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Introduction
The range of soccer games on the Xbox is pretty sparse, with only EA's Fifa series widely distributed in North America. Thankfully, the series is a solid effort and adds some new tweaks and a whole new gameplay mode that make this a must-have for us few soccer fans that are out there.

The Game
The gameplay of Fifa is something that EA has been changing for several years now in an effort to be more realistic and less arcade-like. This year's incarnation continues that trend, with even more of an emphasis on realistic ball control and tenacious defence. The game boasts over 500 teams and 18 leagues, yet again there's a few notable omissions, like the Mexican league.

Fifa 2004 has a few different gameplay modes, including Practice, League, Tournament, and the all new Career. The Practice mode is a great addition that was lacking in last year's game. More than just an exhibition match, you can determine the number of opponents on the field, from just the goalkeeper to a fully staffed team. This allows you to get a feel of the controls without the pressure of the computer breathing down your neck. You can also practice corners and free kicks from all over the field, and this is a good thing, for a big change is how spot kicks are taken.

Corners, and free kicks within scoring range, are run much differently this year. From a list of options you choose a set play. Next you choose one of three targets. Once that's done, the camera changes to focus on the target. Your next step is to beat the defender that's marking you, by either outmaneuvering him to where the ball will land, or by pushing and shoving him out of position. It's just the opposite on defense, with your goal to prevent the man from getting to the ball. This is a great new way to take corner kicks, as it puts the emphasis on getting open as opposed to just getting the ball in a good spot. Unfortunately, the camera will often change at the most inopportune times to throw your aiming off. It's quite frustrating to connect on a beautiful corner only to have the header fly well wide of the mark because of the quirky camera.

That problem aside, the controls and gameplay in Fifa 2004 are very smooth and polished. Ball control is not automatic and actually requires work on your part and a little planning. If you plan on sprinting down the sidelines with the ball, you need to let go of the sprint button a few seconds before you plan on stopping. It takes a few games to get the hang of, but soon you'll be dribbling like Zidane. You won't, unfortunately, be juking like Zidane. This is because the juking system in Fifa is either broken or was simply toned down so much that it might as well be broken. The right analog stick controls this feature, but it's really quite pointless. Although not being able to juke is somewhat unrealistic, it does eliminate the ability to dribble through an entire team with your keeper.

The computer AI is pretty solid throughout, seeming a bit more conservative this year around. While it depends on the team and the formation, most teams won't really challenge you until you enter their defensive third of the field. The AI also does a good job of getting players back to help out the defencemen. If you take your time getting up the field then the opposing team will have eight or nine players arrayed against you, and the closer you get to the opposing goal, the more aggressive the computer becomes. This makes the gameplay much more realistic than previous games and means getting a scoring chance inside the penalty box is very difficult. The powerful goalies of last year have been drastically toned down, too much in fact. Most goals will come from outside the box, about 25 meters away. This would be fine if the shots were well placed in the side netting, but many goals are just a little off center. It just seems that many of the shots could be handled by a decent goalie. Upping the difficulty helps relieve this somewhat, but it's still a problem even at the highest level.

The computer also plays well on offense. It will try to outnumber you in a certain area and advance the ball with short, quick passes. If you play mostly in the center, the AI will play for the wing and attempt to cross it, but if you leave an opening in the center, you'll soon find a striker making a run between your two defencemen. Your own teammates aren't as adept at playing defence as the opponent, which makes it tough to leave the ballcarrier to a teammate while you mark someone else. Doing that means the computer will often just blow by your defenceman.

A brand new feature in Fifa 2004 is the Off the Ball control. The idea behind this is to control the ballcarrier with the left analog stick while controlling another with the right. To accomplish this feat, simply press the black button to cycle through potential players. Once you find the correct one, just take control by moving the right analog stick. With this, you can direct the player exactly where you want to make a run. Simply press one of the pass buttons to connect to the streaking forward. This sounds great in theory, but the execution is pretty hit-or-miss. Cycling through the players and then finally making the run takes valuable seconds which you often don't have, especially in the offensive third. It's also virtually useless when playing a human opponent just because a human will be more aggressive than the AI. Overall, the Off the Ball control is great idea that just doesn't come through in the execution.

Another new idea that works well in both theory and reality is the Career mode. An extension of the Season mode from previous Fifa offerings, this allows you to take full control of the team for several seasons. You not only have a monetary budget which can be used to purchase and sell players, but you also have a prestige budget. The amount of prestige is determined by how well you fulfill objectives given to you by the owner at the beginning of each season. These range from avoiding relegation, scoring x amount of goals, winning 8 games in a row, or winning the league championship. The objectives are based on the chosen team, so AC Milan will have drastically different goals than the Dallas Burn. You use prestige to initiate a player transaction, to train your squad as a team, and to also train individual players to increase their stats over time. The more prestige you have, the more you can do to improve your squad. A great feature of the Career mode is that your players fatigue over the course of the season, forcing you to juggle your lineup and alter your training schedule. It's a solid system with no real flaws that adds an extra layer of depth to an already great game.

Alas, Fifa 2004 is an EA game which means no Xbox Live. Curses.

