Seems little Freddy Adu's got everyone psyched up about soccer in America again. What else but the surge of popularity brought about by the 14-year old phenom could have prompted EA to release a Europe-centric game like UEFA EURO 2004
here in the States? (This is the set-up. Check it out... I'm about to refute my own question).
Actually, the answer is not as cut and dried as it seems. There is, despite some appearances, a respectable soccer following in the US, and it's definitely not all following the MLS (sorry, Freddy). That's why EA's most recent offering (the more than adequate FIFA 2004) focused on the real superstars of the sport, none of whom play on teams named The Burn or The Crew. American soccer is not necessarily playing with the big boys yet, but American videogame soccer has been competing at a high level for a long, long time.
EA's latest game is the aforementioned UEFA EURO 2004, which is basically a version of FIFA that centers around Europe's biggest football jam. For the uninitiated, the EURO tournament is probably second only to the World Cup in its scope and gravity. After all, there are a ton of nations in Europe (quick, name 'em all), and they're all pretty darn good at the sport.
If you're a fan of. European soccer, this is a good purchase. If you're not, or if you already own FIFA 2004, it's a bit harder sell. It's basically the same game, with slight AI tweaks and new features, and, of course, the ability to take a team through the EURO tournament. It's very fun, and a complete game in its own right, but it may seem too familiar to some.
When it comes to pick-up-and-play ability, EA soccer games have always excelled. The control scheme is easy to grasp, easy to implement and overall quite forgiving for beginners. That's not to say the difficulty levels don't scale the toughness... they do. But in terms of learning the game, the controls are quite intuitive and the user interface is simple to handle.
On the field, the action is very similar to what's offered in FIFA 2004. That game made vast improvements over previous years, and this one continues to build on that momentum. AI has gotten slightly better, even on some of the lower difficulty levels. What's most noticeable is that players off the ball don't stand flat-footed as often as they did before. They move off the ball better, and make runs that are actually useful. On the other side of the ball, marking has improved, both for your CPU-controlled teammates and opponents.
The regular run-of-play seems less herky-jerky as well, probably due in large part to the motion off the ball. Set plays are still a little problematic, as you have a lot less control over where the ball goes as you want to. The corner mechanic that was introduced in 2004 is intact, though, which is a good thing, as it more accurately represents what happens down in the trenches in front of the goal than any previous EA attempts.
The most noticeable addition to the game is the morale meter. It basically tracks performance and mood of the players throughout the friendlies and the tournament. A good individual performance in a game can lead to increased morale, and a ratings boost. Conversely, a big loss or cruddy job on the pitch will lead players to suffer a hit. Does this dynamic do much to the overall gameplay? Yes and no. Skilled players should be able to easily overcome a ratings dip, but those of questionable talent might notice it's harder to make headway.
None of the changes are ground-breaking, but they do serve to make an already decent engine better. In terms of modes, the game offers more than just a bare-bones tourney. In addition to the bracketed affair, one can play a simple Friendly, a Home and Away, or set up a Situation (tweaking score, time left, etc.) and try to fight out of it. In addition, there is a cool Fantasy mode which allows you to draft a dream roster from all of the best footie players in Europe. Add to that a basic Practice mode and a PK Shootout selection, and you've got more game modes than were expected.
There are sometimes moments in recent sports video games where you can squint and think you're watching a real game. Sometimes in UEFA 2004, you have to squint just to see the action. The default camera is very zoomed out, making the detail on the players initially hard to see. While it's nice that EA isn't bashful about getting above the action, a tighter default angle could have benefited the game.
When you do get in close, the player models are quite detailed. The faces are not on par with some of the other EA Sports titles, but you can recognize who guys are supposed to be. However, the thing that really stands out is the animation. A lot of the subtle moves in soccer are captured here, including little flicks, nutmegs, and stutter steps, and the trapping animations are great. Kudos to the team for great attention to detail.
One last thing that needs to be mentioned
the wipes that cut from field views and camera angles are awesome. It's pretty easy to completely forget about little stuff like this, but it adds a lot, and makes the game look more like an actual broadcast.
EA soccer games always do sound well, and this is no exception. The commentary is spot-on and not often repetitive, as we've come to expect. What's really impressive, however, is the crowd noise. Country-specific chants are a nice touch, and the din of the crowd overall is synched well with the action on the field. Add to that a layer of on-field jawing from the players, and you have a nicely layered audio experience.
In terms of music, EA has employed the same tactic on a smaller scale that they used with the EA Trax for FIFA 2004. Several countries are represented musically here, and the songs are decent, but not as impressive as the list assembled for FIFA. Here's the full list:
- Parva: Panic Attack
- Span: Baby's Come Back
- Boxer Rebellion: Watermelon
- The Walls: Bright and Shining Sun
- Glitterati: Do You Love Yourself
- Junkie XL: Billy Club
- Nelly Furtado: Forca
- Stakka Bo: Here We Go
- Dave Clarke: Way of Life
- Freq Nasty: Come Let Me Know
- Minus: The Long Face
The tracks are pleasant, and there are enough to ensure variation when surfing the menus. What's more, you can turn specific tracks off if they don't do it for you.
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