Yet another obligatory upgrade to the FIFA franchise rolls of the EA Sports a*embly line. Where most companies sell you expansion packs at a reduced price, EA Sports sells you them as full games, and it is often questionable whether the upgrade is worth it. FIFA 2004 offers upgraded online play, off the ball action, an all new career mode, and a huge selection of teams and players, many of which have their own individual faces, stadiums, and even crowd chants. Whether you want all that, if you already have one of the earlier FIFA titles, is a question only you can answer. Hopefully this review will help you make up your mind.
There are a number of ways of playing FIFA, many of which you will already be used to. You can play a quick friendly game, a tournament, a five year career, or multiplayer. The tournaments offer you a selection of domestic cups to play in, from any of the 18 leagues available, but you cannot choose to play a custom tournament of any kind, which spoiled a lot of my fun. The career mode allows you to take over any team, and guide them through five years of football supremacy, with transfers and training. Transfers are paid for with money, and transfer attempts and training are paid for with prestige points, which you receive every week. This limits the amount of negotiating you can do, so you need to make the right offer first time, or spend months in the purgatory of a closed transfer window.
The career mode is pretty dull, on the face of things. Because of the way the transfer system works, your team evolves at a snails pace, which means you will likely be playing with the exact same team for most of the first season. Given that the chance of signing big name players for your favourite team should be a large part of the pull of a career mode, this is a real downer. In addition there is no way of skipping games at all, and you have to play each and every one, even the League Cup first round against Doncaster. Because of this the career mode can start to feel more like attrition mode, as you struggle through the months of dull games, waiting for the big title clashes, and the ability to buy players again once the transfer window opens again in January.
FIFA has a terrible interface, badly designed even in terms of the limited control options of a console, but with the mouse and keyboard configuration of the PC it is unforgivable to have something this ham-fisted. Trying to play a career game is like a step back into the dark ages of computing, where information is secreted away behind scrolling windows, and simple choices are made difficult and time consuming by an incongruity of key presses. As an example, trying to find a player to buy involves scrolling through each of the 18 leagues, and then each of the 20 odd teams in that league, and then examining each player in each one of the 250 teams, to see if they have the skills that you want. Seeing if the player has the skills that you want, involves scrolling windows, as only four of the many skills a player has is displayed on screen at the same time.
Selling your own players requires that you go through a similar process, locating your team, clicking on the player, checking his stats by scrolling, pressing the “s” key, select transfer list player and then exit. If anyone is interested in buying your player, you aren’t told of this, instead you have to labouriously click on each player in your team every week to see if there are any offers. To make matters worse, your transfer list that you painstakingly create, is forgotten every time you save the game, meaning you have to create it again every time. To compound your misery further, the manual which “explains” all this, and I use that term loosely, is a quagmire of badly organised and partially complete information.
In the football part of the game itself the interface is not so bad, and despite there being a fumble of keys to press, they have tried to allow for a great deal of variety, without the need for hundreds of keys to remember. Unforgivably, however, there is no way of re-defining them. You can play the game straight away, and learn to pass and shoot very quickly, and yet there are nuances to the game that can take many months to master. That is a definite boon, and means that the game appeals to a wide market, and even inexperienced gamers can quickly feel that they are the Zidanes and Peles of FIFA 2004, while at the same time offering a challenge to experienced gamers and FIFA players. However, some of the interface issues leak into this aspect of the game too, most annoyingly in the power up bar for free kicks, which has a delayed response to your key presses, making it more than reasonably difficult to hit the sweet spot. On corners too, you are presented with the locations 1, 2 and 3 to send the kick to, but these correspond, uselessly, to the keys d, w, a on the keyboard.
The passing in FIFA has improved over the years, but not by a lot. Some of the player’s passing still leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s not just in the individual player’s skill. Sometimes a player will just turn around and pass in the completely opposite direction to where you pointed him, even if there is a player there to receive the ball. The worst of it is when the wings come into play. The game tries, to reasonably good effect, to allow for wing passes that encourage the winger to run on to the ball, passing ahead of the player. The only problem is that sometimes you just want to pass an ordinary ball to the winger’s feet, but you have no option but to pass ahead, even if that means the ball goes out into touch because of that. In addition, crosses lifted across the penalty area to the far post, resulted in the receiving player trashing at thin air, and letting the ball go past him, every single time.
