Like the World Cup, UEFA's Euro tournament takes place every four years--pitting 16 qualifying teams against each other in group and knockout stages until only one remains. Also like the World Cup, which was last held in both Japan and Korea in 2002, this year's Euro tournament has been deemed worthy of its own game by EA Sports. UEFA Euro 2004 might have only a fraction of the teams and features found in this year's FIFA offering, but the gameplay and options it offers are actually sufficiently different from those found in FIFA 2004 to make it a worthwhile purchase.
The primary mode of play in UEFA Euro 2004 is the tournament itself, which allows you to assume control of any of the 51 European teams that start their campaigns to qualify for one of 16 places in the tournament finals around two years before they're actually held. The game boasts a number of refinements on the pitch that we'll discuss later, but what the Euro 2004 mode does extremely well is make you feel like you're actually the manager of an international soccer team involved in a major tournament. This is primarily achieved through the game's all-new player morale system. This system is similar to the one found in Konami's Winning Eleven series, but it's superior in many ways.
As the manager of an international soccer team, your job entails not only qualifying for major tournaments but also making sure that your entire squad is in the best shape it can be in before the team's first match. UEFA Euro 2004's player morale system, which is represented by colored bars of varying lengths next to players' names, allows you to easily determine which of your players are in top form (because their morale is affected by their performances on the pitch) so that you can take action when necessary. Some players, for example, will become depressed if they don't make it into your starting 11 or get stuck on the substitute bench for a period of time, whereas others will think their worlds are coming to an end if they're involved in games where their teams are defeated or if they receive bookings from a referee. All of the players in your squad have different expectations, and it's up to you, as the manager, to decide whether you focus solely on your first-choice players or try to keep the entire squad happy by ensuring that they all get some playing time at some point. Some players will get morale boosts for doing nothing more than sitting on the subs' bench during a match, but, for the most part, a majority of your team members will need to have played an active part in the game.
In addition to on-the-pitch performances that are directly influenced by you, player morale will occasionally be affected by events that you have no control over whatsoever. Your star player might not be performing well for his club side, for example, or perhaps he has just lost a major sponsorship deal. Thankfully, not all of the things that happen in a soccer player's life are bad, and from time to time you'll see your players getting significant morale boosts without any help from you. It's difficult to say exactly to what extent player morale affects performance on the pitch, once you start playing, but it's definitely noticeable. As a result, you'll find yourself using the friendly games in between qualifying matches as opportunities to both rotate your squad and involve players who might otherwise never need to put their shoes on--just as many managers do in real life. By giving the less skilled members of your squad a chance to play in this way, you'll not only reduce the risk of having your star players injured during matches of no consequence but also you'll ensure that if you do ever need to call upon one of any of your reserves, they'll be in good shape and won't have forgotten how to kick a ball.
The Euro 2004 gameplay mode is the only one that employs the player morale system, but other modes available include friendly games, home and away matches, practice sessions, penalty shoot-outs, custom tournaments, situations, and fantasy teams. The situation mode allows you to create a scenario by choosing two teams, how much time is remaining in a match between them, the current score, and how many bookings each team has received. It's unfortunate that the game doesn't offer any predefined scenarios based on previous tournaments or anything, but if you have the inclination, you can at least set up some interesting ones for yourself. The fantasy mode, on the other hand, is a great addition to the game, and it's one that we fully expect to be imitated in other soccer games in the future. The fantasy mode basically allows you and a friend (or the CPU, if you're playing solo) to assemble fantasy teams starring players from all over Europe. You basically draft one player in alternating turns, much like you would if you were playing in a school yard. The option to play with fantasy teams is, of course, nothing new, but the system used to select members for them is not only fun but also ensures that, unlike many soccer games, you don't end up with two identical teams playing against each other.
On the pitch, UEFA Euro 2004 features a number of refinements over FIFA 2004 but also retains many of the faults that made that game less than perfect. The camera angle changes for corners and free kicks, for example, still take too long to return to normal once the set piece is over, and when you perform even a perfectly timed sliding tackle, your player will often take so long to get back to his feet that he doesn't actually retain possession of the ball. UEFA Euro 2004 also employs the same corner kick system as FIFA 2004, which sees you assuming control of a single player in the box so that you can jostle for position with a member of the opposing team. The system sounds realistic and kind of intriguing on paper, but, in practice, it really doesn't work very well. Another problem with the game, which appears to be a bug present in all three versions, is that when you make substitutions at halftime--which would usually see your new players emerging from the changing rooms to kick off the second half--the changes don't actually take effect until the next game stoppage. This is more than a little frustrating, and you'll most likely end up resorting to deliberately kicking the ball out of play so that your substitutions can be made. We certainly did.
