EA's other football franchise remains popular but isn't always the choice of the most serious soccer fans. For the 06 version, the developers at EA Canada have jammed every detail of every team and player into the game, making it the most thorough, most accurate representation of FIFA football we've seen yet. Knowing Thierry Henry's birthday, however is only so much fun. The challenge set before FIFA 06
this year and every other year is how well it can appeal to soccer fans who crave the gameplay depth and control found in Konami's Winning Eleven
The good news for FIFA fans is that the 06 version is an improvement over its predecessor with a more functional manager mode, refined gameplay controls and a new "party mode' for those who want to battle their friends quickly and easily. FIFA 06 takes a step closer to the Winning Eleven experience but still has a ways to go.
Like we've seen in this year's Madden and NCAA Football, FIFA 06 throws you into a quick game as soon as you turn on the game and select a favorite team. The instant skirmish between you and the Classic XI team made up of legends like Rudi Voller and Eric Cantona gets you into the action but without any type of tutorial or explanation of the new controls. This ends up as a bit of a strange distraction since it doesn't lead to any kind of player creation or anything like that.
Quickly calling defensive and offensive plays on the directional pad is a little more intuitive this year as you'll a display pop up quickly showing what you've toggled on and off. Once you learn the two letter abbreviations for 3rd Man Release (MR) or Offside Trap (OT), this system becomes very helpful. You can have more than one offensive or defensive play called at a time and the players will do their best to execute what you're asking of them. On defense, combining a zone system with the offside trap, for example, is a great tactic that you can use throughout a game. When you combine play calling with the team attitude feature you can get even more dramatic changes in player behavior. You can set you team attitude to all out defending, neutral or all out attacking. So when you tell your team to overload the box and set them to all out attack, you'll have midfielders and wingers charging forward at full speed every time you get possession of the ball.
The pace control function is a great addition to gameplay that makes the freestyle skill moves on the right analog stick even more effective. When you engage the pace control button and manipulate the left analog stick, your player will pull off slower, intricate moves that are short on creativity but give you an excellent chance of maintaining possession. It allows you to make subtle moves to avoid tackles so when you're in traffic you don't have to worry about booting the ball too far away from your player when you're just trying to avoid a pesky defender. Using pace control you can set up a defender for a brilliant move at full speed on the right analog stick and blow right by him when you're ready.
The outstanding physics system between the ball and players make innovations like pace control and the new jostling move very effective. When two players are sprinting side by side, wiggling the right analog stick will throw elbows to try and knock the defender off the ball and gain possession. So now a player's strength rating has meaning too. Through passes aren't automatic "magnetic" passes to streaking players anymore. Now you have to be light on your fingers and put the perfect amount of weight on your pass if you want to be successful. This goes for all passes, including lobs and ground, but it's especially important for the powerful through ball.
There's a minimal amount of meters on the free and corner kick setups, a change that should force everybody into practice mode for a few minutes. On free kicks moving the camera and the player is how you'll aim and put swerve on the ball, all without the benefit of a meter, targeting reticule or even a Top Gun style lock-on tone. Purists may prefer it, but a videogame should give players a little more help when it comes to difficult set pieces like this.
Overall there are a lot more turnovers and more play in the middle of the pitch. Players tend to stay conservative working the ball around with safe passes until the see something open up. The AI is improved with fewer instances of defenders running away from charging forwards or players not going after loose balls near the touchlines. These just seem to be a better breed of videogame soccer players; a step up from AYSO scrummers.
The manager mode will be a real treat for FIFA fans who want to spend hours building a powerhouse club. By simply making gamers manage their team budgets from game to game, FIFA 06 has added a sense of pressure and urgency that no meter or stale dialogue ever could. You have the option -that you should definitely exercise- of signing up a sponsor for your team that'll pay you after every game and even hook you up with bonuses for winning cups and finishing high on the table. There's even loyalty clauses where you get more dough for sticking with the same sponsor for multiple years. You'll need that money too because everything costs in FIFA 06. Improving your coaching staff, expanding your stadium to accommodate more generous ticket holders and scouting the world for fresh talent are not cheap. And the replication of an authentic free agency system where you have to pay teams a transfer fee for one of their players and then pay the player himself only makes things tougher. The uninitiated may be completely lost in manager mode, but then again, only a serious football nut would want to delve into the world of big time world soccer.
We thought we knew what we were doing but it only took a few button presses before we'd spent our entire budget on a new stadium manager, a scout to find a star midfielder in South America and resigned our best player to a long term contract. After that the campaign was a roller coaster with Tottenham living week to week and check to check. The good thing is, if you do manage to save up enough cash to buy a stud player like David Trezeguet, his old team will take the transfer money you paid them and use it to buy another equally studly guy themselves. This is a welcome addition after FIFA 2005 where you could literally ruin the global game by assembling a ridiculous number of star players and leaving the rest of the world with undeveloped scrubs.
The Xbox and PS2 versions of FIFA 06 come packed with nice extras like video highlight packages and interviews, while the GameCube version is noticeably thin on extra goodies. The GameCube controller continues its tense relationship with games from EA Sports by spreading functions to far flung buttons and eliminating some actions altogether. Apparently GameCube fans don't have need for a team attitude control button because we couldn't find it.
The FIFA Lounge is a way for fans to battle friends party style without slugging all the way through full games. Quick pickup games with customizable rules and the ability to wager handicaps and other cheats make the Lounge a nice compliment to the regular multiplayer component and online play. The online tournament support is a nice idea also if it can hold up to the cheating FIFA fans around the world.
The look of FIFA 06 isn't that different overall, but the subtle changes the development team at EA Canada threw in help bring the game to life. With the standard side-to-side camera perspective during the run of play, you're getting the depth of field with players in the distance appearing shorter and smaller than players closer to the "camera." A little change like this makes a big difference since the net effect is you get more room to maneuver when your player is at the top of the screen and keep proper spacing. Plus you can really see the details on player uniforms and faces when they're near the closer touchline.
During the short cinemas for fouls, substitutions and other close-ups, FIFA 06 really shines. The players stay in focus while the background gets blurry and soft. During night time games in the rain, you see the mist flowing down in front of the big stadium lights and it really adds to the drama that you're about to create on the field. You can see the emotion on player faces as they argue calls with the referee or square up on an opponent in anticipation of a brawl that will never happen.
The player animations have been refined to reflect the deeper player-ball physics system. The quick moves with the ball you were able to make just by leaning the left analog stick in FIFA 2005 aren't as reliable in FIFA 06. Instead of a player playing the ball ahead, say 8 yards to beat a defender, he'll only play it ahead 3 yards now. Little touches like that change the way the game is played considerably.
The impressive list of music acts from around the world is guaranteed to expand your musical horizons if you're going to be logging a lot of time on FIFA 06. The ability to go into the playlist, listen and easily edit which songs you do and do not want in rotation is certainly welcome. They even have iTunes style cover art for most of the acts.
The announcing duo of Clive Tydsley and Andy Gray are a nice change of pace from Motson and McCoist, the announcers in previous versions of FIFA. Team and player specific lines of dialogue are always a nice touch and just hearing them from different guys makes for a fresh experience. In sports games you end up doing the same things over and over again, because you have success with them, and so it's virtually impossible to avoid hearing the same announcer lines repeatedly. In FIFA 06, the developers have done as good a job as you can expect keeping things interesting dozens of hours into your campaign or tournament.
The way the crowd explodes when the home team scores is extremely impressive. There isn't a lot of scoring in this sport, so it's worth it to have your surround sound system set up to bathe in the glory of a goal.
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