In this edition of Play under Review, we take a look at each of the latest soccer simulations currently available in the U.S. As noted before in other editions of Play under Review, the crucial decision for sports games must be whether to be an arcade game or a simulation game, where a simulation game is concerned mainly with attempting to replicate an existing sport, whereas arcade games do not have to bother with many concessions to reality.
All three games reviewed here are simulations, and are analyzed as such. Each represents a different approach to simulating the world of soccer, and each has strengths and weaknesses. Although they might offer up various amounts of fun as games taken as nothing more than games, I believe that it is important for a game that concentrates on being a simulation to resemble a sport as closely as possible, and that must be taken into account in a review.
Developer: EA Sports
The FIFA series of games has always had the best graphics of any of the next-generation soccer games, and that continues to be true in the case of FIFA 2003. Add to this the plethora of real-life leagues and players, and you have the most realistic soccer game in terms of player models, the field and the players and leagues involved. The high production values of the title also make the game aesthetically pleasing from an interface standpoint, as last year's clunky menus have been slickly refined.
Where the game fails to maintain its level of realism is the action on the field. Don't get me wrong; FIFA 2003 is a fun game. But it is not as good a simulation of soccer as it could be. Too much of the gameplay feels scripted, and although you can pull off some beautiful moves, the unexpected occurs far too seldom. Part of this is that the game feels just a little bit too restrained in terms of what it allows to happen on the field. Although the individual players and their animations are beautiful, the overall flow and tension of the game remains too restricted in its outcomes, with the natural chaos of the game never really coming through. Part of this is due to lackluster artificial intelligence (AI), especially in the case of the higher difficulty levels, where the computer makes the game more difficult by making your computer teammates stupider, rather than the opposition smarter.
One aspect of the game that quickly becomes obviously different in comparison with the other soccer titles out there is the speed of the game. The first time that I loaded up the game, I thought that I had accidentally loaded up the 'fast version' that is also made available to the player. In fact, I had loaded the simulation version and had merely been fooled by the extreme speed of the game as presented in FIFA 2003. The field feels smaller and the ball definitely moves faster than in the other games; although this can be handy in simulating the breakneck pace of international soccer and the English Premier League, it often winds up giving the player whiplash and obscuring the more strategic elements of the sport.
Another oddity in FIFA games is the reluctance of EA to include options that appeared in previous versions. For instance, the two previous editions of FIFA offered up World Cup Qualifying and the World Cup competition itself. FIFA 2003 offers up neither, instead offering up a variety of real and imaginary competitions. It makes sense for Winning Eleven to offer up an 'International Cup' given their lack of licenses, but to have FIFA withhold even a hint at these competitions is a bleak reminder of EA's desire to flog the franchise by releasing as many games as possible. What is available is of fairly high quality, with the seasons that are offered in FIFA 2003 being highly enjoyable, integrating cup competitions fairly well, although the lack of a transfer system is becoming more and more obvious as a drawback.
FIFA 2003 represents another step forward for the series, but it still remains a varying distance behind its competitors. Those who are a fan of the FIFA series are advised to pick it up, as it features the best FIFA gameplay engine to date, although they should be advised to hang onto their old games if they wish to play through the World Cup or World Cup Qualifying. People looking for a quick, easy-to-pick-up soccer game could probably do worse than FIFA 2003, but are advised to rent first, as well as check out some of the more sophisticated games on the market.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.
World Tour Soccer 2003
Developer: 989 Sports
Rating sports games is always a delicate balancing act. On one hand, every time a game comes out, it likely has numerous technological advantages over the games that came before it. Add onto that the fact that gameplay for sports games fits into a more natural evolutionary curve than seen in other genres, and it becomes hard to avoid a situation where scores ramp up, year after year, as further iterations in a series are released to greater and greater fanfare.
World Tour Soccer 2003 is an interesting case in this respect. In many ways it's a better game than World Tour Soccer 2002, yet it doesn't represent a real leap forward from that game, and that is why you will not see its score improve over the previous iteration. The player models are better, there are more leagues to play in, there's a working transfer market and the AI for the teams is certainly improved. But at the same time, the basic gameplay engine has barely changed, and the change is for the worse in some of the areas in which it has. As an example, it is now absurdly easy to score on headers from an incredibly acute angle.
