FIFA 2003 reclaims the mantle of the best soccer game in the world with much improved controls and realistic gameplay that more accurately replicates the feel and intensity of professional soccer. With an extensive array of National and FIFA licenses, the game features dozens of club, international and league teams including MLS, Brazillain, German and English Premier League clubs including many of the world's most renowned clubs from Manchester United to the NY MetroStars. There are also literally hundreds of licensed players including Landon Donovan and the US National Team plus all the European and International stats players have come to expect. There are several different options available and players can set the difficulty, match-length, fouls, injuries and other rules to their liking. You can also choose to turn the onscreen pitch-radar on or off, change the volume of the commentary, player names and other options. These options give FIFA 2003 a surprisingly high replay value, since you can play seasons with different teams endlessly.
As you'd expect, FIFA 2003 includes many different gameplay modes including practice, single match and friendly matches. In addition, there are several different cups and tournaments where you can progress through the rankings towards the championship modes. FIFA 2003's most exciting and interesting mode is the deepest part of the game. In a new mode, 18 of the top European teams compete against each other in FIFA 2003's extensive Club Championship Showcase. You can completely manage your team in this mode that simulates each club in greater detail than the others in the game. In this mode, you play a complete season against other teams in a European League, with 8 home and away games for each club, followed by a knock-out round and then the championship. Players can save their progress between matches using the memory card. FIFA also includes an extensive team management mode where you can select different formations and strategies, view the kits for each tram in the league, look at individual players' abilities, and examine statistics that allow you to analyze your club's strengths and weaknesses. During a full season mode, you can change your starting roster, trade or sign players and more at the press of a button. Adding to the realism, FIFA 2003 includes authentic home and away kits for each team.
On the surface, FIFA plays a lot like the older games, but it quickly becomes obvious that some major changes have been implemented. The controls fit the Gamecube controller well, with the pass, tackle, sliding and shoot controls on the main face buttons. Sprinting and heading the ball are assigned to the shift buttons and these air-moves are quite intuitive, making it easy to intercept the ball from opponents. The biggest change in FIFA 2003 is that it utilizes EA's new Freestyle Control system. This system allows you to perform special moves depending on the situation. This is simple enough, you push the Gamecube's yellow control stick in different combinations to perform different moves. It takes awhile to get used to but it definitely makes the game more fun, allowing you a greater variety of moves. This is a bit complicated but the basics such as tackling, running and shooting remain intuitive and simple.
Another significant change comes in the passing system. Passing requires a great deal more concentration and a greater awareness of where your other players are on the field and you'll have to position you're players more precisely. Instead of automatically connecting with downfield players, you have to point the players to the right direction before they shoot. The dead ball system is another new feature. Here, you need to learn how to curve shots in order to aim them properly, which again is more sophisticated and challenging than in previous games. Even when the ball is active, the physics are more complicated. In previous games, the ball would follow you when you changed direction, but in the new game, players will have be sure not to lose the ball when dribbling, or they can lose control of it. This makes the game more realistic and the shot-power bars themselves are more sophisticated. Waiting for the indicator to reach it's max and going for the strongest shot will almost always result in you over-shooting the net, so you'll have to learn to make less aggressive shots. This gives the game more flexibility but it also makes goals harder to achieve and even when you're close, you won't always connect with the net. Overall, the Freestyle control system adds to the realism, making the strategic and challenging gameplay deeper and more complex. While there are many new techniques to learn, FIFA 2003 is still intutitve, it just takes longer to master all the nuances.
FIFA 2003's AI is quite impressive on a number of fronts. The computer-controlled players use more aggressive tactics that makes scoring goals much harder. Additionally, they will change their strategies depending on the game situation, making them more difficult to beat. Opposing teams are much better at defending their goals that makes those rare goals all the sweeter. Their players will flank your strikers more intelligently, making it more difficult to run up the field unopposed. Players will find that even lesser teams are more aggressive and smarter than they've been in previous games. This leads to many low-scoring matches, which is more like real soccer, but also adds significantly to the challenge. This may annoy casual players, but FIFA 2003 has a new arcade settings mode that turns off some of the challenge and makes for a faster, higher-scoring game. This compensates for the lack of goals, and is the perfect antitode for those turned off by the complicated gameplay controls in the simulation mode.
Visually, FIFA 2003 offers up a solid graphics engine that highlights the Gamecube's processing power effortlessly. The player models look a lot better with better facial animations and realistic ball handling animations that give them an incredible realism in movements and reactions. While the replay system isn't as flashy as in other soccer titles, it gets the job done. The player animation is better than last year with improved motion-captures that makes the players seem more connected to the ground. Each European team's home stadium is accurately reproduced in great detail for FIFA 2003 but the game also includes several generic stadiums and a few hidden ones that can be opened by winning tournaments. The camera angles are very good and players can select from several different viewpoints ranging from long-views to close in action shots. The game's production values are further polished with a two-man in-game commentary that is entertaining and informative, adding to the drama and atmosphere of each match.
FIFA 2003 isn't as flashy as other soccer titles, the gameplay is among the best in the business. While this is a solid and comprehensive simulation, it will require at least some knowledge of the game and its tactics in order to succeed. Hardcore fans will be pleased that it's Freestyle controls allow for more complex moves, but others are likely to be intimidated by it's depth and complexity. They shouldn't be, since the effort pays off in an immensely satisfying and challenging sports title. FIFA 2003 is easily the most ambitious soccer title EA has attempted to date and the developers have succeeded in faithfully recreating the sport's mannerisms and quirks. The new control system will take some time to get used to, but the increased flexibility this offers is well worth the trade-off. Taken with improved AI, this makes for the most challenging, yet satisfying Gamecube soccer title to date.