You know, after years of playing relatively primitive sports games on the handheld systems that were clearly developed as secondary to the console series, it's a breath of fresh air to pop in FIFA 06 into the DS system and see such an elaborate, console-style sports production. It's clear that the development team both knows and loves the game as well as the system, and even more surprising is that the DS version was worked on by the Madden DS studio. There's still room for improvements for the 2007 season, but for a first time out with dual screen footie, this one comes very recommended. What a shame for the American population that the best sports game on the Nintendo DS had to be soccer. Sorry, we yanks are just pigheaded that way.
Previous handheld soccer games have been solid 2D efforts, and it was great seeing the FIFA series on the Game Boy Advance evolve as the development team got more familiar with the restrictive-but-powerful 2D hardware. That same team has moved its knowledge of the sport to the next Nintendo handheld with FIFA 06, and with the added processing power and functionalities of the DS platform come a much more advanced game of international football.
It's best for those who aren't into soccer to visualize the game as a more epic game of hockey. Sure, it's a bigger arena with more players, and it's not quite as lightning quick as the game on ice and skates, but a lot of the same strategies can apply in both sports. And the soccer implementation in the DS version is rock solid because A) the development team, from the UK, has had plenty of experience bringing the sport to videogame consoles in the past, and B) the FIFA series has already established itself with tight and fun soccer gameplay, and the team builds off those assets for the handheld rendition.
FIFA still seems to focus on a much more action-based or arcade-style foundation, and the same carries over to the Nintendo DS version. This element is even more obvious because the difficulty level is set so low right from the get-go, most likely to give players the real, energetic feeling of accomplishment by scoring their first goal in their premiere outing. The default difficulty setting, "beginner", is an absolute joke, and anyone who really wants to be challenged in their soccer matches really need to bump up the AI to a slightly higher level. The higher the difficulty level the more aggressive the goalkeeper and opposing teamplayers will become, so it's best to find that balance where scores and blocks get on an acceptable level in the matches.
The gameplay is extremely solid for handheld soccer, utilizing the Nintendo DS system's 3D capabilities for the players and environments. Though it sticks to a smooth 30 frames per second rate most of the time, its framerate isn't locked down. So it'll get knocked down a frame or two when there's more stuff to render, and even jump to 60 if there's very little displayed on screen. This is only noticeable if you're actually looking for it, and for the most part the engine is sharp and detailed. Of course, some shortcuts had to be made, including texture details on players -- the programmers keep the camera at a safe distance so none of the glaring visual flaws and cheats becomes noticeable. Don't expect graphics on the level of the console or even the PSP game, though, and the player animations have been cut down in their motion capturing for the DS version that feel a little more stiff than the bigger productions. All the important moves, like headers and bicycle kicks, are available, but their movements don't flow together as smoothly as the console editions.
The dual screen aspect is pretty handy, with the designers providing an overhead view of the entire field to see where all players are at all times. Since the 3D camera can only capture a fraction of the field at once, it becomes important to know where your teammates are off-screen when the time comes to pass the ball. Blindly passing the ball in a specific direction works in the easy levels, but the computer AI opponents cover players a lot more tightly towards the professional settings. So it's pretty cool to have the ability to quickly glance down and see where they are on the field. It's a skill that takes a bit of practice, since you literally have to take your eyes off the action to track the overhead map. But since both screens match each other, eyeballing both displays is a technique that can be learned in time. The touch screen element during gameplay is more to swap field strategies on-the-fly, and it's handled pretty well on the DS because you can see exactly what strategy your team's are currently following and what's immediately available.
Audio is just as impressive, possibly even more so when you realize the restrictions the cartridge medium puts on the sound designers. The game features the cool television presentation of the console version, abridged somewhat for the Nintendo DS. The commentary script is kept very generic but has a good amount of variety too keep the dialogue from getting too repetitive. Matches also have the familiar "chants" going on in the crowd, though there are only a few of them and they're very non-specific in their verbage.
FIFA '06 has a great focus on both single and multiplayer options. For solo outings you can begin a career that rewards points for performing specific tasks during a season. The game even goes so far as to give full customization of the players' club right down to the crest, offering a basic paint program to create your own. The focus on multiplayer was also pretty high on the list of priorities for FIFA '06. The DS programmers managed to sandwich in a full-featured production for the single cartridge multiplayer version, with the only restriction being that it's only two players in the network. If everyone has a copy of the game, then as many as four players can join in the wireless link. Sports games are always better played with humans than computer opponents, and it's very much the case with FIFA '06. Because the wireless is so good this year, we're praying for full-fledged online Wi-Fi for the 2007 season.
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