Before the gushing begins about how fun the next generation of FIFA is to play, it must be said that FIFA 06: Road To FIFA World Cup is a major disappointment. No, that doesn't mean this Xbox 360 launch title is not a good game, but with a scant selection of game modes and only international teams included, it begs the question: Why isn't this game better?
EA started work on its next-generation soccer title more than two years ago. In that time on current-generation consoles, EA added a stylish 15-year career mode and the FIFA Lounge, an excellent multiplayer experience. EA procured more licenses than ever before to feature more than 21 professional club leagues and more than 10,000 real players.
So in two years of planning, the only ideas EA came up with to take its solid soccer franchise to the next generation were to update the graphics and animations. Oh, there's a new loading system so you can kick the ball around while matches load. Sorry EA, but that's not enough. That's like saying the ability to play Pac-Man makes Ridge Racer a better racing game.
When you power up this game and browse the game modes, you have three choices: the self-explanatory Tournament and Practice modes, and the Road to FIFA World Cup mode in which you take an international team through qualifying rounds and minitournaments to the main event that will take place in Germany in 2006. That's it. This is the Xbox 360, not the Sega Genesis. Where are the club teams, the FIFA Lounge, the career mode or manager mode? Improved graphics are a given on this high-powered system, so why only 72 international teams and 1,700 players? Even worse, Xbox 360 editor and maple syrup connoisseur Charles Onyett nearly fainted when he discovered that Canada was omitted from the selection of squads. Heck, EA Canada even developed the game. What's the deal, eh?
What EA did with FIFA 06: RTFWC is par for the course this year as it stripped out multiple features from all of its 360 launch titles. When jumping to the next generation of consoles, there isn't really any excuse why the best features of current-gen games, like Freestyle Superstars in NBA Live 06, for example, don't make the jump as well. And there sure as shooting ain't no reason why NBA Live 06 and FIFA 06: RTFWC don't have franchise modes included, which is a standard in sports videogames.
Ok, so EA wants to focus on international play for the upcoming World Cup. We'll buy that. So why not add some kind of managerial aspect, like being able to groom young players from the under-20 squads for the big show? How about being able to hand-pick your players based on some mini-camp tryout sessions, ala Herb Brooks with the 1980 US hockey team? Something, anything, would do. In reality, FIFA 06: RTFWC is a filler title for the 360 launch and we are expecting great things next season when EA completely dedicates itself to the next generation. We all deserve more than this.
With that said, FIFA 06 RTFWC is pretty fun to play. One of the first things to notice is just how tough it is to score this year; you'll probably go through two or three matches before you log a goal. You will find yourself in a lot of tense, close games that reward good passing, use of the through-ball pass and timely crosses. Turbo-dribbling through the defense is, thankfully, a remnant of the FIFA dark ages. This year, smart soccer is rewarded.
One aspect of this is simple in-game management. If you can't score, change up the formation and make a sub or two. Playing with Italy, the default formation was a 4-2-3-1, and I had World Cup stud and all-world striker Alessandro Del Piero riding the pine. Thanks to a simple user interface system, I was able to change to a 4-3-3 on the fly and insert Del Piero in the front line in place of a mediocre midfielder. Suddenly the Azzurri were an offensive force, if there is such a thing in this tough soccer game.
The AI, while solid in general, still doesn't do exactly what you want it to do. When some of the computer teammates are in space, occasionally you want them to take advantage of an open lane and make a run so you can connect on a through ball, but they just stand there. The keepers are a bright spot and react very realistically, rarely getting out of position and charging the ball when appropriate. Like the current-gen FIFA, the manual goalie charge button returns, but that's about the extent of goalie control. It would be nice if EA picked up on what 2K Sports did with NHL 2K6 for the 360 with the innovative Crease Control feature. A new keeper control system could really breathe life into the defensive aspect of the soccer genre that is aching for some new gameplay features.
The basic controls are very intuitive in general and provide for a simple pick-up-and-play style, unlike the more complicated -- and precise -- controls of Konami's Winning Eleven series. The advanced controls, like chip shots and ground crosses are mostly done by holding down the left trigger and using the face buttons. All in all, the controls are easy to use, but a little oversensitive. While the computer has no problem connecting on long crosses, you'll find yourself crossing your fingers as you hold down the X button. Sometimes you will connect; other times you will kick the ball into the stands. The same holds true for the shot button.
The real update to the series comes in the next-generation visuals EA blessed us with. For the most part, the in-game graphics are high-caliber. A ton of new animations were crammed into the game and the frame rate holds pretty well at 60 frames per second, so everything comes off very smooth. Being a soccer game, however, holds back FIFA 06 RTFWC because to play effectively, the camera needs to be pulled back to see the field. When you get in close with lesser-known players, their faces actually look blank. No eyes, no nose, nothing. Hiccups like this really negate the next-gen look as more problems arise with more improvements.
Where games like hockey and soccer make up for this is usually in replays and cutscenes. Sadly, FIFA 06 RTFWC does not impress in this regard. While the graphical potential is there, the framerate dipped so low during replays that the ball would actually skip in and out of visibility on its way to the goal. Sometimes, players in light jerseys actually glow, emitting a strange white aura around their bodies. Shadows are OK, but for some reason the goalposts don't have one. Up close, star players look pretty good. Ronaldinho's hair is bobbing and weaving all over the place and David Beckham comes complete with his red captain's sash and faux Mohawk and blonde highlights.
EA made it a point to add a ton of facial expressions and almost succeeded. Occasionally you will see a grimace on a hard foul or a flicker of a smile after a goal, but Half-Life 2 this game is not. In fact, the faces sometimes look as if they are molded out of clay. Instead of getting a real vivid facial expression, it often looks like the players just left a Botox party, their faces are so stiff.
The UK broadcasting duo of Martin Tyler and Andy Gray provide the commentary and do a fine job. Gray offers some pretty spot-on insight at the beginning of the second half and Tyler flows well throughout, hearty accents aside. The crowd cheers are loud and fiery and are what we've come to expect from any soccer title.
Online play is typical fare and includes ranked and unranked matches and leaderboards.
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