In the world of soccer games, there are really only two serious contenders for the championship title at this point: Konami's Winning Eleven games (Pro Evolution Soccer in Europe) and EA Sports' FIFA Soccer series. Like rival soccer teams eager to show off their newly acquired players at the start of a new season, these two series show up with a host of new features every 12 months in the hope that each will finally score a convincing victory over the other. Traditionally, Konami's offerings have boasted more-realistic gameplay but have faltered in the areas concerned with presentation, specifically due to the lack of licensed team and player names. EA Sports' offerings, on the other hand, have generally felt a little more arcadelike than realistic, but the games have always looked extremely sharp, and they let you take control of real teams comprising real players that wear real uniforms. The line separating the two series has become increasingly blurred in recent years, and this year is no exception, as both games are still seemingly seeking to emulate the other's strengths. But to set aside the competition for a moment, FIFA Soccer 2005 is definitely the best FIFA game to date.
Every year, EA Sports makes a point of improving one key aspect of its soccer games. FIFA Soccer 2004 focused on off-the-ball player movement, for example. FIFA Soccer 2005 retains all the off-the-ball functionality of last year's offering and adds convincing ball physics (the ball doesn't stick to players' feet anymore) and some excellent first-touch gameplay mechanics to the mix. The ability to determine how your players control the ball at the exact moment it reaches them might not sound like a big deal, but its ramifications are extraordinary, because playing realistic passing-style soccer is now more feasible and satisfying. As a result, skilled strikers can create scoring opportunities out of thin air by embarrassing their markers with a single touch. Furthermore, the satisfaction you'll get from humiliating an opponent with just one tap of the right analog stick (we really don't recommend trying to play with the keyboard, because, oddly, the shift key is used to toggle the arrow keys between left and right analog stick functions) is almost akin to scoring a goal against him or her.
Like the on-the-ball skill moves that allow you to beat opponents when you're en route to their goalmouths with the ball in your possession, first-touch controls are all performed by tapping the right analog stick in the direction that you'd like your player to take the ball. The actual animation that transpires when the ball arrives at your player's feet (as well as whether or not the move succeeds) is determined by the player's position in relation to the ball, as well as his skill level. Some players are able to flick the ball over their heads, while some can turn defenders without even thinking about it or without ever letting the ball move more than a few inches from their bodies. Others will struggle to perform even simple turns without letting the ball stray far enough away from them so that opponents have a shot at stealing it. Also, like the on-the-ball moves, EA Sports has gotten the balancing of the first-touch controls nigh perfect. They're effective enough that you'll want to use them all the time, but the odds of your fancy footwork failing you are also significant enough that you'll still have to work pretty hard to create scoring opportunities for your team. There will be occasions, of course, when you're able to run a single player through your opponent's entire midfield and defense en route to a spectacular goal, but these moments of individual genius are few and far between--just as they are in real life.
For the most part, the only way you'll be able to beat opponents of similar ability in FIFA Soccer 2005 is to pass the ball around and successfully pick out players that are making good runs off the ball. If you've played FIFA Soccer 2004, you'll know that many of the best runs made by your players are going to be those that you trigger yourself. Sending other players on runs is as easy as tapping a single button while you're in possession of the ball, and the system is as effective at beating defenders as it is easy to employ. If you prefer to play an even more active role in the movement of your players, you can actually assume control of a second player using the right analog stick. It's not a system that we've ever really felt the need to use a great deal (and our online opponents have invariably had the same attitude), but it can certainly make it easier to pick out your strikers with crosses into the box--provided you can retain possession of the ball while you're using the right analog stick for your second player rather than using it to perform tricks and turns with your first. While we're on the subject of controlling additional players, it's also worth mentioning that the goalkeepers in FIFA Soccer 2005 are often very slow to come off their lines, which, since you can make them charge at the ball manually, is definitely a good thing. There are few things more frustrating in a soccer game than conceding a goal because your overly active CPU keeper was on a walkabout.