When you're in possession of the ball, particularly if you're playing against the CPU on any of the game's four difficulty settings, the key to success is to pass the ball around and to always be on the lookout for players making surging runs forward. As in FIFA 2004, you have the option to exert varying degrees of control over off-the-ball players. But while tapping a single button to send a nearby player on a run works well, trying to control that player directly--using the right analog stick--without having your original player lose possession of the ball just isn't worth the effort. Fortunately, the game offers something of a happy medium by allowing you to tap a button to send a player off on a run and then letting you just tap the right analog stick in the direction you'd like the run to go.
The FIFA games of old used to make it quite easy for you to have a single player run the ball from one end of the pitch to the other, employing various tricks en route. Drag-backs, step-overs, and suchlike are still a feature of the game in UEFA Euro 2004, but, thankfully, they're not nearly as effective as they used be and require some semblance of skill to execute successfully. Ironically, you can actually keep possession of the ball very easily when playing against the CPU simply by standing still with it. If you have the ball and stop moving, the opposing players invariably do the same. They won't stand there like statues forever or anything, but the time it takes them to actually make a move for the ball is generally plenty long enough for you to make a pass to another player, and, if you really want to, you can have the pass recipient do the exact same thing.
Even though sliding tackles are a little problematic, playing defense in UEFA Euro 2004 is actually pretty easy because the regular tackle button is very effective. The game's goalkeepers are generally up to the task of saving all but the most well-placed shots, and although they rarely move off their lines to claim balls automatically, they perform the task adequately when you ask them to. The only real complaint we'd level at UEFA Euro 2004 when playing defense is that the player selection invariably favors players who are closer to the ball rather than those with a real chance of making a tackle or an interception. For example, if an opposing striker is running toward your goal, you'll often gain control of midfield players who are chasing him rather than the defenders who, despite being a little further from the ball at the time, are perfectly positioned to charge the incoming player.
If you've played FIFA games before, you won't be surprised to learn that all of the players in the game are instantly recognizable and well animated, that the stadiums look great, and that the presentation throughout is of a high standard. The visuals in the PlayStation 2 version are noticeably inferior to those on the PC and Xbox. The PS2 version contains some pretty major drops in the frame rate, both during matches and when navigating menu screens. In fact, despite the fact that the Dual Shock 2 controller is the best equipped device to cope with the game's complex controls, the PS2 version of UEFA Euro 2004 is the hardest of the three to recommend--mainly because it faces competition from Konami's Winning Eleven series and doesn't support the online play that was present in FIFA 2004. The Xbox version of UEFA Euro 2004 doesn't support online play either, but neither did the Xbox version of FIFA 2004. The PS2 version is also very slow to save games, requiring at least a full minute to perform any memory card operation.
Fans of previous EA Sports titles also won't be shocked to hear that the audio in UEFA Euro 2004 is some of the best available in a soccer game. The commentary, which comes courtesy of the BBC's John Motson and Ally McCoist team, can get a little repetitive on occasion. However, it is well voiced and, for the most part, very accurate. It's unfortunate that the commentators have no concept of how much time has passed during a match or a tournament, though, because this can result in anomalies such as last-minute goals being described as what "could be the first of many." Additionally, sometimes Motson and McCoist tout that teams who win their first qualifying matches might be "sure to progress to the finals."
Provided you have a suitable controller and Internet connection, the PC version of UEFA Euro 2004 is the easiest to recommend. Not only are the PC visuals the pick of the bunch but also the PC game is the only one of the three to offer online play. Like all sports games, UEFA Euro 2004 is best enjoyed with other players, and so, if nothing else, the EA Sports online service offers plenty of people from all over the world to play against. Your profile, which is the same for all EA Sports titles with online support, tracks all of your current statistics and makes it pretty easy to match up with players of comparable ability. Once online, the game works well, and this adds a significant amount of replay value to the PC version of the game.
All things considered, UEFA Euro 2004 stands as one of EA Sports' better soccer games to date. The issues we experienced with the PS2 version are particularly unfortunate given that its game faces more competition than its PC and Xbox counterparts. But regardless of your current soccer game of choice, UEFA Euro 2004 is worth a look.