FIFA Soccer 97
DOS - 1996
Also available on: Genesis
Description of FIFA Soccer 97
So, here we are again, the latest incarnation of EA Sports' all conquering series of football simulations, FIFA '97. This time the Virtual Stadium engine has been upgraded to match that in NHL '97 and NBA Live '97, with 3D polygon motion-captured (from the Newcastle and France winger, David Ginola) player models. In fact, EAmade much of the new motion blending feature which purports to morph between say, a running animation and a shooting animation fluidly and rapidly to provide a quicker response. Read on to find out whether this lives up to the hype.
John Motson (the BBC's top football commentator) is joined this year by Des Lynam (veteran BBC sports presenter and one-time host of the BBC's Saturday night Match of the Day highlights programme) and, somewhat bizarrely, Andy Gray (ex Wolves striker and who now spends most of his time as expert co-presenter on Sky Sports football coverage and has a tendency to play with video tapes and equipment in the process). Why we couldn't have had Trevor Brooking (ex England international player and Motson's usual sidekick in the commentary box) instead is a mystery to me, it would have completed the BBC triumvirate nicely. Anyway, the team data has been updated to the end of the 1995-96 season, or thereabouts, although it still has some strange inaccuracies, for example, the Liverpool full-back Steve Harkness is listed as a forward!!!
The system requirements have gone ballistic accordingly, with the recommended spec being a 16Mb P133. It runs well on my 16Mb P166, but my work P100 chugged a little at times, although this probably wasn't helped by the lacklustre 2D performance of the Rendition chipset. Both DOS and Windows 95 versions are on the CD, the latter of which uses DirectX (version 2, although it works fine with version 3, although you'll need the version of DirectPlay that comes with version 2 of DirectX for multi-player games). As the case is with many 3D Windows 95 games at the moment, development began too early to realistically allow Direct3D to be used and so that nice Voodoo card you just bought will be of no use, as FIFA '97 only uses DirectDraw. Reassuringly, the DOS and Windows 95 versions are fairly similar from a performance point of view.
Flipping through the manual and reference card turned up some gems, like "When the ball carrier is in the zone". Ball carrier??? Zone??? You can tell that the development team is from the western side of the Atlantic. That line crops up in the five pages(!!) describing the available moves in different situations. Most control mechanisms have two modes, Simple and Complex. The Simple keyboard mode uses the cursor keys plus A, S and D, whilst Complex adds the use of Q, W and E. Those mad enough to try playing with the mouse, or those hampered by having only a 2-button joystick/pad miss out on many of the moves, some important (like the speed burst), others (like the rainbow kick) less so. The delightfully named rainbow kick turned out to be that ever-popular drag the ball back behind you and then flip it up into the air behind you and over your head to land in front - if that description confused you, don't worry I'm not sure I understand it either! Suffice it to say, it's an exhibition move and rarely finds a use, although a German striker did use it against me once in one of the few indoor games I played. Even with six "action" keys you have to press two at once to initiate the aforementioned rainbow kick. In all seven buttons are required in addition to directional controls in order to avoid some degree of finger twisting.
After the ubiquituous slick intro sequence, then a Demo/Play choice you are presented with the main menu, which gives a choice of Tournament (World Cup style), Play-Offs (knockout competition), League, Friendly or Practice. Modem and Network setup are also offered, with Network play you can spread up to 20 controllers across up to eight machines so that every player on the pitch, except the keepers are human-controlled. Another new feature for this year is Transfers, players can now be traded between teams, irrespective of the difference in ability, allowing you to transform your favourite team, however humble, into a side capable of trouncing AC Milan. The Options menu offers a choice of three game types: Arcade, Action or Simulation. Arcade has the fastest gameplay and no difference in skill levels, whereas Simulation comes closest to the real game, enforcing all the rules, players get tired and have differing abilities. The usual match length, offsides on/off, fouls on/off rules and so on are also here. Selecting the match style you want brings up a screen new for '97, yes I did say "indoor games" earlier, EA have added an indoor soccer option, on a small pitch surrounded by plexiglass walls. Unfortunately, the camera views all tend to obscure your view of some areas of the pitch and particularly in Arcade mode, it seems more like a game of pinball than football. Not a feature to buy this for. Next up comes the team selection screen, where you can choose from International teams, club sides from eleven countries or if none of those take your fancy, you could create your own custom team. The competitions can at international or club level and you can choose any number of teams to be human controlled. As ever, with more than one human playing in a particular match you can choose to go head-to-head or team up against the CPU, or even play something like 2 vs 1. The practice option allows you to practice a variety of set-pieces and other skills.
The new polygon engine for the most part looks very good, although the players still don't look as clean as those in Actua Soccer and Euro '96. The motion-captured animations are very good, although watching the replays too closely can ruin the illusion as the timing of movements, dives and headers in particular are often out of sync with the path of the ball. The camera angles present a good view of the game most of the time, although after goals in replays the camera often pans across too quickly, preventing you from seeing the ball after it crosses the line. Players have different hair colours and styles but don't feature the texture-mapped faces of NHL '97. The goals look quite strange, with flat polygon crossbars and posts and a net which never moves. The front-end is as ever slickly done but nothing really new stands out.
