FIFA World Cup 2006
In what is seen as one of the most cynical and blatant videogame cash-ins, EA has often been subject to criticism for releasing themed European Championship and World Cup editions of its popular FIFA Soccer series with very few changes to game play from the 'regular' annual update. Not phased, however, as predictable as the tides, arrives FIFA World Cup 2006, the game for all of us who prefer the virtual beautiful game to getting sweaty and dirty playing the real thing.
Your first port of call is bound to be the FIFA World Cup mode. Here you can choose from over 100 national teams in an attempt to lead them to World Cup glory. You can either choose to start from the qualifying rounds in your team's continent or otherwise enter them straight into the 32 teams that make up the World Cup proper. After you've organised your team for battle, (deciding upon all manner of formations and tactics), the loading screen before each match is presented with a stereotypical photograph of one of the competing nations along with a 'Did you know?' fact. For instance, New Zealand is represented by a farmer herding sheep, anchored with a factoid that reads, 'Did you know that New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote?' Well now you do. Who ever said gaming wasn't educational?
There isn't much of a difference between the game play in FIFA 2006 and here, to be honest - which definitely isn't a bad thing. It's great that EA had finally listened to and acted upon some of the criticism that they've received over recent years - basic stuff like passing and shooting - rather than fobbing players off with fancier control options and other unnoticeable bells and whistles. FIFA World Cup 2006 certainly isn't ultra realistic in the way it plays, in that games are always very fast paced with very much end-to-end action. The tempo seems just about right, though, in fact, balancing the tender margin between arcade-like play and reality. Unlike the poor response rate of players in earlier editions, even novices will be able to pick up and play this iteration, creating chains of passes, threading beautiful through balls and shooting with the confidence of a pro in mere minutes.
In addition, the relative simplicity in executing more advanced individual skill or player co-operation such as cheeky one-twos or spontaneous tactical changes, (all attack/defense, more support for a particular player etc.) adds variety and unpredictability to each game. The AI also varies realistically in difficulty, providing a challenge for experts and beginners alike. By playing games and completing pre-set objectives such as winning by a certain margin or scoring a certain number of goals, you earn play points that allow you to buy extra kits and accessories from the game's shop.
In addition to the main World Cup mode are options that include the Global Challenge. Now a fairly standard feature in any comprehensive title, you can choose to be thrust into various scenarios from World Cup history in order to fulfill particular objectives. These would be a perfect compliment to the main game, except that each challenge makes use of modern day players instead of the players involved at the time, which frankly isn't good enough if this is supposed to be an authentic experience. Time travel, anyone? Commentators Clive Tyldsley and Andy Townsend don't really seem to commentate in a way that's relative to your achievements in this mode either, no matter how spectacular your win, they treat it like any other game. To be fair to the duo, their wealth of oral contributions on the whole are impressively accurate and responsive to gameplay whatever the occasion.
As rewarding as FIFA's single player experience can be, it's the multiplayer in games such as this and Pro Evolution Soccer that really provide you with your money's worth. Thankfully, FIFA's Lounge mode makes a return, allowing up to 8 players to keep track of their performances against each other over time, to allow conclusive evidence to who really is the pro and who, sadly is a 'n00b'. The Lounge also features the 'cheap shot' mode, allowing for various degrees of unfairness to be initiated throughout play in order for one player or the other to achieve the upper hand. They range from sending key players off to reducing the opposite team's stamina right down. With a couple of friends such shenanigans have the ability to cause riots, but footballing purists may want to steer clear.
On the presentation side, everything from the players to the various stadia appear as recognisably as you'd expect from an EA series that prides itself on authenticity. Player animation throughout each match is fluid and realistic, while the perspective given to incidents involving the referee are given an impressive televisual style appearance, shaky camera and all. Pre-match pleasantries are also very nice, with a dynamically panning camera capturing a roaring crowd and a pitch showered in confetti. While everything looks polished for the most part, there is often evidence of slowdown in cut scenes, as well as when there are a crowd of players on the screen at one time, which while not destroying your enjoyment by any means is pretty unforgivable. Shame on you, EA.
What FIFA World Cup 2006 provides is a well-rounded experience that is the official virtual compliment to the real world events commencing in the next couple of weeks. As a standalone football game without all the World Cup-related fluff and filling, EA have provided something which is actually good fun to play (both off and online), certainly not like their frustratingly average efforts over recent years. As is usually the case when these bi-annual occasions occur, if you've got FIFA Soccer 2006 then there's really no need to fork out the extra cash for this effort, best sticking with what you've got or holding out for the upcoming release of the Daddy of soccer simulations, Konami's Pro Evolution, that, despite being overshadowed by all of FIFA's official branding, is still superior in terms of play.