FIFA soccer’s fall from grace as the number one football title in the 16-bit generation has been well documented. Sure, it has always sold well, usually remaining in the top 5 games well after its release on a yearly basis, but it’s no secret that for the football purist, despite FIFA’s hard grip on official league licenses (bought for a SEVEN FIGURE sum last year), Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series has been the ‘go-to’ game for the most satisfying football fix for some time now.
Despite this, last seasons effort was certainly a step in the right direction. Vastly improved gameplay meant that FIFA 06, whilst still being no Pro Evo beater, was a good game that stood up on its own. The official licensing was merely the icing on the cake.
So, with FIFA being the prettiest cake on display, whilst Konami's tastier, much more filling cake is only available to other console owners, will it be enough to satisfy our hunger?
It’s easy to approach a review of any FIFA game with a very cynical attitude. After all, it has been the scapegoat for most of ‘hardcore’ gamers wrath for a long time. In Europe, FIFA’s name is almost synonymous with ‘re-hash’, ‘cash-in’ and the like, with most who call it that not even playing the game before judging it. Personally, I’ve always disliked that close-minded fanboy attitude, so with that, I take my cynical nature and put it away. I’m certainly not here to defend a bad game, but it’s a series that deserves an unbiased, fair review.
Unsurprisingly, the match presentation is still untouched by any others. A slight squint and you are watching Match of the Day. The players are meticulously detailed, from haircuts down to trivial things like Christiano Ronaldo’s earrings. A large selection of stadiums from around the world are also recreated faithfully. Stuffing Chelsea two-nil with the mighty Newcastle United on their home turf of Stamford Bridge just makes victory that little bit sweeter. The authenticity that EA paid a great deal of money for justifies its cost – this looks like football. It sounds like football too, with the best commentary found in any football title to date and fantastic crowd sounds that react to the on pitch action.
Saying that, you’d expect it to for the price they paid, right?
Which is why I can’t understand the flaws I found within the first hour of play. Players’ hair glitching through their faces during goal celebrations, the touchlines disappearing during the corner sequences and the slowdown – lots and lots of slowdown. Sure, David Beckham’s facial hair may be sculpted perfectly but if I can’t time a header in a crowded penalty area then I could do without it. As I said above, the commentary is the best in any football game – it still features loads of random calls and a few often repeated phrases that will have you removing it after a few games. Whilst on the subject of removing sound, FIFA is jam-packed with the now standard EA Trax – 20 odd ‘hits’ ranging from ‘football-sounding’ dance to tedious indie twaddle. I’ll give them a point for including Polysics though. The control you have over the players is, unbelievably, still digital – 8 direction movement. Hello, EA! It has been TEN YEARS of 3D gaming and consoles with analogue sticks as standard. This is completely unacceptable.
The Gamecube pad is also perhaps the worst thing in the world to play a football game with, just next to say, waving a boot around a room. In fairness, EA have made the best out of a bad situation and provided the best possible control scheme possible, but holding down the R Trigger to run and pushing in the Z Button for skilled control is hell on the fingers.
The branding everywhere turns the menus into a garish mess at times. It’s not the second analogue stick, or the c-stick – it’s the ‘trick stick’. The slogan for this years release, ‘This is the Season’, is plastered over every loading screen. Sure, football by its very nature is full of advertising, but these menus are like my worst McDonalds nightmare. The menus have seemingly been designed without any player convenience in mind. For example, when renewing your team’s contracts, you can select a screen which shows the players who need new deals. You then have to leave that screen, to go to another just to renew them – a screen which doesn’t feature any contract details on it whatsoever. I ended up having to write down the names of my players just to keep on top of things. Hello EA! This, again, is completely unacceptable. Last time I wrote anything down when playing a football title was on my Commodore 64.
It’s hard not to be negative, which is a real shame, as because underneath the thick layer of needless flaws, it plays a decent game of football.
The ‘sweet spot’ that has plagued most of the 3D incarnations of FIFA is still there, but the game gets around it by making the defense AI good enough to not let you get there without a lot of hard work. Almost to compensate for this, it seems easier to hit the target from range now – sure, the chances of scoring from 30 yards is still very unlikely, but it seems very possible. The ball feels looser this time, that makes dribbling more of a challenge and trying to run past a defender will usually end up with the ball being stolen from you with ease.
The attacking play is where the game has had a clear improvement. It may lack the depth and the feeling that the more you put in, the more you’ll get out that Konami’s title offers, but perhaps more importantly, it is instant fun. Getting the ball under control and watching your players start intelligent runs towards the goal, waiting for them to gesture for the ball and then you placing a textbook pass right to their feet is magical. The higher your team chemistry, the better the movement and quality of pass. Barcelona, for instance, will let you rule the park, linking Ronaldinho with Eto’o to score some fantastic goals. Playing as Swindon Town, however, and you will really have to work for a goal. It’s believable, it’s authentic.
Continuing the positive vibe, the management mode is truly excellent. Being able to run every aspect of your chosen club, down to sponsorship, youth teams and player transfers offers more depth than any other football title has ever offered, outside of actual management sims. Predictably, the authenticity is unparalleled. The challenges are also excellent – by fulfilling certain criteria you earn points to spend on, admittedly pointless, unlockables, such as third kits and more hair for custom characters. A lot of them can be achieved through casual play, multiplayer or otherwise – winning by three goals or scoring a freekick to name a few.
FIFA 07 still falls short of the mark as far as being the best football game is concerned. It is however, a solid football title in its own right, marred by some bugs and developer oversights. The key thing here is the authenticity, which it delivers by the truckload. Where else are you going to look on the Gamecube to play a Premiership Season? Mario Smash Football?
It’s this that makes the problems FIFA has all the more frustrating – they were so close to competing this year – but one thing stands out above all. This is the best FIFA game since the series went into three dimensions and it is improving with every incarnation, so even though it's the only option for 'real' football on the 'cube, at least it isn't a total stinker. It’s just so damn hard to like a good football game that is this full of flaws!
Maybe the original King of Football will reclaim his throne next time around?