FIFA Soccer 97
Well, It's That FIFA Time Of year again. No, wait - don't go. This year they've actually worked on it a bit, instead of giving us the largely cosmetic changes of the recent past. If, like me, you always had a bit of a problem with previous versions of FIFA, you'll be pleasantly surprised by this one. The intelligence routines always used to take over too much - a typical scenario would see you shoot, and the goalkeeper parry it; then, before you could take control of your nearest lurking forward, he would launch himself at the ball on his own, usually heading the ball wildly into the flat-packed crowd for a goal kick, or volleying it over the Virtual Roof10 into the Virtual Carpark. And even if he did score, there was no satisfaction for you. In this version, the intelligence is much improved - at the hardest of the three difficulty levels players react to the ball, but still wait for your input when they get it. (Mind you, at the easiest they can still occasionally be guilty of taking matters into their own hands...) This might seem like an obvious thing for a football game to do, but for an ea game, it's the evolutionary equivalent of the first multielled organism. You can even pass the ball into space, for heaven's sake.
As well as the improved ai, there are a number of new features in the gameplay, including an indoor football option (which actually works pretty well), selectable pitch size and more teams to choose from.
The difficulty level has been stepped up against computer-controlled teams. If you're one of those weirdos who've persevered with FIFA's arcane controls to the extent that you're actually good at it, this will be good news. If, like me, you want your controls intuitive and context-sensitive, and haven't bothered getting beyond the pass/chip/shoot stage, this will be extremely bad news. The computer-controlled Zambian who beat five players from the kick-off and scored in the top corner would probably disagree, but I don't think they actually needed to make it that much more difficult. After all, if you're a bit of a maestro and wanted to make it difficult for yourself in the past, you could always pick a weaker team.
Presentation is all
There's an all-star commentary line-up (well, part-star, anyway): Des Lynam introduces the game, John Motson provides the commentary, and Andy Gray mutters away self-consciously in the background every now and then. The best thing you can say about his contribution is that most of the time you can't hear it.
We did all the coprophiliac jokes about Motion Blending last month in the Blueprint, so to get all consumer-show about it, we'll move swiftly on to what it actually means for you, the gamesplayer. David Ginola went through the motions for them (presumably they got someone else in to do the tackling) and the animation is good, even down to the players' shoulders moving when they run (unfortunately, up close they seem to have large hinges in their shorts, but that's another matter). And the whole thing's well presented.
Gripes of wrath
But there are still one or two gripes with this verson. For instance, the boards in the five-a-side obscure the action on the nearside of the pitch. And some of the ratings leave a little to be desired. For example, Corinthians, who've won the Brazilian Championship a couple of times in the last six years or so, come out rated lower than Perlis, a team from Malaysia. Perhaps Perlis are unheralded giants of world football. Perhaps not. The database thing works well, the gameplay is more down to you, and the network options (up to 20 people can play a game at once) will be great if you have that many people to play with. Overall, ea are definitely getting there, and this is the best version of the game to date.