Des Lynam introduces the action and hands over to the commentary team of Motson and Gray who waffle their way through the game like a couple of bad actors, screaming in the wrong places and often bearing no resemblance to the on-screen action. It is, in my humble opinion (as a programmer) a difficult task to get right, but NHL '97 managed it on the whole, so why couldn't FIFA '97. Andy Gray seems to think nearly every game is going to be a classic and most of the English Premiership sides are described as very physical, furthermore, a great rivalry exists traditionally between virtually every pair of teams! Additionally, the anomaly of Queen's Park Rangers being referred to as Queen's Park, rather than QPR has carried over from the '96 edition, Queen's Park is a different team based in Scotland, not London! Indeed, some commentary sounds as though it has simply been reused from last year's game. The general spot effects are reasonable enough, but nothing new over last year's attempt. The music I turned off about five minutes after installation and definitely adds little to the game.
The crux of the game is in how it plays. Particularly when in Simulation mode, FIFA '97 is one of the slowest paced football simulations around, but is unfortunately too slow at times. The way in which players hang back from the challenge rather than rushing at you and diving feet first for the ball is good, but conversely it takes too long to wind up for a shot and so often the defence nails you as your player stops to take the shot whilst you continue to try and move him goalward. There are three skill levels, Beginner, Semi-Pro and Pro. Pro is very challenging but primarily due to weaknesses in the gameplay rather than the quality of the AI. Beginner soon becomes too easy, which leaves Semi-Pro pitched at about the right level. Unfortunately, the attempts to make this version even closer to the real game than before have often been at the expense of gameplay and enjoyment. There are workarounds for some problems, for example, when dribbling the ball, you kick it ahead of you and then run after it and then kick it again, which is true to life. However, when running towards a stationary ball close to the touchline, it is all too easy to reach the ball and immediately kick it over the line. Admittedly, this will happen accidentally sometimes but on the whole a player would compensate and trap the ball. This can be avoided by pushing in the opposite direction to the way you're running which will hopefully slow you sufficiently to maintain control of the ball. However, this needs split-second timing and no small amount of luck to get right every time. The control system on the whole often seems sluggish in its responses. The AI is very buggy, in particular CPU players on the attack in your half, will often inexplicably make a long pass back into their defence, often so badly directed that it goes to a member of your team. It is all too easy to play a long ball over the defence for your striker to run onto and score past the goalkeeper. With a little practice the optimum time to shoot becomes apparent and goals being scored eight times out of ten is not uncommon. Which leads me to perhaps the weakest part of the AI - the goalkeepers. In some ways, particularly shot-stopping, the goalkeepers have improved over FIFA '96, but they seem very reluctant to leave their goal-lines to collect long passes forward, or to pick up the ball, indeed I have been tackled by the keeper feet first on many occasions when it would be simpler and more realistic for him to simply dive at my feet and take the ball. Not only that, but the ball goes through the goalkeeper's legs far too often. Another bug I noticed was the CPU kicking off after I had scored with one of my players still in his half of the pitch!!! Another problem lies with the shoot control being the slide tackle button when you don't have the ball, so when one-on-one with the goalkeeper it is all too easy for you to go to shoot, the keeper to take the ball off you and your shoot action being intepreted as a vicious sliding tackle on the keeper, resulting in at least a booking for the unfortunate player and usually a sending off.
FIFA '97 is ultimately disappointing. Some aspects of the game have been improved over the '96 edition, but all too many have been changed for the worse or just left as they are. The trademarked Motion Blending hasn't achieved its aim of improving response times. Since first playing FIFA '97 I bought a Playstation and the Eidos/US Goldtitle Olympic Soccer, despite it's inferior graphics, has much more fluid and intelligent gameplay, and beats FIFA '97 easily for enjoyment. I look forward to the updated version, now known as PFA Soccer '97 which should feature English club sides, improved graphics and gameplay. However, whether we will be blessed with a good PC version we shall have to wait and see. FIFA '97 has some good new features, like the highlight reel at the end of each half, but still lacks features in its companion titles, like saving replays, a small feature, you may say, but one that is great for showing off your skills to your friends and proving that the outrageous events you have just related to them actually happened. In fact, some might say that a full edit suite for splicing together the game's highlights wouldn't go amiss! I wait and hope that next year's update will move the FIFA brand forward, but this is one step forward, one to the side and two steps back. Try the demo before you even consider buying. Owners of FIFA '96 are probably best sticking with that, at least until FIFA '98 unless you really must have some of the new features. New PC owners are probably best waiting for some of the many football games due for release in the coming months. One thing is certain, you'll need a not inconsiderable amount of patience to master the control system, yet alone the game.
Review By GamesDomain
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