When it comes to sports games, Electronic Arts is the proverbial 800-lb. gorilla. If you can think of a sport, it's likely that EA Sports has come out with some high-profile game for it. In some cases, this results in game franchises that dominate their market. One of these franchises is the FIFA series. If you live in the U.S. and you like to play soccer games, it's more than likely that you've spent some time with a FIFA title. Always very popular, FIFA games have also been pretty much decried by any true fan of the sport. Offering unrealistic and unsatisfying gameplay, previous FIFA titles have racked up huge sales while remaining a negative blot on the American soccer consciousness. Recently, it's become increasingly obvious that other franchises, including Konami's high-quality series of soccer games, have been steadily eroding FIFA's grip on the market. In response, EA has come out with FIFA 2002, a groundbreaking game for the FIFA series.
The big breakthrough is the complete overhaul of the passing system. In the beginning, FIFA titles were dominated by single players rushing upfield, effortlessly using special moves to scatter defenders in their wake, completing ridiculous 40-yard runs with a smash past the hapless keeper. To compensate, recent FIFA titles resulted in a game that resembled ping-pong, with the ball ricocheting wildly around the pitch with unrealistically quick and accurate passing. Now, the controls are set up so that the player aims his pass with the left analog stick, which is also used for directing the movement of the player, then depressing the appropriate passing button, which will fill up a meter along the bottom of the screen. This enables the player to control the direction and the strength of the passes, a great leap from the previous control systems. A similar system is used for shooting, making it harder to slot one past the goalie, as controlling the direction of the shot, the strength of the shot and the movement of the onrushing attacker all at the same time can be quite tricky at first.
The result achieved by the new controls is the best FIFA game ever created. Unfortunately, there are enough holes in the gameplay that FIFA 2002 still remains orders of magnitude behind the more sophisticated engines. One of the issues is player control. Too often, the character will need to finish an animation before receiving a new instruction, meaning that often there will be a delay between issuing a command and the player reacting to it. This makes the game feel clunky and grants less control over what happens on the field, which is never a good thing, especially considering that soccer is a game that depends on quick decisions and physical action. Also, even with the addition of the new controls, there are some serious holes. When tackling opposing players, it's far too easy to constantly bash the 'conservative tackle' button, as doing so will never result in a foul and most of the time the opposing player coughs up the ball with little resistance. The lack of 'cross zones' on the sides of the penalty area, a feature included in both Konami and Sony's recent efforts in the field, means that the strategy of attacking down the wings is far less effective and rewarding than it is in the actual sport. To actually send an air ball into the area, the selected player has to change the direction he's moving, meaning it's much easier to be dispossessed by a defender as the player attempts to cut back and line up the 'cross'.
FIFA 2002 retains the high-quality attributes of the other FIFA games – accurate rosters of multiple international and club teams, excellent animation, top-line graphics and FIFA licenses for official competitions galore. But even all of these bright spots come with significant flaws.
The star players look like their real-life counterparts, but as the level of fame decreases, so do the quality of their depictions. EA Canada apparently decided that the 'base' face for players should be a configuration that most closely resembles a bit-part monster in "The Dark Crystal," creating a situation where playing a little-known team like the U.S., is more than slightly disturbing. Even with some of the more well-known players in the minor leagues, the facial models are a joke. Cobi Jones, the most-capped player in U.S. history, and Carlos Valderrama, a well-known international figure, look nothing like they actually do. Perhaps most puzzling is the models for the truly obscure teams – somehow, a decision was made to give every player on the Haitian team the same player model, a decision made even more incongruous by the fact that the model is of a tall, white, bald player that most closely resembles Italian super-ref Pierluigi Collina.
Another typical strong point of the FIFA series is the amount of different real-world teams included with the title. Although the amount of the teams is awe-inspiring, the variety is not, with the game coming across as depressingly Eurocentric. In the international scene, FIFA skips over the continent of Africa, offering up a meager selection of national sides that's flawed from the beginning, with one of the continent's strongest teams, Senegal, completely omitted. In terms of club soccer, the selection of European leagues is impressive – the big four of the Premier League (England), Bundesliga (Germany), La Liga (Spain) and Serie A (Italy) are there, as well as the up-and-coming French league. But get further down the list, and things get worrisome. The Swiss league? Austrian? Danish? Norwegian? The inclusion of these decidedly minor leagues would be more forgivable if we saw such depth (or any depth) across the globe. But the names we do not see are huge: no Argentina, no MLF (Mexico), no J-League (Japan). Having MLS (U.S.) and the K-League (Korea) is a nice touch, but at best, these are paltry crumbs thrown to true fans of international club soccer. Another oddity is the decision to include leagues such that you can use teams from them for one-off games, but not to make those leagues available for season play – both the Brazilian league and the Dutch Eiredivisie suffer this fate.
The biggest complaint about FIFA 2002, voiced continuously on message boards since its release, is the fact that there is no way to play in the World Cup, meaning that WC junkies will have to wait for the release of FIFA World Cup 2002 later this year. Sure, there's a custom tournament option, but there's no way to add the necessary details and tidbits that would make such a tournament a true World Cup experience.
As a balm to soothe the wounded soccer gamer, FIFA 2002 instead offers a truly interesting and new feature: World Cup Qualifying. Yes, you can take any team from any region and enjoy a truly exciting, daunting campaign as you attempt to qualify your country for entry into the World Cup. Wait, did I say any region? Again, FIFA 2002 shoots itself in the foot, not allowing you to qualify a team from CAF, the African region. Considering that more African teams (4) qualify for the World Cup than from either North America (3) or Asia (traditionally 3), this decision is questionable at best and deplorable at worst. Oh yes, the Oceania region is also missing from Qualifying, but such an oversight is a minor quibble compared to the omission of Africa, considering the Oceania group is always dominated by Australia and currently does not merit an automatic qualifying slot for the World Cup. Other than this egregious mistake, the Qualifying mode is honestly one of the most entertaining features to be included in a FIFA game.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the game is the continued inability of developers to harness the pageantry and passion of the crowd in soccer. Considering the amount of work that EA Canada put into some aspects of the atmosphere, such as the music, and light effects for flares in the stands, FIFA manages to miss the mark completely in terms of conveying the atmosphere of a soccer game. Games are played in depressingly generic stadia, and regardless of who is home or away, there are an equal number of flags in the crowd for either team and the same cheers are given regardless of who scores. To ignore the immense disparity between playing home and away in soccer is criminal, especially considering that this difference exists in other EA games. How hard could it be to have only the flags of the home team waving in the crowd, or to have a crowd jeer and whistle when the home team is playing poorly? It's a powerful experience in real life to hear a crowd suddenly silenced by the away team scoring or to be consumed with the boisterous chants of a home crowd cheering on their victorious team, and it's a shame that no effort was made to bring this sort of experience across to the player.
The commentary, done by English veterans John Motson and the acerbic Andy Gray, is initially well-done, but like most commentary, you'll probably want to turn it off after you hear every remark for the 100th time. This is especially the case with Gray, whose dour pessimism will quickly become grating unless you enjoy someone grumpily telling what you what a crap game you're playing out. The music licensed for the game is top-notch, if you like techno, which I hope you do, because it's blared after every goal scored, pretty much drowning out any noise that the crowd might be making.
This game is not a complete waste of time. It's a very good-looking, slick soccer game with many nice add-ons and a palatable control system. FIFA 2002 is the only game I've played where people have walked into the room and thought that it was soccer on the TV. But that mirage vanishes once the game is held up to any amount of serious analysis—FIFA 2002 may initially look like soccer, but it plays and feels nothing like the real thing.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.