After enjoying the FMV-laden, logo infested introductory sequence, I was presented with the game's Premier League based interface. Make no mistake, EA Sports have scooped a massive deal in getting the Premier League license, and they're not afraid to flaunt it.
First things first, this STARS thing. What it basically entails is that you choose a team at the beginning of the Football Association Premiership season. All of the teams from this season are present and correct, although some of the last minute player transfers aren't included, but we can make allowances. You choose your team, in my case either Chelsea or Watford. Chelsea has a higher STARS rating than Watford, and seeing as more STARS is bound to be a good thing, I'll stick with the Blues for the purposes of this explanation.
When you've chosen your team, you are presented with your first match in the full season. Mine was an Away game at Southampton. It was a standard Premiership affair and as I wrestled with the controls, my high-profile Chelsea were cut down in their pride, eventually surrendering to a 2-2 scoreline in the dying seconds of the match. I wondered what would happen. The game quickly darted to the post-match screen and I was given 145 STARS, some for scoring, some for passing, some for everything. Clicking the "Next" button moved me onto a screen where I was presented with a list of players in my squad. I clicked on my top Striker, Chris Sutton, and Chris' stats flashed up in the boxes next to his name with several STARS already spread around. As Chris only had 2 STARS for his shooting, I was generous and allotted him 2 more, bringing him up to capacity. The 2 STARS I added each represented 5 of the 145 STARS I received after the match, and I then carried on adding STARS to various players. When I played the next match, Chris' shooting was a noticeable improvement on previously, allowing me to trounce Leicester City 4 goals to 1 at Home.
As I continued the season, I won some more, drew some more and lost some more. Each time I received a number of STARS indicative of my performance in that game, and I was able to bring my squad's rating up by quite some way. The clever thing was, that although I was improving, so were my opponents, so when I met up with Manchester United for the first time, mid-season, I was no more powerful than they were, and the game ended goal-less. The system not only works, but it's actually a fairly encouraging move forward for the genre. It makes a change in a series often devoid of innovation.
Of course, the STARS concept isn't flawless. Should you spend the first half of the season grasping at the manual trying to work out which button on your Sidewinder Gamepad does what and losing a long string of matches, you won't advance much, but your opponents will, and in the end you'll find it near impossible to bring yourself back up to their standard, and will find yourself floundering at the bottom of the table. However, if you're smart enough to start on the lower skill levels and move upward, then you'll have no trouble with STARS in the long run. In fact, you'll go back to Fifa '99 and start to miss it!
The STARS concept isn't the only new feature in FAPLS. The re-introduction of the Power Bar system, something which was used in really early console versions of Fifa but not thereafter, is welcome. As you work your way forward, you can either tap the shot button the fire off a quick one, or you can hold it down to power up for a harder shot. It makes placing shots, crosses and passes easy and adds a lot to the game.
Diving into a Friendly match to get a feel for things, having learned the simple controls on my Sidewinder, I quickly spotted the first possible problem in FAPLS. The graphics. The game ran just fine at 1024x768 on my Voodoo3 in High Detail mode, but as someone coming to this having played Fifa '99, I could probably have been forgiven for initially feeling a little cheated. The smooth turf and glitzy stadiums were there, but this time the players looked a bit, well, blocky. The player heights, facial expressions and skin tones were all fine, but each player looked like he'd gulped down a little too much beef jerky in the pre-season. The smooth movement and dynamic passing of Fifa '99 was also gone, and the reversion to World Cup '98's graphical and gameplay style was very much evident. Stringing together passes had become hard again. The players all automatically take a step back when they receive a pass, making it very hard to make anything flow, and passing moves should flow.
The way the goals are scored and celebrated, of course, is a major aspect of any soccer game, and I think FAPLS comes up trumps in this area as well. If you manage to put the ball in the net, then you are greated with a loud and booming noise as the word goal forms itself on your screen. Your player races around and celebrates like a nut, then the camera flicks to the action replay. In Fifa '99, the play was simply shown from the original perspective. Hardly imaginative. But in FAPLS, the camera randomly chooses an angle and plays it out, and then it chooses another and another before flicking back to the center circle for the kick-off.
