"You're the next Arsene Wenger? Prove it"
Over the past few years EA has copped quite a bit of criticism with the FIFA franchise, but thankfully they have stuck it out and the 2004 iteration is now upon us. EA has promised massive changes for this year and they have delivered, FIFA 2004 is one of the greatest soccer (football) games for quite some time.
There is so many changes for FIFA 2004 over previous iterations that it's hard to know where to begin. The first and most major change is the addition of management style gameplay. In the career mode you take charge of a club and are under pressure to deliver the goods for the fans and the board. Although it features management options such as the transfer market (which has completely changed this year) and training players, options such as finding youth talent have been kept out of the game making it look like a very generic and vanilla option. However the management option completely adds a new take to the game because not only do you have to perform on the field to satisfy yourself, others to will be looking on in earnest.
You sign a one year deal with your chosen club and over the course of the first season you must accumulate 1000 points to keep your job. Various factors come into play here. For instance if your team is relegated from the current division, you will lose 400 points. But if you win more then 11 games in a season you will gain points. It is possible to get relegated and keep your job, although highly unlikely. Obviously using a stronger team will make it easier to reach your objectives.
FIFA Football 2004 very much focuses on the club aspect of the sport rather then international competitions. In fact there is no international league this year, but the teams do appear. 18 leagues, 350 teams and 10,000 players are featured in FIFA Football 2004. Leagues such as the English Premier League (which EA Sports has exclusively for FIFA), Serie A from Italy, Bundesligue from Germany and so on. Famous cups such as the FA Cup also feature, but still no Champions League. However, EA has been busy this year and snapped up more licences which go hand in hand with the management option in the game. Not only will you find the top leagues, but the lower divisions as well for some leagues. For instance in England you can play with the Nationwide Division 1, 2 and 3 teams and in Spain the Division 2 teams. This addition adds remarkable replay value and longevity to the title. Are you up to the challenge of taking a team from the lowest division to the top division title?
The player models featured in the game are nothing short of stunning. It is quite easy to pick out a player just by looking at the on screen character. However with the superstars, it is even easier to pick out because they have unique animations based on their real life traits. For instance Theiry Henry displays superb ball control and will usually go for precision rather then power when taking a shot. Some of the players during the up close and personal shots do look a bit "plastic" but other then that there isn't much to report negatively on.
FIFA Football 2004 in comparison to previous titles features a much more simulation style of play. The greatest example of this is the fact you can't change the speed of the game. If you don't like the default, tough cheddar. Rather then being able to sprint the length of the field and score a goal, passing becomes the key to victory. Along with this new style of play, EA have launched off the ball control with this title. Pressing the white button activates this and then you can either execute a lob or pass a through ball or even take control of the other player. Putting players into space with some accurate passing can turn the match in an instant. You can now also determine whether you shot will be aerial, or along the "carpet" by holding the left trigger.
Along with the management side of things comes changes to the transfer market. Unlike previous titles where if your team had the money, you could buy up big, bids now have to be placed on players. However in some rare cases, the pricing is quite strange such as Damien Duff who can be bought for 2 million even though Chelsea paid 17 million to get him from Blackburn. Anomalies like this seem rare. You can now also only buy players during the designated transfer windows of the European summer and during January. The stronger teams obviously have more of a budget to spend then the weaker teams featured in the game.
One area where FIFA hasn't compared all that well to competitors games in the past is animations. Forget everything you know about the previous animations, this years are superb. EA has obviously been very busy at the motion capture studios because players react in a variety of ways determined by a number of factors. They will jostle for the ball, sometimes ending up in a push foul and the game is now much more physical with some cringe inducing tackles able to be made. Injuries are now a lot more common and have varying levels of severity. A player may be able to continue in a reduced capacity, or be out for numerous matches. The animation a player performs depends on factors such as where the ball is in relation to him, where defenders are etc.
The AI has been ramped up as well. The four difficulty levels remain, but expect a tougher challenge from the lower options. The AI play a much more simulation style game this year with players trying to shutdown your passes. Even with the stronger teams, at first you will find it difficult to score. Low scoring games are definitely the norm in FIFA Football 2004.
FIFA Football 2004 also features a new set play system. If you win a direct free kick, or corner, a menu will appear asking you to select which type of play you wish to carry out. Another change is the free kick meter. Gone is the guess work, in is the golf-style meter. Line up the kick, and hope you can get it in the sweet spot. A goal is not guaranteed, but it will have to be a mighty fine save from the goalkeeper to stop it. A small amount of time is given before corner kicks are taken to jostle in the "box". As well as this tempers can get heated on the field. If a particular challenge is deemed vicious, players may clash on the field with the referee forced to break them up, or if a booking is given and not seen as warranted, players may even clash with the referee himself. FIFA Football 2004 also features "three" on field referees, with the linesman providing assistance to the middle man.
Football Fusion is a mode new for FIFA Football 2004. Football Fusion allows you to play matches from the soon to be released Total Club Manager 2004 in FIFA. This allows you to control your teams destiny in terms of results instead of just watching statistics roll up the screen. A great new feature and one that many soccer fans will enjoy. Because TCM 2004 is not available as yet, we were unable to test this feature.
As expected FIFA Football 2004 features all the big stadiums from around the globe such as Highbury in London and the San Siro in Milan. Whilst they haven't provided each team with its correct stadium, they have added some new additions. For instance Stamford Bridge and Anfield now feature in the English Premiership. The stadiums ad boards are also customised based on the league that is in progress and banners and fan colours are also determined by the home team. Visiting a team with a large supporter base away can be quite a daunting task in FIFA 2004, especially with individual team chants.
What more is there to say about the graphics that hasn't been said already? Not much. The game looks superb, the player models are fantastic and the stadiums, even the non-official ones look great. EA have really used the power of the Xbox. On the sound front, FIFA Football 2004 isn't lacking either with the game featuring over twenty five songs in its soundtrack list. Crowd chants, and commentary from Ally McCoist and John Motson also appear. Some of the commentary is reused from older titles but some of the more colourful, informative commentary is new.
FIFA Football 2004 has refined the FIFA franchise and has taken it in a completely new direction. The simulation style of the game won't appeal to some, but the majority will be happy that EA have finally changed from the arcade style of yesteryear. Is FIFA Football 2004 the best FIFA yet? Yes. Is FIFA Football 2004 the best soccer game on the Xbox? You bet ya. To sum up, if you have an Xbox and are a soccer fan, then you really should own this game.
Note: Some of you may have noticed that this review has changed from its original form. We earlier reported that the objectives in management mode do not change depending on which team you choose however upon further inspection it appears they do with higher teams being asked to win the league and lower teams avoid relegation. We apologise for any inconvenience caused by this error and will endeavour to make sure it does not happen again.