In the world of soccer games there are really only two serious contenders for the championship title at this point: Konami's Winning Eleven games (Pro Evolution Soccer in Europe), and EA Sports' FIFA Soccer series. Like rival soccer teams eager to show off their newly acquired players at the start of a new season, these two series show up with a host of new features every 12 months in the hope that they'll finally score a convincing victory over the other. Traditionally, Konami's offerings have boasted more realistic gameplay, but have faltered in the areas concerned with presentation, specifically the lack of licensed team and player names. EA Sports' offerings, on the other hand, have generally felt a little more arcadelike than realistic, but the games have always looked extremely sharp and they let you take control of real teams comprised of real players wearing real uniforms. The line separating the two series has become increasingly blurred in recent years, and this year is no exception, as both games are still seemingly seeking to emulate the other's strengths. But to set aside the competition for a moment, FIFA Soccer 2005 is definitely the best FIFA game to date.
This year's biggest improvement is the introduction of first-touch controls.
Every year, EA Sports makes a point of improving one key aspect of its soccer games--FIFA Soccer 2004 focused on off-the-ball player movement, for example. FIFA Soccer 2005 retains all of the off-the-ball functionality from last year's game and adds convincing ball physics (the ball doesn't stick to players' feet anymore) and some excellent first-touch gameplay mechanics into the mix. The ability for you to determine how your players control the ball at the exact moment it reaches them might not sound like a big deal, but its ramifications are extraordinary: playing a realistic passing style of soccer is now more feasible and satisfying; skilled strikers can create scoring opportunities out of thin air by embarrassing their markers with a single touch; and the satisfaction you'll get from humiliating an opponent with just one tap of the right analog stick is almost akin to scoring a goal against them.
Like the on-the-ball skill moves that allow you to beat opponents when you're en route to their goalmouth with the ball in your possession, first-touch controls are all performed by tapping the right analog stick in the direction that you'd like your player to take the ball. The actual animation that transpires when the ball arrives at your players' feet (as well as whether or not the move succeeds) is determined by their position in relation to the ball and their skill level. Some players are able to flick a ball back over their head and turn defenders without even thinking about it or ever letting the ball move more than a few inches from their body, while others will struggle to perform even simple turns without letting the ball stray far enough away from them so that opponents have a shot at stealing it. Also, like the on-the-ball moves, EA Sports has got the balancing of the first-touch controls nigh perfect--they're effective enough that you'll want to use them all the time, but the odds of your fancy footwork failing you are also significant enough that you'll still have to work pretty hard to create scoring opportunities for your team. There will be occasions, of course, when you're able to run a single player through your opponent's entire midfield and defense en route to a spectacular goal, but these moments of individual genius are few and far between--just as they are in real life.
Passing the ball around is invariably the best way to play.
For the most part, the only way you'll be able to beat opponents of similar ability in FIFA Soccer 2005 is to pass the ball around and to successfully pick out players that are making good runs off the ball. If you've played FIFA Soccer 2004, you'll know that many of the best runs made by your players are going to be those that you trigger yourself. Sending other players on runs is as easy as tapping the left shoulder button while you're in possession of the ball, and the system is as effective at beating defenders as it is easy to employ. If you prefer to play an even more active role in the movement of your players, you can actually assume control of a second player using the right analog stick. It's not a system that we've ever really felt the need to use a great deal (and our online opponents have invariably had the same attitude), but it can certainly make it easier to pick out your strikers with crosses into the box--provided you can retain possession of the ball while you're using the right analog stick for your second player rather than using it to perform tricks and turns with your first. While we're on the subject of controlling additional players, it's also worth mentioning that the goalkeepers in FIFA Soccer 2005 are often very slow to come off their line, which, since you can make them charge at the ball manually, is definitely a good thing. There are few things more frustrating in a soccer game than conceding a goal because your overly active CPU keeper was on a walkabout.
The other surprisingly significant improvement made to FIFA's gameplay this year concerns throw-ins, which in many previous soccer titles, including FIFA 2004, have made it far more difficult for the team awarded the throw to retain possession of the ball. EA Sports has effectively resolved the problem by allowing you to use the same off-the-ball controls during throw-ins that you can when in open play. When you're awarded a throw, you'll be able to control any of three players and move them around however you see fit while your opponent attempts to mark you with three of his players. The system is different to the jostling mechanic that has you battling for position before corner kicks (there's still no way to play short corners, incidentally), but it feels quite similar, and it affords you the opportunity to come up with some creative ways of gaining an advantage from the set piece.
As you'll no doubt have gathered from reading the previous page, FIFA Soccer 2005 plays an enjoyable and realistic game of soccer. The game isn't without its problems, though, and what's disappointing is that many of them really shouldn't have been difficult to avoid. The advantage rule (which Konami did a great job of implementing in Winning Eleven 7 International and has subsequently improved), for example, does not exist in FIFA Soccer 2005. So, if one of your players is fouled after releasing a pass that puts one of your strikers clean through on goal, there's a good chance that the play will be stopped before you unleash your shot so that you can take a free kick. Playing against CPU teams can also be a baffling experience on occasion as, no matter which of the four difficulty settings you've opted for, your opponents will often appear to pass the ball around just for the hell of it. There's nothing wrong with keeping the ball moving, of course, but when your defense is all but beaten and the opposing striker knocks the ball back to one of his colleagues who is in a less favorable position rather than going one-on-one with the keeper, it just feels wrong.
The career mode is far less user-friendly than it could have been.
Perhaps the most disappointing feature of FIFA Soccer 2005 is its 15-season career mode. It's actually quite an engaging gameplay option, but every aspect of it has seemingly been designed with the impending arrival of Total Club Manager 2005 (which will feature "Football Fusion" compatibility with FIFA 2005, allowing you to enjoy the features of both games simultaneously) in mind. It's a terribly cynical thing to say, but the management aspect of the FIFA 2005's career mode is so cumbersome and unnecessarily time consuming that it's as much an advertisement for the upcoming management title as the billboards that appear in the game's stadiums. What are we basing this on? Here comes the list:
1. When you start a career in FIFA Soccer 2005 you'll only be able to take control of certain teams, most of which play in their countries' lower divisions, and some of which you'll almost certainly not even have heard of. It's not necessarily a bad thing that the game forces you to start your career at the bottom of the pile and work your way up, but if your dream is to one day manage a glamorous team like Manchester United or Arsenal, the only way you'll realize it in FIFA 2005 is to first string together some successful seasons with another team and then wait for a job offer. Will this be the case with Total Club Manager 2005? Perhaps, but we doubt it very much.
2. When you decide that you want to augment your team via the transfer market, FIFA Soccer 2005 makes it about as difficult as possible for you to search its player database. If you have a specific player in mind, then it's not too difficult to locate him provided he's still with the same team he plays for in real life. However, if you're simply interested in a type of player or one with certain abilities, then the only way for you to find that player is to check out the team rosters one at a time, click on player names, and then scroll through their attributes--none of which can be done quickly.
Searching for a player to sign is a chore rather than a pleasure.