Once you've gotten used to the players' builds, you've adjusted the camera a bit (I have it at medium height and at far distance) and you've played the game for a couple of hours though, you start to warm to it. The graphics aren't as good as those of Fifa '99, but they're no worse than anything else available at the moment, and in certain areas, the level of detail is greater than that of Fifa. There are more stadiums, each one accurately portrayed, right down to the policemen standing behind the goal in those bright yellow jackets, and the buildings surrounding the grounds. The grass is actually textured like grass, the players move like real people (aside from the backward step which occurs after receiving a pass), and the shadows cast by the players and stadia are realistic and well presented.
The only graphical glitches I've encountered occur during goal celebrations. Sometimes as the camera pans past the goalmouth, the net in the goal flashes transparent for a second then comes back and then when your player slides on his knees and raises his fists aloft, occasionally the grass around his knees flickers a bit. Also, when the auto-replay kicks in after a goal, sometimes the camera starts off inside a player, then clips outside him and carries on, but this only happens if the camera is at player height. Frankly though, those are minor, and do not either detract from the actual game, or cause any side effects.
One thing which all soccer games need to get just right is the control system. Playing with the keyboard the game is acceptably easy to learn, and it's certainly not too hard to get used to them if you've been playing Fifa '99 for any length of time. On the other hand, if you want to get the most out of FAPLS, I suggest you invest in a gamepad. I have an MS Sidewinder Gamepad, and the six-buttons and D-Pad make controlling the game almost as intuitive as it would be were you playing a console game. The interface too can be easily navigated with a gamepad, although selecting things and adding STARS to your players is a little hard. The perfect mix is the mouse for menus and navigation, and the gamepad for in-game control.
Another aspect of FAPLS which seemed just fine in Fifa '99 is the music and sound. The sounds of the players and spectators are spot on, and are every bit as good as Fifa's. (In fact, I prefer FAPLS to Fifa '99 in the sound department, as the sound effects seem to be more authentic). As for the music, it's provided by another big label - The Ministry of Sound. EA Sports seem to have a knack of flashing their cash at the right time, as FAPLS is bursting with dance beats and mixes, and although that's not usually my cup of tea, the way in which the music is used actually appeals to me, and provides an adequate background noise for when you're navigating the menus and such, without actually being used when you're playing.
Commentary is provided by the hardened Sky Sports Premiership team of Martin Tylor (drab, bland), Richard Keys (small, rodent-like) and Andy Gray (powerful, opinionated) and is very well done with only a little repetition and the occasional mis-placed comment ("It's a lovely cross into the box" Andy might say, as you boot the ball upfield). Thumbs up on this note, too.
In all, FAPLS is not just a triumph for authenticity, with its flash sponsorship deals and real stadiums, player names and kits, but unlike Fifa '99, there's a lot of content to it, and not just glitz. The software is essentially bug-free, and I have yet to have had any problems with it. There is a lot of scope for replay value, as all of the real-life FA Premier League teams are present to be played with, and there are several championships (Premier League, FA Cup and European Cup) to take part in. The only let-down, in my mind is the multiplayer modes, which limit you to LAN, Serial and Modem-to-Modem modes, or two players on one PC.
I suppose the real question is whether or not I would want to buy this game if I had no prior experience with soccer games. I don't think I would recommend this game to someone who is looking for an easy introduction to the genre - for that you should still look to Fifa '99 - but for someone who eagerly watches and enjoys Premier League football, FAPLS is a must buy. Is it worth buying if you already have Fifa '99? I think it probably is, if you're getting tired of it, as I am. Do I prefer this to Fifa '99? Actually yes, I do, because in terms of innovation and gameplay, FAPLS is a much better game.
People who downloaded FA Premier League Stars have also downloaded:
FA Premier League Football Manager 2000, F.A. Premier League Stars 2001, The, F.A. Premier League Football Manager 2001, The, FIFA 2000, FIFA Soccer 2004 (a.k.a. FIFA Football 2004), FIFA 2001, FIFA World Cup 98, FIFA 99
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