy. Frame rates are important in any sports game, and FIFA 2002 runs with only an occasional hitch when the ball sails high above the field, and all the players and the entire stadium must be drawn by the computer at once. Another slight issue is that the players are covered with a sheen that makes them appear to be made of plastic. But with all things considered, this is a minor complaint. The pitch will gradually deteriorate as rainy games wear on, and other small touches--like player animations depicting emotion after especially exciting plays--wrap up the entire package rather nicely. While it can be argued that FIFA 2002 fails to take advantage of the GameCube's graphical capabilities, you currently won't find a prettier game of football.
The play-by-play team composed of John Motson and Andy Gray has again returned for FIFA 2002. The pair can come off with some fairly in-depth commentary, but some statements have a tendency to repeat quite often. More analysis would be a nice addition to next year's game, along with more team-specific information to educate players who may not be familiar with soccer. As in past installments of the FIFA franchise, the soundtrack is laced with some of the best electronic music around. But perhaps most importantly, the ambient stadium sounds plant you firmly into a seat at the stadium. Team-specific chants and songs can be heard throughout the match, and the throngs of people react quickly and accurately to the action on the field.
As the first and only soccer game available for the GameCube, FIFA 2002 is an excellent start. The gameplay is tight, the graphics are impressive, and there are plenty of gameplay modes to explore. If it weren't for the lack of an ability to adjust team strategy on the fly, pick your own teams for tournament play, or perform special dribbles with any sort of effectiveness, FIFA 2002 would be approaching perfection. If you're a fan of soccer and own a GameCube, you can't go wrong with picking up FIFA 2002.