The commentary has also improved, but it still allows for some terrible gaffes from Motson and McCoist. Some actually add to the realism, and can’t be blamed on the programming, such as when Motson proclaims “the defence is really in total control”, before exclaiming, “oh! that’s number two!” as the defence leaks yet another goal. Those kinds of gaffes are typical of commentators in real life, but there are others. Like Mostson commenting how the teams are really “playing for points this second half”, in a League Cup game. That’s pretty minor, but it gets worse. The commentators still suffer from that same phrase lag that they had in versions of FIFA from years ago. The ball will be half way into the opposition half, when Motson will still be screaming about how “the defence really need to get it away”, and “surely he must score”. Motson also continuously announces how the striker is “all alone in front of goal”, when he is tightly marked by several defenders.
One of the nicest touches to FIFA 2004 are the individual realisms, like the faces of players, the stadiums, and even individual crowd chants for different teams. Some of the more famous players have their own unique facial features plastered onto their game model, some of which are striking in their similarity to the real thing. In some ways I actually found this disconcerting, as I would get so used to being able to pick out individuals, that when a couple of players with the same generic face appeared in different strips, I could get confused. The stadiums are great too, and if you have been to any, you will instantly recognise them. These, plus the easily discernable chanting of the crowd add a real flavour of realism. Some crowds can really get to you, like Aston Villa’s who chant “you’ll never beat the Villa” like some kind of demonic mantra. They will keep this up until you score a goal, taunting your frustrations, and making you want to unleash the hounds of h** upon them.
The multiplayer should be FIFA 2004’s major selling point, and when it works, it is fantastic fun. However, when it doesn’t, and this is not uncommon, it can be pure pain. The worst aspect is the net code, which is desperately shoddy. If you have any kind of lag, and it can lag very badly, the whole game lags, even the menu system. It isn’t just a matter of having delays between you pressing a key, and your player carrying out the action, which should be all the worries you have in a game like this. Instead you also have the problem where the game just stops functioning as either side catches up with the other. During this time you can’t control anything, move the cursor, press a key, select an option or anything. The clock also stops, and so a ten minute a side game, becomes stop-start nightmare that lasts half an hour or more. By that point, all you want is for the game to end.
The match-making system doesn’t help either. You have an auto-match feature, which is a nice time saving device, but there is no way of using any kind of filter on it. In a game like FIFA where low pings are crucial to how much enjoyment you have, it makes the auto-match feature practically useless when you can’t filter out players with 1000 plus pings. If you host a game yourself, the game launches the instant anyone elects to join your game, giving you no opportunity to boot the 28k modem laggers, or the 100% disconnecting cheats. The only viable option is to hang around in the game channels, waiting for a spare game, but any player with a broadband connection and a decent ping is immediately jumped upon by everyone else, so you have to be as fast as lightning to get a decent game that way. Even worse is the patching system, which because they provide no auto-update or even a warning that you need a new patch in the lobby, only half the players have the patch weeks after its release. This, obviously, means that only half the games you try and join can start due to lack of compatibility.
For all its faults, I still enjoyed FIFA 2004, and particularly loved the online play, when it worked. Despite it being a step back in some ways, missing features like weather and custom tournaments, it makes up for that with a number of significant improvements. While much of that is purely in terms of presentation, with a game like FIFA, presentation is half of the fun. You want the game to look and feel like the real thing, and if it is fun to play, that is a bonus. FIFA 2004 does look good, and it is fun to play, despite some glaring problems with its interface, but whether it is worth upgrading from 2003 is dubious. If you already have FIFA in one of its incarnations, take a careful look at what is being offered, because it is quite likely that you’ll have nothing that you really need. If you haven’t already got FIFA, then buy it if you love football, because this is about as close as you will get to playing in premier leagues of Europe as you will ever get.