The other surprisingly significant improvement made to FIFA's gameplay this year concerns throw-ins, which in many previous soccer titles, including FIFA 2004, have made it far more difficult for the team awarded the throw to retain possession of the ball. EA Sports has effectively resolved the problem by allowing you to use the same off-the-ball controls during throw-ins that you can when in open play. When you're awarded a throw, you'll be able to control any of three players, and you can move them around however you see fit while your opponent attempts to mark you with three of his players. The system is different from the jostling mechanic that has you battling for position before corner kicks (there's still no way to play short corners, incidentally), but it feels quite similar, and it affords you the opportunity to come up with some creative ways of gaining advantages during the game's various corner set pieces.
As you'll no doubt have gathered from reading the previous information, FIFA Soccer 2005 plays an enjoyable and realistic game of soccer. The game isn't without its problems, though, and what's disappointing is that many of them really shouldn't have been difficult to avoid. The advantage rule (which Konami did a great job of implementing in Winning Eleven 7 International and has subsequently improved), for example, does not exist in FIFA Soccer 2005. So if one of your players is fouled after releasing a pass that puts one of your strikers clean through on goal, there's a good chance that the play will be stopped before you unleash your shot so that you can take a free kick. Playing against CPU teams can also be a baffling experience on occasion, because no matter which of the four difficulty settings you've opted for, your opponents will often appear to pass the ball around just for the hell of it. There's nothing wrong with keeping the ball moving, of course, but when your defense is all but beaten and the opposing striker knocks the ball back to one of his colleagues, who is in a less than favorable position, rather than going one-on-one with the keeper, it just feels wrong.
Perhaps the most disappointing feature of FIFA Soccer 2005 is its 15-season career mode. It's actually quite an engaging gameplay option, but every aspect of it has seemingly been designed with the impending arrival of Total Club Manager 2005 (which will feature "Football Fusion" compatibility with FIFA 2005, allowing you to enjoy the features of both games simultaneously) in mind. It's a terribly cynical thing to say, but the management aspect of FIFA 2005's career mode is so cumbersome and unnecessarily time-consuming that it's as much an advertisement for the upcoming management title as the billboards that appear in the game's stadiums. What are we basing this on? Here comes the list:
1. When you start a career in FIFA Soccer 2005, you'll only be able to take control of certain teams, most of which play in their countries' lower divisions, and some of which you'll almost certainly not even have heard of. It's not necessarily a bad thing that the game forces you to start your career at the bottom of the pile and work your way up, but if your dream is to one day manage a glamorous team like Manchester United or Arsenal, the only way you'll realize it in FIFA 2005 is to first string together some successful seasons with another team and then wait for a job offer. Will this be the case with Total Club Manager 2005? Perhaps, but we doubt it very much.
2. When you decide that you want to augment your team via the transfer market, FIFA Soccer 2005 makes it about as difficult as possible for you to search its player database. If you have a specific player in mind, then it's not too difficult to locate him, provided he's still with the same team he plays for in real life. However, if you're simply interested in a type of player or one with certain abilities, then the only way for you to find that player is to check out the team rosters one at a time, click on that specific player's name, and then scroll through that player's attributes--none of which can be done quickly.
3. If and when you manage to find a player that you're interested in adding to your squad, you'll notice a figure next to his name that represents his value in career points. You earn career points by stringing together wins, keeping clean sheets, scoring goals, and basically playing well. To make an offer, you'll hit the negotiate button, at which point you'll have no opportunity whatsoever to participate in any kind of negotiation. You'll instead be presented with a screen that tells you whether or not you've succeeded in signing that player, in addition to a short explanation of the decision made. Should you be crazy enough to try and submit an offer for a player whose list price you can't quite afford--perhaps thinking that the negotiate button will deliver on its promise--you'll simply be told that you don't have enough points.
Despite its numerous and significant flaws, the career mode in FIFA Soccer 2005 is still where you're likely to spend most of your time when you're playing the game solo. There's something very satisfying about taking charge of a team that's languishing in the lower divisions and turning its players into champions. There are also a few management features in the game that are far less painful than those listed above. Well, there's one, anyway. When you assume control of your team, you'll be handed 100 management points to spend on backroom staff. The people working under you include coaches that specialize in fitness, goalkeeping, defensive play, midfield play, and attacking play. There is also a finance department; there are scouts; and there's a medical staff. As you progress through the game, you'll be awarded additional management points to spend, and, as you spend them, you'll find that the benefits of having a good staff are actually quite significant. A good fitness coach, for example, will improve the recovery rates of your players in between matches, while good scouts will be able to give you additional information on any players that you're interested in signing. We should also mention that the career mode features an option that lets you simulate matches rather than play them, which gives you the opportunity to jump into the action if you feel it necessary to intervene at any point. The only reason we could imagine you wanting to make use of this, though, is if you were looking to get through your first season or two as quickly as possible in hopes of receiving a job offer from your favorite club.
