Soccer gets a raw deal in the US, but the FIFA Soccer series has been a welcome treat for soccer fans ever since 1993's FIFA International Soccer on the Sega Genesis. FIFA Soccer 2003 follows the typical Electronic Arts' pattern for a sports series: improvements are made, but not many are drastic. Fortunately, the FIFA series has steadily improved -- taking advantage of the technological improvements of PC and console systems -- and not too many drastic changes are needed.
Veterans of the FIFA series will remember the power and glory of the speed burst, which frequently turned an innocent midfield possession into a one-on-one breakaway with the opposing goalie. No more. As exhilarating as the breakaways could be, they were surely the most unrealistic part of a solid game. EA toned down the speed burst for 2002 FIFA World Cup, and its effectiveness has been further reduced in FIFA Soccer 2003. Instead of jamming on the burst, however, players will be forced to pass -- intelligently -- just like real soccer players. Cranking the ball up the middle of the pitch won't accomplish anything 95% of the time, even with a star like Michael Owen on the receiving end. Working the ball from side to side, however, is likely to be effective. The basic principles of soccer -- playing the ball into open spaces, drawing defenders away, then passing to the open player -- have been programmed wonderfully.
Unfortunately, the defenders frequently do very strange things. They'll run in the completely wrong direction, mindlessly double team players in the corner of the field (where they pose little or no threat), fail to react to a ball next to them, and miss open net after open net. Some of these problems can be mitigated by careful use of the game's many sliders, but they can't correct the fundamental problem of poor defensive AI. It's certainly possible to program players to execute defensive systems -- look at NHL 2K3, for example -- and FIFA 2003 could have done much better.
The AI is a glaring problem in an otherwise great game. Players should be able to minimize the problems by adjusting the game settings and controlling their defenders as much as possible. Announcer John Motson and commentator Ally McCoist provide the best soccer game-calling seen to date, though, like all video game announcers, their comments gradually wear thin. The Club Championship and League options allow players to guide their teams through whatever competitions are available, which depends on the league. Teams in England's Premier League, for example, can compete for the league title and, if they're good enough, also compete in the European Champion's League. Novice FIFA players can learn quickly on the Amateur setting, then progress through Semi-Pro and Professional as their skills improve. Team managers can also upgrade their teams -- if the money is there -- by buying and selling players with other clubs. Adding a top-notch striker, like Michael Owen, can bring home a championship but the best players won't be cheap.
Playing soccer can be a frustrating experience -- much like hockey -- and sometimes the ball simply refuses to go in the net. To EA's credit, FIFA 2003 captures the fickle nature of the sport. Sometimes players will have a "Hat Trick Hero" by halftime, but it's just as possible to settle for a 0-0 match after a forward hits the crossbar three times on what looked like sure goals. Soccer fans will enjoy the experience.
Graphics: Outstanding, especially the details of each player's face. The stadiums are amazing, and the crowds look real most of the time. Some polygon clipping issues, especially with uniform collars, mar the beautiful presentation.
Sound: Fantastic commentary, crowd sounds, and sound effects. The FIFA series traditionally has strong audio, and FIFA 2003 is no exception.
Enjoyment: Lots of fun, especially for soccer fans. The league options add lots of gameplay, but a franchise mode with drafts and more soccer-specific management options is needed.
Replay Value: The league, multiplayer, management, and club championship modes offer lots of gameplay. A franchise mode, however, is needed.
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