FIFA 1997 to FIFA 2007 – Ten years of Good ol’ football?

Yes, what started off so good; took a vertical dive down with too much emphasis on eye candy but little in terms of imagination and then rebounded nicely to make this latest instalment of the FIFA series a small but confident return.
I started playing the FIFA series back in 1997 with the rather impressive FIFA 97 which even had the Malaysian league with a respectable portrayal of the team kits, the teams but little else. Then again, the gfx technology was just undergoing some exciting changes then with 3dfx to the fore and the new-found prospect of Direct-X technology. FIFA 97 had many faults, many graphical glitches but tons of fun made possible with the inclusion of an indoor soccer mode.
FIFA 98 was one of the most ambitious football sim ever made and by far, I believe, even eclipsing any title made so far bar the Championship Manager series or the Football Manager equivalent. They had an impressive list of playable leagues, decent team rosters and a new cosmetic changes to the gfx. But most of all, the opportunity to play with virtually any country in the world in anticipation of qualification to the World Cup 98 in France is indescribably awesome. Most national teams even had national reserves to call up and for the playable leagues such as the EPL or the Dutch Eredivisie for example, there are many players you could draft into the national squad as you see fit as their database are extended. Granted, the gameplay at that time had some big flaws such as unrealistic pitch size, insane accuracy for some top strikers like Batistuta, Bergkamp or Baggio, frustrating goalkeeper behaviour and so on. And the on-pitch antics can look cheesy such as the player drumming up support from the crowd while playing to a favourable result; or acting all bravado when taking a corner-kick. But further than that, the game was fantastic in most aspects.
FIFA 99 upped the fun even more. And this title remained my favourite all time FIFA game for its gameplay; smooth, engaging flow of play. There is only that much fun to be had when playing on a virtual pitch but the efforts by the programmers and developers are all there; all the major leagues, the top national teams, some famous European ones. There’s nothing more to want, really. Add that to fact that the modding community worked overtime to provide top-notch team kits which mirrored the World Cup in France and you can have a World Cup 98 mod in lieu of the official EA Sports one. But what sets FIFA 99 apart from its predecesors is the sophistication of gameplay involved. New player moves, new stats, more ways to score goals and also a huge database of top players the world over. The gfx were also given a nice remake and you can see player height differences and so on. Of course the commentary was still not good but it won’t matter much anyway since you could tone down whenever you feel like it.
And so, we waited for FIFA 2000. Form 6 Lower is also time for honeymoon and afternoons of not doing homework but of FIFA 99 modem games. When FIFA 2000 came out, we waited with bated breath. Would it be better than FIFA 99?
Graphically, yes but in terms of gameplay, the whole game looked ‘manufactured’. It reminds hardcore FIFA gamers that they’re playing those CAPCOM coin-op machines where it’s everything but logic and strategy. Where FIFA 99 refined the art of crossing accurately and of proper player choice to fill up effective roles, FIFA 2000 is all about beating the offside trap and score. And the gfx looked like it came straight from some comic artist’s studio. The players looked similar to Jason Priestly and their shirts gave the impression of being starchy and stiff like those kit manufacturers from the 70s. And why Robbie Williams to cover the game’s audio? Blechhh…
Needless to say, FIFA 2000 quickly found its way out of the ‘Program’ list and out of the Control Panel registry. FIFA 2001 was scheduled to come out sometime late 2000 and it was fresh from the joint Dutch-Belgian organised Euro 2000 to which EA Sports was inspired to milk out the lingering franchise. Actually, FIFA 2001 was pretty good IMO. It had the fun factor of FIFA 98 and had the verve of FIFA 99 but the game is becoming predictable. Or maybe this is the start of the decline. You see, in FIFA 2001 the whole field is great for one-touch passing, some running finishes and probably some headed goals. They can all do that. But the way I see it; EA Sports is placing fetters on the gamer as to the methods to score. In modelling real-life football physics, it’s pretty reasonable that tight corners and running finishes are reserved for only the most gifted of real players but EA Sports seemed to suggest that with FIFA 2001, you can only score from certain areas (e.g the final 3rd) or some other closer areas to goal. What I meant is; the rigidity is not there in full-force but you can see it. Sadly, I didn’t play much multiplayer FIFA 2001 games to merit it a better score but I still play it time to time. Still, it’s good work of EA Sports to incorporate club team emblems and actual kits to model the real players for the first time (FIFA World Cup 98 game has already done it with national teams before). It’s a good step upwards.