The strength of this title still remains in the decision to simulate the promotion/relegation structure used throughout the major leagues of the world. In this model, the major and minor leagues of each country are connected by a ladder system, with the best teams moving up and the worst teams going down. While the previous entry in the series only allowed the player access to the top two English divisions, World Tour Soccer 2003 gives the player the option of playing a season with any team in the top four English divisions, as well as the top two divisions of most of the major European soccer leagues. World Tour Soccer 2003 also adds a transfer system, allowing the player to buy and sell players, giving the game an added bonus in the area of team management. Although nowhere near as sophisticated as most dedicated team management simulators, having the transfer system adds to the feeling of running a soccer team.
One of the other bright spots of World Tour Soccer is the strong AI. Even at the lowest level, the player cannot allow the computer more than a few sniffs at goal without taking the risk of conceding a goal or three. And despite the somewhat simplistic gameplay engine, the AI goes a long way towards giving the game the feel of a real soccer match, a sort of general ebb and flow mixed with occasional furious bursts of panic on either side of the ball.
The addition of numerous promotion/relegation leagues and the transfer system must also be mentioned again, as they add a unique experience to the modern soccer game, perhaps heralding a future convergence between the soccer management game and the soccer playing game. Although World Tour Soccer 2003 seems to be treading water with its gameplay, due to its unique elements it still remains a better-than-average soccer simulation and deserves at least a rental by soccer fans.
World Soccer Winning Eleven 6 International Edition
The strength of Konami's soccer titles have always been based on the gameplay options presented in Konami's superlative engines. In these engines, gameplay is based on a tenuous combination of mastery of the controls and of judging the ebb and flow of the tactical game. In Winning Eleven 6, Konami offers up an engine with even more options than ever before, giving the player a bevy of choices both on and off the ball. Combined with the tried-and-true gameplay basics of the basic Winning Eleven engine, it creates an experience that truly comes the closest to actual soccer as any other videogame to date.
Aside from the engine, most of this realism comes from the animation, physics and AI. The player movements are greatly improved from previous Konami efforts and go a long way towards selling the action on the field, making up for the fact that the graphics, although serviceable, are nothing to write home about. But perhaps the most important aspect of the game is that it replicates the essential nature of the game of soccer. Although saying the 'unfairness' of soccer might seem detrimental, true fans of the sport will recognize the fact that the game is frequently won or lost on strange deflections, odd bounces of the ball and who takes their chances, regardless of how many each team gets. Once the player finds the appropriate AI level for their skill, this means that each game is a tight, agonizing experience, with the player utilizing all of their technical and strategic skill just to have a chance at winning. Better than that, the experience duplicates the feeling of an actual match, rarely hitting a wrong note.
Perhaps the greatest praise I can offer up about Winning Eleven 6 is that it can build me up just like a real soccer match, screaming and pumping my fist after a well-needed goal, or groaning and gesticulating over a referee's call. The variety of moves and possible combinations are stunning, and it's no accident that I have scored the most varied of goals in Winning Eleven out of any other game, from horrible own goals and easy tap-ins right up to some of the most acrobatic one-timers and one-twos that have ever been seen in a simulation.
The unfortunate weakness of Winning Eleven 6 lies in the actual teams and leagues. All too often, the teams and players are as fake as the gameplay is real. The fake player names are fairly easy to deal with, as players who are dedicated enough will take the time to change their names, but the leagues are another story. Although you can somewhat guess the real-life counterpart of the team through hints and their uniforms, the game doesn't allow you to play through any kind of club league except for their imaginary set-up, the Master League. Although the Master League is an interesting conceptual take on a Super-League, it is still disappointing to not be able to play a season in any of the existing soccer leagues. Even with all the fakery, Winning Eleven still offers up a more realistic version of the World Cup than you see in the latest FIFA title, where it is eschewed entirely. The only other flaw worth mentioning is the commentary, which is absolutely horrific. Not only is it non-insightful, but it's almost as repetitive as the music that plays after every single goal.
However, if you are truly a fan of the sport, you should be able to get past the commentary, repetitive techno and the nonsense-world teams, as to do so means enjoying the most faithful and entertaining simulation of the sport to date. World Soccer Winning Eleven 6 International Edition is a must for any soccer fan, and I highly recommend it to anybody interested in finding out what this great sport is all about.