If you're reading this from the U.S. just pretend for a second that you live in a country that really loves and appreciates the skill and intricacies of soccer (aka futbol). You stumble out of pub #3, grab your favorite team's monster-sized flag out of the flag bin just outside the door, and join the parade through the streets to the stadium with 80,000 of your best buddies, singing at the top of your lungs your love for your darling Manchester United, or AC Milan, or Real Madrid.
Well, EA Sports' FIFA '97 is nothing like that. It's good, but it isn't enough to make you walk on top of other spectators and tear down the fence to get to those bloody bastards on the enemy team. It's got the solid bulletproof quality and outstanding graphics engine you expect from EA, but it misses the mark just a bit for the overall package, mostly in its playability.
So much of playability depends on the sport, I think. Fast-moving, high-contact sports like football and hockey seem to be very adaptable to the computer monitor: You can just crash your guy all over the place, and if you do a spin move to get through the line or learn how to do a combination cross-check/1-timer you'll do okay. Sports like golf are better left to the country club. But I think games like basketball and soccer are on the fringe, and it's gotta be tough to be a producer at a game company trying to figure out how best to approach basketball or soccer. Basketball is crammed into such a small space it seems things just happen, and a guy with a joystick just gets in the way. Soccer has so many different ways to touch the ball -- one-timers, lobs, heel-kicks, long banana shots, headers, chest traps, bicycle kicks, etc. -- that it's just so dang hard to get any good. Is there another game out there that utilizes all six buttons of a joypad? My four-button gamepad might have limited me slightly, but heck -- it's two less things to remember. Don't get me wrong: FIFA '97 is definitely playable, and you basically know what you're doing, but to get really good and get past the beginner level against the crappy teams where the goalie doesn't even seem to lunge or jump, I'm sure you need to learn how to make the touch-and-go passes, or go high for that header or bicycle kick. In fact, if you've got the time, learning to do that stuff might be as much fun for you as starting out good and kicking everyone's butt. I'd rather jump in and learn on the field with the fans laughing and cursing at me. But if you're shy, EA has provided a practice area for skill-building. There you can run drills and do as many restart situations (like corner kicks, throw ins, etc...) as you like, without the pressure of the big game.
The last couple of games I've reviewed have been EA Sports games, so I guess I'm getting used to their great user interfaces. It's hard not to take that for granted, but I won't. I remember all too well the unintuitive interface Psygnosis gave us with Destruction Derby. If there's one thing I know from doing time at the largest software company in the world, it's that the big guys know the value of usability testing. Any UI that doesn't tick me off before I even get a chance to get to the game is money well spent in the UI research department. Thanks, EA.
Because they had lots of disc space left over and they wanted to appeal to as many audiences as possible (I guess), EA decided to throw arena soccer onto this CD, too. I think they should have used the disk space for more audio (see below). Not only is the indoor version as bad as the aforementioned (cramped!) computer basketball, it also has nothing to do with FIFA. FIFA is about the purity of futbol; indoor soccer is about futbol has-beens and lots of good former college players trying to hold onto the game and still pay the rent.
These are some good-looking 3D dudes, and -- like all soccer players -- they know it. In fact, EA is so good at their 3D modeling -- combining fluid movement with graphical speed and anatomical accuracy -- that I've decided I only want one thing the rest of my life: Please, EA ... please make me a virtual Mia Hamm?
It's no secret that EA's Virtual Arena is among the best game engines. In fact, the way game companies exploit pre-written code (like graphics engines), those engines or 3D modeling could be reviews all on their own. What EA has done very well is give us a slew of games that all use the stable, fast and versatile Virtual Arena. FIFA '97 uses it, of course, and doesn't disappoint here.
The music is pretty cool while you're in the UI -- that typical hard-driving rock sound to get you pumped up -- and the crowd noise is good (though not awe inspiring like a sold-out Wembley match). But the audio lags when it comes to the commentary. It seems there are no more than two or three possible comments for about 10 common situations. There's really not much variety. Then again, how creative are real color commentators? My favorite is when your guy gets caught offside and the Scottish guy says: "He just simply shouldn't be offside!" It sounds exactly like Scotty to Kirk when he says: "I'm givin' her all she's got, Captain!"
The AI for the computer controlled players is pretty good, but not mind-boggling or scary in a HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey) sort of way. This is another area in which I found myself wishing I had more time to get good at this game, because if you're good you can control a guy without the ball, run for the open area, and force the guy with the ball to pass it to you. True, that's not AI, but my point is, it takes a little prodding for you to get the guy standing next to you to do the same thing you'd do if you were him and had nobody guarding you. Yelling "move, you stupid dork!" doesn't help. Rather, you have to start running, and then he'll move roughly with you, sometimes to an open area.
You can do all the standard customizations in FIFA '97. You can pick a strategy for your team, from "Defend Agressively" to "Attack." If you're politically inclined, you can take control of the Republic of Ireland and trade all your IRA members to Southampton. Or you could build a team packed with the world's best center-forwards and run everybody's pants off. You can control your view of the pitch, your starting lineup ... like I said: all the standard stuff.
Multiplayer (via modem and network) is supported.
There's a pretty comprehensive WinHelp file included, along with a sixty-something page manual. All that documentation might be a little overblown. Actually, I didn't read a thing.
Recommended: CPU Pentium 100 MHz processor or faster; 50 MB hard drive space; 16 MB RAM; DirectX 2 compatible, VESA 2.0 compliant PCI video card with 2 MB video RAM; 16-bit SoundBlaster or 100% compatible; Microsoft-compatible mouse and joystick, Gravis GamepadTM, or Gravis GrIPTM 4-player adapter
EA should be commended for attention to the little things in FIFA -- the realistic look of the players, for example, goes a long way to creating a sense of realism for this game. The interface is intuitive -- thanks, perhaps, to all-important usability tests -- and it allows you to quickly and easily move past the setup and into the competition, which is the reason you bought the game in the first place. Unfortunately, it's once you actually get into the game, actually begin trying to direct your players in competition against the computer, that FIFA is weakest. That's due mainly to the fact that there's just so darn much to keep track of in a soccer game. No PC soccer game has yet achieved complete success in recreating the intricate and varied movements possible in a soccer match in a way that is easily controllable with either a joystick or a keyboard. Simply for its overall quality, FIFA would be a fine choice if you're looking for a soccer game to add to your game collection, but be aware that despite its good looks it can be hard to control at times and it offers a steep learning curve that will frustrate many more players than it will please.