Most would agree the hierarchy of PlayStation soccer titles goes something like this - EA's FIFA, Konami's International Superstar Soccer... then all the other guys. It's not exactly a close race either. Over the years both of these games have become extremely competent and entertaining. If that weren't enough, EA has snagged just about every license out there. So is it possible little ol' Infogrames (OK, well, the company is actually quite large) could release a game that might pose a threat? The answer is yes - but it's not a major threat.
Rage Software is certainly capable of making a game strong enough to compete. The UK-based team has produced soccer titles for several years. Rage knows the sport like Tiburon (EA's Madden gurus) knows football. And while SP 2000 may not have the FIFA license, it has the next best thing - the UEFA. The Union of European Football Associates license allows the use of several European clubs (around 130). It's a bit tricky to understand, but the UEFA is kind of like a freelance soccer organization. It promotes competition outside of each country's leagues. Unless you're a hard-core soccer nut it won't matter to you anyway. The game has more than enough teams to keep the average fan busy.
What does SP 2000 have to offer over the big boys? Beyond the usual stuff - tournaments, friendly and classic match scenarios - it has a decent training and certification mode. It sounds boring, but it's actually quite rewarding. In this mode you can practice the fundamentals as well as unique scenarios. Essentially it puts you on an open field to practice shots on goal, one-on-one, two-on-one, and several other drills. Once you've completed the practice sessions, it's on to certification. At this point you must pass a series of tests designed to measure your skills in every area of soccer. Doing so will unlock extra teams and modes. It's actually a lot of fun. I found myself more engrossed in the tests than in the real games.
Outside of a few differences between this version and the Dreamcast version (mostly due to a slower frame rate) the controls are remarkably intuitive. Beginners can jump right in once they find the pass and shoot buttons. To fire on the goal you simply hold down the square button, aim using the D-pad, and release. Speed burst is smartly placed on the R1 position, as well. Outwardly, the controls seem simple, and to some degree they are, but to really master the game it takes several hours of practice as well as completion of the training and certification mode. With more than 200 moves, only using a couple would be a waste. Headers, Bicycle kicks and 180-degree shots are the rewards for those who stick with it.
The animation in Striker Pro 2000 is top-notch. At no point do the players appear robotic or stiff in any way. I'm not sure how Rage did it, using motion capture or otherwise, but the company nailed the look nicely. There's fluid realism all across the board. Even special moves look fantastic. The running motion is very smooth, especially the transition from jog to sprint. All that lifelike movement, coupled with a speedy frame rate, is certainly a strong point.
Speaking of strong points, the artificial intelligence is right up there with FIFA's, perhaps even better. A telltale sign of weak AI is the tendency for drone players to "herd" about the field. In other words, if the computer moves several characters in unison, it's considered herding. It's a cheap way to cover holes in the defense without sending out individuals to cover one-on-one situations. Rage has done a good job of assigning a portion of field to each player. In addition, the way they cover breakaways is quite intuitive. For example, if you're busting up field your teammates will instinctually run ahead for the long through-pass. The defensive player will then split the coverage by hanging between you and the open player in an attempt to intercept your pass. The goalies are very smart as well. They won't hastily come out leaving an open net. Instead they'll face up an offensive player until the last moment before they make their move.
At this point you're expecting me to proclaim Striker Pro 2000 as the new king of PS soccer sims right? Nope, not this time. When on defense the computer will switch control to the player closest to the ball automatically. Sounds innocent enough, but if you've used this option in other soccer games you know how limiting (and frustrating) it can be. For example, you're on defense and a computer player is pressing toward your goal. You rush the player and get set to slide-tackle. But wait, one of your teammates has gotten there before you, and now you're suddenly controlling him. It makes for a lot of botched plays until you get used to it. Once you're acclimated, it's still awkward to use. Instead of concentrating on the breakaway player you're fiddling around with buttons, trying to figure out whom you'll be controlling next.
If it weren't for that I'd really be into this game. And don't get me wrong, it's still a competent sim with a lot of value. But with so much competition on the PS it's tough to recommend Striker Pro 2000 over FIFA or ISS. It's certainly worth a rental, and it's almost worth a purchase for the certification mode alone. Let's hope that next time Rage will give us the option to turn off the automatic player-switching.