Those who hammer the buttons on their gamepads as though they were synthetic rodents in a whack-a-mole game had best prepare for their day of reckoning. The foremost proponent of willy-nilly button-beating, EA Sports, has used the latest edition of its vaunted FIFA Soccer series as a springboard to a more thoughtful and more challenging control method that genuinely alters the way the game is played. Penalizing adrenaline-fueled thumb jockeys and rewarding those who initiate actions only after quick consideration, FIFA Soccer is quite simply a more grown-up affair than its predecessors. That it also offers improved passing and player movement and a generally more credible feel are just two more reasons fans of real-life soccer will find this the most enjoyable soccer experience on the PC to date.
The gameplay of FIFA 2002 has a remarkably true-to-life pacing.
Since its debut in the mid-1990s, the FIFA series has continually ranked as one of the strongest PC sports games on the market. If the series had a low point, it was in the highly stylized FIFA 2000, which focused on graphical prowess and high-speed button pushing over believable gameplay. In doing so, it seemed to herald a trend toward even more arcadelike gameplay in the future. Fortunately, things got back on track with last year's FIFA 2001, a game that showcased a renewed commitment to authenticity and now can be viewed as an obvious stepping-stone to this year's model.
In FIFA 2002, the gameplay is noticeably slower and more deliberate. Players behave even more like human beings than they have in the past--taking a few moments to gather in passes, accelerating slowly, gaining momentum in their first few steps, and ultimately losing steam toward the end. Rapid and repetitive button presses only hinder subsequent maneuvers, and manually controlled speed bursts do not generate the temporary supermen seen in prior editions. Passes must be delivered with an emphasis on trajectory rather than raw speed, and shots on the goal should be measured and carefully targeted if you don't want to miss the net completely.
The art of tackling has undergone a particularly satisfying revision. No longer do slide tackles carry a player 20 or 30 feet across the field, razing opponents without fear of punishment. Now, you had best measure your chances of contacting the ball first, or you'll risk drawing a yellow or red card. As such, an aggressive tackle is recommended over a conservative approach only in the most dire circumstances.
Neither rain nor night prevent games from being played through.
Artificially intelligent players without control of the ball display newfound canniness in some situations, though they may just as likely infuriate you in others. It all depends on whether the program has been coded to recognize the play you want to set up. Normally, teammates smartly predict strategies and move skillfully to open areas, setting up for quick one-twos or running at double speed to await perfectly timed lobs that drift just over the heads of defenders. EA has added new visual cues such as trailing red streaks to help identify which of your players is currently making a break for open ground. Sadly, teammate reaction is less convincing when the human coach leads his or her ballcarrier on an abnormal crossing pattern or otherwise atypical maneuver. In such situations, nearby players tend to stop or shuffle about listlessly rather than adjusting and moving where you want them to go.
The ebb and flow of the team is especially believable. Offensive forays are stifled not just with well-timed interceptions or tackles, but also with appropriate positioning. Watching a computer-controlled side move toward midfield, only to play the ball back and regroup when faced with a threatening but as yet uncommitted wall of defenders is something FIFA veterans have rarely seen before. Shot and goal totals are still a bit too high, and defenses continue to possess uncanny skill within the box--often dispossessing ball carriers and picking up loose balls faster than they do anywhere else--but EA Sports has generally done a fine job determining the final tally according to quality of opportunity and ball possession, total number of shots, and overall dominance. In short, FIFA 2002 beckons you to play again if just to more effectively implement your strategy and more astutely man the controls.