Full Review: "Wing passes to Center! Center holds it! HOLDS IT!!!!"
The last few years of EA Sports franchises have been somewhat of a mixed bag. Hockey and basketball from EA have provided some "auto pilot" like experiences from time to time, and, until recently, baseball has been a lost cause altogether. However, the one sport that seems to get a consistent treatment from EA is soccer. Whether it's due to the love of the development team at EA Canada for soccer or the huge devotion the sport garners worldwide, it seems that EA is always consistently improving the gameplay and adding in a few more bells and whistles for good measure. For the most part, this year is no exception to that rule. Some extra features may have been pared down or they aren't in the game altogether, but the gameplay has again shown a marked improvement and online play is included to take the competition (truly) worldwide.
What has always been so encouraging about the FIFA series is that the developers have kept the game rooted in simulation, for the most part. This series never went the route of International Superstar Soccer or even EA's very own NHL hockey franchise, where goals are scored in bunches and the pace is always moving full speed ahead. This isn't to say that recent iterations of FIFA haven't had plenty of goals, but it always seemed like EA was constantly trying to sharpen the game engine so that goals would take more effort, and also to make defence much more viable in terms of strategy.
This constant refinement of the gameplay really shines through this year, as the physics and pacing within the game create an experience that makes you work for goals and utilize defence quite heavily. No longer will you be able to fly in with one man, school all the defenders and then rocket a shot into the top corner without batting an eye. This year emphasises passing; specifically, the "through" pass is one of the key weapons as you can now manually direct its trajectory in order to find the open man who is cutting inside on collapsing defenders. It's also been good to see the constant improvement to the meter-based system for shooting and heading the ball towards the net. It's more sensitive this year so that your shots will often float just a little too high or wide and this creates the perfect amount of missed shots and close calls, but not so much so that you'll be wondering if goals can ever be scored. Another offensive tool in your war chest is the ability to manually take control of another player with the left trigger and the right thumbstick. Doing this allows you to setup a player so that he can receive a pass or lob or even grab the ball just in time to stay onside and beat the last defender. This isn't easy though so it's recommended that only advanced users attempt to mix this into their arsenal.
One of the highly touted additions to the game mechanics this year is the "First Touch Control," which enables you to receive passes and position your body to move the ball in a given direction. Depending on the receiving player's skill, the "first touch" will be more or less advanced and, more importantly, more or less effective. This is often quite useful for receiving the ball and immediately flipping around and bumping the ball forward, which eliminates needless turnaround time that might get the ball stripped away. The right thumbstick also serves to utilize several special turns and spins while you are carrying the ball; these moves aren't nearly as effective as in years passed, which is very good thing for the game's balance.
Defensively, the game is quite similar to previous versions, but some moves seem more or less effective than before. Slide tackles, for instance, don't have the range or usefulness they once did for intercepting passes or getting in a player's way. The main function they now serve is to bring a man down, but timing it to get the ball and not the man (for a foul) is still a decently challenging task. Shoulder tackles have always been one of the best defensive tools in FIFA and this year is no different. You'll rely on this move to dispossess attackers, but the timing of the move requires you to execute correctly or face leaving your goalie in a tough situation.
Speaking of goalies, they seem to be mostly unchanged from last year. They're still prone to the odd bad goal or odd decision (pushing the ball back into the slot or getting out of position and not hustling back in front of a shot), but they can still charge forward to cut off the angle, and they do hold onto quite a few of the shots.
While most improvements have continued to lead the FIFA series more in the direction of a simulation, it must be said that a couple of issues still show themselves, but not so much so that you really can be mad about them. One of these issues is more about EA games in general and that they always seem to want to do things for you. Often, you'll have the game switching players for you (you can still do this manually with a button) and it can put you out of position long enough to concede a good shot. Another problem is when your defender boots a ball that is near your net out to the corner or to the side when you have plenty of time to turnaround and kick it out. I think a lot of instances like these are to increase the realism and to create a certain balance to the gameplay, but often it makes your player do something that they would never do if they had time to realize the situation. Also, while I did say that goals don't go in all the time and that FIFA is still moving into a more simulation direction, it must be said that headers and such still go in a little too often. They've eliminated the ridiculous bicycle kicks and volleys of previous years, but headers off of corner kick sets still can be done a little too easily and the ball travels far too fast off the player's head. Again, it's not the end of the world, but the game would ultimately benefit if these issues were ironed out in the future.