Graphics & Sound
Sharper animations and graphics make Fifa 2004 a better looking game than last year. There are 20 stadiums based on their real life counterparts, and they look excellent. Watching the players come out of the tunnel at El Estadio Santiago Bernabeu or Old Trafford is beautiful and enhances the feeling of realism. The detail included in both the real and generic stadiums is impressive. Like any other sports game, big name players like Michael Owen and Paolo Maldini are instantly recognizable. But there are nearly 10,000 players in this game, and it's only normal that weaker players look more generic.

EA put a lot of nice little touches that aren't really important, but that help draw you in. The first time you start the game, it asks for your favorite team. From then on, each time you start up the game everything will be in the colors of whichever team you picked, and most will even have the jersey in the background. Another nice feature is that over the course of the season, the pitch begins to degrade in the more heavily played areas, and the players will wear the mud in rainy weather. A few of the goal celebrations are overdone in a humorous way, just like real life. There are even several different animations for getting a red or yellow card, and I swear I've recognized a few of the referees.

The sound in Fifa 2004 is perfect and is easily the best feature in the game. Granted, if it wasn't backed up by the gameplay and graphics it wouldn't matter that much, but the sound is oh so sweet. The commentary is generally up to pace with the game, although there's not too much interaction between John Motson and Ally McCoist. But overall there's plenty to like about the commentary, and it definitely draws you into the game.

The sound effects are what really set this game apart from any other sports game. The crowd noise is stunning, especially when playing as one of the most popular clubs in the world. Playing a game as Manchester United in Old Trafford is candy for the ear. The crowd reacts to missed opportunities and even sings real life chants. Each major team has their own specific set of chants, and it's great to play in a foreign stadium to hear them. It's especially impressive when the opposing team scores and the crowd quiets, as the lack of noise is almost as powerful as the roar when the home team scores. Although playing as two teams from the MLS is still nice, it doesn't hold a candle to the popular teams. In addition to the great sound while playing an actual game, navigating the menus in Fifa is also a treat due to the excellent soundtrack.

The Fifa series always had an excellent soundtrack, laying the groundwork for EA trax, but this year's effort outdoes all others. There's a wide selection of songs from musicians from all over the world. It seemed no country was spared in looking for music. It's one of the few games and the only sports game I've played where I didn't want to use a custom soundtrack

Innovation
While not particularly new to sporting games, the Career mode was a much needed addition to the Fifa franchise, especially due to the lack of online play for the Xbox. It also throws in a few new twists with the idea of prestige and having to complete tasks to keep your job. Overall, a very solid inclusion to the Fifa series.

The heralded Off the Ball control is a great idea, but unfortunately falls short of the mark. It takes too much time to set up and nailing that pinpoint pass is a little too difficult. It's nice to see them trying new things, and shows great promise for next year's edition.

Lowdown
Overall, a strong effort from an established name. A few major problems in the gameplay keep Fifa 2004 from being a truly great sporting title, but the bells and whistles of this game are not to be dismissed. Although there's no real competition for EA's Fifa in North America, this is still a must have for any soccer fan.

Gameplay: 7, Graphics/Sound: 10, Innovation: 7, Mojo: 9 . Final: 8


Reviewed by Lucien | Dec.18th 2003

FEATURES:
  • Groundbreaking gameplay: FIFA 2004 offers a fine-tuned game engine and a new animation engine dramatically enhancing the smoothness in player movement through organic motion.
  • Off The Ball Control: The game’s unique and exclusive Off The Ball™ Control system lets you take command of players not in possession of the ball. Call in tackles, jostle for space, lose your marker, and send players on runs at the touch of a button.
  • Formation technology: Models the behavior of eleven individuals playing as one team. FIFA now carefully architects the interaction of two teams plus individual positional awareness, as well as two, three and four-man sub-units who work together to manage space and create opportunities
  • Expanded database and controls: Enjoy richer depth to team A.I., attributes, tactics, playing styles, and individual player personalities. New depth to control keeps FIFA easy to pick up and play but gives greater depth for the master.
  • Player manager: Be your own player manager with the deep Career mode. Build your team, and guide your club to the championship by making calculated decisions. Manage your team’s budget and promote or relegate your players to sustain team objectives on the pitch. When one season ends and another begins, new challenges will present themselves. The most successful player managers should also be ready for promotions, as some of the world’s top clubs may have new job offers.
  • In-game management: You think it’s easy being the coach? Prove your tactical genius on the fly. Don’t second-guess yourself after the final whistle—make adjustments mid-game and call plays in real time via the d-pad.
  • Immersive environments: More than 300 new crowd chants at an ever-growing list of officially licensed stadiums. From stadiums small and large, no soccer gaming experience offers a more complete library of the game’s authentic environments.
  • The best of the best: Now includes 17 leagues, 350 teams, and 10,000 players. New additions for 2004 include the Dutch and Portuguese leagues as well as the lower leagues from across Europe.

FIFA Football
2004

Publisher
EA Sports

Developer
EA Canada

Genre
Sports

Released
NA: Nov 4th 2003
PAL: Oct 24th 2003

ESRB
Everyone

Details
Single Player
Online Multiplayer



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