It's that time of year again. The leaves are turning, desperate new sitcoms are on the air, local newscasters tell you to "make sure" you spend enough money over the holidays and, yes, another FIFA game appears on the shelves. Which means more goalie supermen and more detailed animations for giving manly clotheslines to hapless defenders.
It's becoming a bit predictable. Honestly, once you've played one FIFA game, is there any reason to play another? They may sparkle more, change the rosters here and there and even add new songs to the soundtrack but does this iteration offer anything better than the number "1" at the end instead of a "0?"
To be up front about it, FIFA 2001 is a good game. The level of detail from the acrobatic players to the flag-waving crowd to the ability to pull off some extraordinarily difficult moves with just a few flicks of the wrist is nothing to be shy about. Just like previously released FIFA games, it's fast-paced, customizable, addictive and an undeniable treat for the eyes but, unfortunately, that's also why it's a failure. Apart from some new technology and toys, FIFA 2001: Major League Soccer is simply too much like its predecessors.
This isn't too much of an exaggeration. Remember those two-button combos used to get that cross into the enemy's net? Still the same. Remember how to spin around charging attackers and head straight for the goal? Nothing's changed. Is there anything new? Yes. For soccer fans desperate for modified features, there are the different tournaments and seasons to manage again and roughly 50 international teams to further humiliate. But, now, there's also an opening for the 16 "Under 23" National teams that lets you try and create alternate soccer realities (if you know what the U-23 is, this is probably good news).
How accurately the game depicts all these thousands of players is a mystery solved only by those discerning soccer fans with a detailed world soccer view. Indeed, apart from seeing the sport's leaders hold their own as well as you'd expect, it's anyone's guess as to whether Indrek Zelinski from the Baltic state of Estonia is duly represented. Still, incorporating such different leagues is a treat -- who doesn't want to pit Red Dwarf's Lister-clone Cobi Jones against Manchester United's David Beckham?
In any case, one notices something straight away on the actual playing field: off sides penalties are a rarity. Not that it's impossible to set your team far forward and risk it but, unlike older FIFA games (especially in the past couple of installments), you won't find every long pass being whistled out of action as yet another off sides penalty. While this might not be as realistic as team strategies in real life, it does balance itself out by making the game more relentless and enjoyable.
Another wise move is the complete ditching of the American commentators from FIFA 2000: Major League Soccer. In this edition, EA SPORTS goes back to the international version's John Motson and Mark Lawrenson. While they don't chat it up nearly as much as commentators in some other sports games, they are unobtrusive and effective enough to listen to even after hours and hours of playing time. Of course, a few less "The keeper still hasn't given up hope" remarks would've been welcome.
As far as the other sound designs go, it's more or less what you'd expect. Nice crowd cheers and taunts. Believable moans as you plow through enemy players seemingly unnoticed by the referees. It is, however, too bad the music side of things is such a disappointment. With such an Anglo-centric decision on the commentary, it's a shame to have to put up with "sell my music for Brawny paper towel ads if it helps me reach another demographic" tactics and Moby fogging up every intro movie and menu choice with his over-saturated Body Rock single.
Another subtle change between years has been a shift from over abundant arcade style play to a bit more of a game of preparation. Instead of FIFA 2000: Major League Soccer's mile-a-minute pacing and oddly close default camera, FIFA 2001: Major League Soccer keeps the game at a more temperate mood with more accommodating camera angles facilitating the action instead of the other way around. Even better, one can still change the speed and style of the game in the (admittedly oafish) options menu to reflect personal preferences.
That aspect might well be a good thing since, despite claims of hundreds of new player animations and fancy tricks, it's difficult to find them. It's fun to test out new combos to see what sort of ball-juggling and kick-dodges you can pull off in front of an awed enemy but there seems to be a strange lack of straightforward attacking maneuvers to keep the enemies on their toes.
Lob, header, whatever the move -- 90 percent of the time you find yourself making even the most angular of shots with an accidental bicycle kick. While this may result in a "Dang, I'm quite good, aren't I?" bout of self-realization, after a few games you'll spend most of your time trying to keep your player's derriere from spinning backwards during every shot on goal.
The added 3D effects are always a bonus, especially since FIFA games rarely demand the highest-end system available on the market in any given year, and it would be unfair to dismiss the amusement of watching moments such as when celebrating players accidentally knock over the game's "camera." There's just something missing -- more innovation, more multiplayer support, more punch.
Unfortunately, with each passing year, one comes to the slow realization that EA SPORTS is resting on their laurels after creating the most popular computer soccer game on the market (why muck with it too much, right?). Fair enough, FIFA 2001: Major League Soccer's conservative game design is still fun to play but it feels gutless.
In any case, a good rule of thumb with FIFA games still applies: check out one every other year or so. No kidding, even here we see the shift between FIFA 99 and FIFA 2001 to be much more worthwhile than the "better facial expressions and light flares" between 2000 and 2001. Cowardly game design should be a lesson in spending your money wisely. While the change of seasons may make us yearn for more bad sitcoms or believe we need to spend even more money to boost the economy, a wise gamer should be watchful when it comes to the world of FIFA.
FIFA 2001: Major League Soccer is a solid, fun game that takes a baby step instead of a leap -- no matter how nice it is to impress your friends with your 4000th consecutive bicycle kick.
Graphics: Very high detail on the stadiums and player expressions suck you in but the game still lacks a truly controllable camera to get close to the action.
Sound: Nice crowd taunts and jeers. Also, while a bit on the sparse side, the English commentators do their job well.
Enjoyment: Although a fairly tame update to the FIFA line, it still shows off the friendly accessibility of the game's core.
Replay Value: With so many leagues and schedules, it's easy to invest many hours to the game. Just be aware that it's much harder to do so if one is already more than familiar with previous FIFA games.
People who downloaded FIFA 2001 have also downloaded:
FIFA 2000, FIFA Football 2003 (a.k.a. FIFA Soccer 2003), FIFA Soccer 2002, FIFA 99, FIFA Soccer 2004 (a.k.a. FIFA Football 2004), FIFA World Cup 98, FIFA: Road to World Cup 98, FIFA Soccer 2005
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