In terms of game modes, FIFA 2005 offers the standard Quick Play, Tournament and Practice options (why you can't practice penalty kicks or have a shootout this year is puzzling), but the bulk of the game that you'll likely play solo is the 15-year career mode.
The career mode this year is quite solid, but is a bit clunky in terms of its interface. You start by selecting a manager and then selecting which region (English, Spanish, etc.) you want to play in. You then have to pick a team from one of the low level leagues in that region ? essentially, the bottom feeders ? and then pick your support staff. Why you can't pick a high level team is definitely strange, but I guess they wanted to have you work your way up, which is still quite a bit of fun. From you career hub, you can manage your squad in various ways, including monitoring their morale and fitness, making transactions to augment the team, and adding points/budget to your support staff. You will also get little ratings and text reminders on your PDA type device that tell you what upper management expects from you. One of the cooler things you can do is to watch a simulated game as it progresses and you can jump in whenever you like if you feel the need to score a key goal or swing the momentum. This is a great way of keeping you involved in the season, even if your simulating games and not wanting to play in all of them. It should be said that the interface for the career mode is a bit awkward, and searching through player lists for trader purposes should've been handled better. Additionally, it would've been nice to have a few more options for training and motivating your team. Ultimately, the career mode is quite strong, and besides it's few shortcomings, it provides some good long-term value from the offline component for the game.
What's great about FIFA 2005 for XBOX though is that it's finally come to XBox Live. You can use all sorts of newer Live features while playing online as well. The game uses EA Messenger for talking to your friends with text messages and you can also enter voice chat or send voice messages to random players or your friends. It's also refreshing to see that on top of the Quckmatch and Optimatch settings, there are actual lobbies where you can go for regionalized opponents or to just partake in text chatting, if you wish. While online (and offline if you're connected to the Internet), you can have a ticker that automatically updates at the bottom of your screen. It's cool to see soccer scores from around the world, but support for other sports should've been included. You also have a "My FIFA" profile that travels with you online and offline. In online play, your matches, stats and trophies/medals won are all kept track of and this is actually pretty stellar, as you really see your profile grow if you put in the time. Tournaments are also quite popular online, so this is a welcome addition.
In terms of actual online play, the game performs at a high level. While the menus leading up to the game are often clunky and somewhat laggy, the actual game plays very smoothly and lag usually shows up right away if there's going to be a problem, which isn't very often. In fact, connections with people from the UK were actually quite good, which was a surprise indeed. The only real hiccups experienced online are when you skip cinematics or replays and then you have to wait for both players to be synchronized, but it only creates minor hitches. Altogether, the online mode is really quite strong and will provide a lot of value for many of the people who buy this game.
The FIFA series has always been a visually solid game and, once again, this year follows the trend. The game features over 11,000 players and they are all modeled fairly well, with uniforms reflecting advertisements of local teams and player faces doing a good job of representing stars, while injecting a decent amount of facial animation. The stadiums are also uniformly good, with the large international and premier league stadiums looking expansive and imposing, while smaller clubs have compact, but energetic venues. The animations are very strong in this year's version and this is evident with the transition animations for "First Touch Control" and when two players comes together to battle over the ball. This is something EA has always done right; animations are always fluid and the player movement and weight looks, mostly, believable. It should also be mentioned that 480p support is included for those with HDTVs.
The audio presentation is also equally solid, with John Motson and Andy McCoist calling the action and only occasionally becoming repetitive. Most of the time, their commentary is energetic and adds the usual layer of quality to the FIFA experience. The music selection within the menus of FIFA is also quite varied (no custom soundtrack is a bit annoying), with English pop/rock like The Streets or dance music like Emma Warren to Spanish-language rock selections that will definitely appeal to some listeners. The in-game audio provides much of the atmosphere to FIFA, with crowds, who are accurately large or small depending on the stadium, chanting team or country specific songs and calls. Players also chat and make calls on the pitch and the crowd also buzzes and crescendos anytime a frantic sequence or goal occurs. Audio production is always top notch with EA Sports and FIFA 2005, as I've said, is no exception. Dolby Digital Surround support is included.