Love is a pitch.
I remember playing soccer as a child. I'd sit in the grass out of the way, near the goal box. Sometimes I'd pick blades of grass, then maybe my nose, and watch the clouds slowly roll across the sky. Every once in a while the ball would roll down to my end, surrounded by a tangled entourage of kicking kids. So I'd get up and skip over to the group and kick somebody in the shins. Then the pointlessness of it all would hit me flush in the face, and I would retire to my spot in the grass oblivious to the shouts of "OMG! WTF?!" coming from my father.
No, I wasn't a terribly skilled soccer player. There was always a great schism between what I meant to do and what I actually did in soccer games.
It can be tough when one realizes that one's grand designs are beyond one's own means, and unfortunately, this happens a bit in EA Sports' FIFA Soccer 2004. To be fair, the game fixes some of the flaws in the last version and attempts to address the issue of playmaking, but in some ways still does too little.
New to the series is Off the Ball play. As you're bringing the ball down the field, you can quickly select one of three players. You can then control the new player with the right stick and send him on a run. As your streaking player breaks into a clear, you can fire him a through pass and hope he's able to score off it. While this is a cool, cutting-edge feature, it doesn't take things far enough because the play basically ends once you've gotten the ball. Soccer isn't about one-pass plays, and the ability to link passes within the scheme of a larger play is absent in FIFA 2004.
However, there are a couple instances where Off the Ball play shines. During corner kicks, you can have one of your strikers jostle a defender for position before sending the ball his way, and on defense, you can contain an offender with one player while using an Off the Ball defender to come in and jack him. Pretty sweet.
Unfortunately, Off the Ball play can easily be anticipated and negated by any decent human player. You sacrifice a degree of control over the player with the ball to be able to control the striker, and often a human defender can take advantage of this and take your man off the ball in a way you hadn't intended.
But FIFA 2004 is still a really good soccer game. The control is tighter than last year's version (which was pretty darn good), and corner and penalty kicking have both been substantially improved. Previously, you had only marginal control over the spin and power. Now, the spin and power are controlled by useful meters for increased kicking precision.
And then there are the legions and legions of teams, somewhere around 350. While Americans who have only heard of a handful of soccer teams might not be too impressed by this, soccer fans all over the globe can play as a team they've probably seen in their own countries, which is an admirable feature.
Furthermore, FIFA 2004's Career Mode has been nicely improved to match other impressive EA games like Madden and Tiger Woods. In Career Mode, players will try to meet certain seasonal goals with the hope of gaining Prestige and potentially moving on to better gigs and more competitive leagues. Coaches can also engage their team in all sorts of training, worry over budgets, and handle trades, making this a characteristically fine offering from EA.
Another interesting feature is IGM, or In-Game-Management. By holding the triggers, players can toggle their team's tactics on the fly. However, this feature only manipulates the general attitudes of your players and some slight formational factors. Soccer games need actual plays a player can practice, memorize, and then run. IGM and Off-the-Ball modes are steps in the right direction, but they're somewhat small ones.
FIFA 2004 looks fine, runs smoothly and features smart physics and convincing player animations. The Xbox version clearly looks the best, with the Gamecube a close second and the PS2 trailing in third. Nearly every graphical element has been at least slightly improved, while the way players jostle and battle for position in some cases looks great.
And aurally, FIFA 2004 is terrific. No other sports game sounds as dynamic as FIFA 2004. The soundtrack (which contains great bands you haven't heard of, and great ones you have, like Radiohead) is extremely diverse and tasteful, and the ambient noise is astounding. The background crowd roar rolling into a chant is uniquely impressive and almost makes me want to go to a really big soccer game somewhere in Latin America, just so I can get caught up in the frenzy, too.
Keeping with EA's stringent policy of only catering to Sony people, FIFA 2004's PS2-only online component is done well. From quick matches to leagues and tournaments, there is as much depth in the online arena as there is in single-player Career Mode. While the single-player mode is strong, the online play is much harder and satisfying while presenting great opportunities for friendly rivalries.
But the Career mode is very good, making FIFA Soccer 2004 a solid recommendation on any system. The game offers some nice changes, even if it isn't as advanced as one would hope. Then again, there's plenty in FIFA 2004 to keep you happy until next season, when hopefully we'll finally able to execute some plays of greater skill and complexity.