In FIFA 2002, I read some pretty good previews of it. Like the shot bar and the crossing speed etc. More teams are licensed this time around and the team kits are pretty to look at. But that’s where the excitement ends. Since I typically use the keyboard to play FIFA games, the passing model used in FIFA 2002 had me choking in frustration at my first sessions. With the keyboard, it’s almost impossible to pass a diagonal pass to a team-mate and is bound to reach a responsive opponent. And crosses are no better; the final product is almost always headed away by the infallible opponents. Headers also add to the tension since I lost count as to how many times the other team could always, ALWAYS head the ball away even if I had players with the best heading trait in the skills list. So, it goes without saying that 9 times out of 10, it’s almost an exercise in futility to defend an opponent corner since their headers would go into the net. Opposition midfielders could also pump in long shots like crazy and your goalkeeper being the dumbest around would only watch as the ball sail into goal. When you try to do the same, it’s almost always closed down by enemy defenders. So, the only sure-fire way to score in FIFA 2002 is to position your chief striker with the fastest speed and when the opponent’s last defender is having the ball, have your striker tackle the ball legitimately and then go on to score!
I’m coming to the scoring part- It’s easy to score in FIFA 2002 but also easy to miss. The latter reason being the sucky keyboard directions. 
You might say that FIFA 2002 is one of the most benign of the series but I disagree. Beyond the ugly stadiums, the ugly player cosmetics and the goal celebrations akin to a pack of hounds barking their noses off, FIFA 2002 is beautiful to look at and sometimes play, because of the nonsensical way of scoring goals and the ‘tackle and score’ ruse. It’s not unusual to score 8 to 9 goals in a game with the ‘Professional’ setting but in the same vein, it’s also not surprising if you concede 5 goals due to your stupid goalkeeper and your defenders who never seem to launch the offside trap well.
Yes, the offside rule in FIFA 2002 is SCREWED big time! Many a times I saw the opposition pump a ball upfield and 9/10 times, the opposition recipient of the ball is clearly offside! And the smartass AI would think that it has cheated you hook, line and sinker and push towards your goal to score, leaving your final defender stranded in no-man’s land. You might say that a good player would not fall to such dirty tricks but I disagree. The AI’s crossing, passing and what-not are inch-perfect whereas yours are screwed up as hell. FIFA 2002 also demonstrated the lazy side of EA Sports where certain Football Federations do not have complete national sides and their players are generically named and compiled. So, you’ll have ‘number 10’ as striker and the usual ‘no.1′ as goalkeeper if you choose to lead Malaysia to the virtual World Cup 2002. Yes, you can edit these stats but it’s clear proof of EA Sports’ devotion to the fans’ interest. I think many fans of the FIFA series are anticipating a great round robin battle for the right to play virtual WC 2002 but these efforts are seriously disappointing. Great kits and realism are part of the picture but the game is damn flawed.
FIFA 2003 is up next.The incoporation of Direct-X 8 graphics meant that this game is even beautiful to look at. Surprisingly, FIFA 2003 is alright. Besides the top European teams forming their own Super League, the national teams are also mirroring the Korea-Japan World Cup 2002 and the kits are pleasant to the eye. The game is alright in gameplay but rather boring and predictable. I’d rate this one of the moderate in the series but the game won’t have your interest for long.
Now, the most maligned game in the series – FIFA 2004.
There’s the extension of English teams to cover the top 3 English leagues and the buzz is on to manage a low team and take it up to the English Premier League crown as manager. The idea is novel (and many English fans are relishing this prospect) but the game mechanics and milieu is not. For starters, the lower league teams all have generic faces. You won’t be shocked to see 11 players in the same team having the same mugs. The gameplay is also the most rigid of the entire series. You can’t score from midfield and you are only allowed to score at certain positions of the pitch, that is, if you get lucky or are skillful enough. Setpieces are also a bore. It’s like an objective exam. Pick the answer: -A, B or C. And it’s a trick question – all of them are received gleefully by the opponent. 