Like its PlayStation 2 and Xbox counterparts, the PC version of FIFA Soccer 2005 boasts online support for two players. If you're playing the PC game on a LAN, you'll be able to play with up to three of your friends simultaneously, which is great given that two-on-two is arguably the best way to play any soccer game, because one of you can control runs off the ball while the other is in possession of the ball.
The online options in FIFA Soccer 2005 include playing friendly matches or participating in tournaments with up to seven other players. The presentation of the EA Sports Online service menus and suchlike is impressive, and we never had any problems locating and joining up with other players with good connection speeds. There have been occasions when the game's quick-match option has spent a few minutes scouring the globe for opponents and come back with a negative response for us, but spending a few moments creating our own matchup game would invariably result in our being joined by another player within seconds. The amount of lag we experienced playing online varied from match to match, and while the game never became unplayable, we'd definitely recommend looking for opponents with decent ping times next to their names.
One thing that we have noticed about the online play in FIFA 2005, incidentally, is that most players are so concerned with improving their EA Sports Online rankings that they're happy to drop their favorite teams in favor of the likes of Brazil, France, Real Madrid, Arsenal, or Manchester United to improve their chances of winning. There's nothing wrong with wanting to play with a great team, of course, but it's a shame that those of you who want to compete with a less glamorous team (like the one you support in real life) will almost certainly end up falling into the same trap to make your online career record look respectable.
Whether playing online or offline, you'll be able to earn FIFA 2005 points for achieving certain milestones, such as winning a game by five or more goals, scoring a hat trick, or even just for accessing certain menu options. These points can be subsequently spent on unlocking additional content for the game, which is always a good thing. Although on this occasion, the 80 bonus items up for grabs were less impressive than you might expect from an EA Sports title. The majority of the unlockable items are alternate third uniforms for major teams, while others include: official balls, training pitches, nighttime versions of stadiums, music tracks from INXS and New Order, and the famous Italian referee Pierluigi Collina.
Speaking of music, the game's soundtrack contains almost 40 different tracks from all over the world. The EA Trax selection in FIFA 2005 is about as eclectic as they come. You'll find artists such as The Streets, Scissor Sisters, and Morrissey playing alongside the likes of Debi Nova, Ivete Sangalo, and Los Amigos Invisibles. Predictably, with such a varied jukebox at your disposal, you'll most likely come across a few tracks that you'll want to switch off. The flip side, though, is that you'll inevitably like at least a handful of the tracks on offer. The English-language commentary in the game again comes courtesy of the BBC's John Motson and Ally McCoist, who, for the most part, both do excellent jobs of talking about matches in accurate and timely fashions. There are rare occasions, though, when one of the two will randomly spout something wildly inaccurate, such as "That could've been 2-2!" when a shot that might have leveled a game at 1-1 narrowly misses the target. You also might hear "No! The ref has waved play on!" as the referee stops play to award a penalty.
Like all its predecessors, FIFA Soccer 2005 is a great-looking game, and if you're a fan of the sport, you'll find that many of the stadiums and players (and specific team uniforms) are instantly recognizable. This year's player animations are the best to grace the series to date, and, thanks largely to the introduction of the first-touch control system, there are far more of them than ever before. It's unfortunate that the impressive stadiums in the game are packed full of cardboard-cutout crowds, but the only time you'll notice just how bad the supporters look is during certain set pieces and in specific action replays.
So as the final whistle approaches, how do we feel FIFA Soccer 2005 has performed? Well, there's no doubt that this is EA Sports' best soccer game to date on the pitch. However, it's really unfortunate that the career mode isn't more user-friendly. Total Club Manager 2005's compatibility with the game is a mouthwatering prospect, but even without that, it's hard to imagine that anyone with an interest in soccer would find EA Sports' best soccer game ever disappointing.