I know that the game (or any game) is supposed to be challenging to a certain degree. An easy walkover would have you laughing belly over chest at the conceived stupid AI; so EA Sports thought that by limiting your chances to score it would immediately justify their ‘new changes’ made to the gameplay. The ‘Deeper Team AI’ claim by EA Sports is more like a case of enemy defenders crowding you out and any of your last-gasp passes beyond the line are sure to be intercepted by them. It feels so unnatural to be playing a rigid and zero personality game such as this. Even your teammates look dumbly at the passer of the ball and don’t understand your urgency to move forward at all. My first impression of FIFA 2004’s ultra defensive tactics is like Jose Mourinho’s observation of ‘parking a bus in front of the goalposts’.
So, this is a case of good ideas but poor conception. Either EA Sports have been complacent over recent successes or that the excitement over Pro Evolution Soccer proved unsettling.
Good eye candy and impressive artwork but awful gameplay is like a beautiful girl without character and personality. Comprende?
Stay off this game even if you’re nostalgic of the old FIFA series for some reason.
FIFA 2005 is ok. Ok in that it’s not as rigid as before with frequent action in the middle of the park but there are realistically only 2 ways to score. Play the formation in a tight single spine with 2 forwards up front and you can score goals like crazy with both of them whipping goals in from the sides. Try experimenting with the other formations and come away disappointed. The other way to score is by freekicks. That’s FIFA 2005 in a nutshell. I could’t be bothered with the new manager system gimmick and all that pussy promotion of the game. I did surprise myself by retaining the game in the hard disk for over 10 months and playing it time to time but the game did not leave a deep impression as did the FIFA 90something series. Something has gone seriously downhill in the EA Sports FIFA team.
I’ll skip FIFA 2006 as I admittedly did not:-
1) have the interest to play it after suffering 3 years of poor or sub-par FIFA games
2) have the time to play it
3) want to play it as I’ve fallen for the PES series and am a serious fan of the Konami games. I did try out FIFA 2006 in cybercafes but as usual, it’s nothing sparkling and breathtaking about it there. It’s just an ordinary FIFA game typical of the 2000s. You could miss it out and not fawn over it.
So, the latest game in the FIFA series is FIFA 2007.
To date, I’ve also tried the World Cup 2006 game and it is rather good. The fluid passing game and responsive movement of team-mates are improving. Certain aspects of the WC 2006 game are also encouraging. Dribbling past opponents is a possibility rather than running into a bus parked in front of goal ala FIFA 2004. The goals scored are also believable and quite possible to craft out if given the space and skill. Add to that, the chances to score are far better than before and that defending against opponent counterattacks and long balls are now more realistic. Crosses into goal can also translate into goals and long-ranged shots can hit the bar or palmed away into goal.
It’s to that point of development that FIFA 2007 continues the brief surge upwards again to be a fair challenger to the PES/WE series. There is the team chemistry factor in the game. In fairness, I can’t see any difference with this system having played FIFA 2007 for a fair bit at all. There are still pockets of flaws such as super defending by the opponents and a hark back to the rigid formation style ala FIFA 2005 but there’s certainly room for benefit of the doubt. FIFA 2007 also has a few different shot modes depending on the situation in front of goal but I think that PES 6 has already wisely incorporated that even though the latter did come out later.
But is it fun?
There’s the cautious optimism that FIFA 2007 is trying to win FIFA-series fans back and there are many facets of the game which could be comparable to their Konami superiors such as the realistic stepovers, tackles and the volleys which can rocket into the net. It’s probable that the EA Sports team for FIFA could finally be seeing that their efforts of the past few years are cow-dung right from the installation screen but on the other hand, it’s also possible that they’re just playing catch-up with the generally well-received PES/WE series which are really evolutionary.
It’s unfair to be too hard on the forerunners of football gaming for all the hours of fun we had with FIFA 97 to FIFA 99. It’s fair to say, on the other hand that the reluctance of the EA Sports people to take stock and seriously note down all the flaws of their last products are clear indications as to why more and more gamers are shifting to PES even though the high number of unlicensed teams and players can get annoying after a while. It’s also ironic that it’s the FIFA series which possess the license for most of the top football teams worldwide but they can’t keep the interest high enough for football gaming fans to consider a return to the FIFA fold.
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