EA Canada
Electronic Arts
Sports
1-4
11.22.05

FIFA Soccer 06: Road to World Cup (Xbox 360)


Road to FIFA World Cup. Those five words (which, I should note, don’t really hang together too well without a “the”) are more than just a subtitle. To football fans worldwide, they’re a warning. An alert beacon that lets prospective footie-game buyers know that, tagging along with the pure pleasure of another World Cup, is the feature-starved little brother of EA’s gigantically popular football franchise…loosed once more upon an unsuspecting world.

Gameplay

If you don’t know about the relationship between the annual-release FIFA titles and the World-Cup-flavored games that show up once every four years, you will learn – and learn quickly – as soon as drop this disk into your 360. Think of the promise of a “next-gen” football title: the jaw-dropping graphics, the ingenious online league play, the brilliant use of the system’s upgraded specifications to break new ground in football AI realism…

Ok, now forget all that. Because when it comes to EA’s football games, that kind of stuff only ever shows up in the annual-release title, while the World Cup games (ever the runts of the litter) are lucky to get last year’s controls, a few dozen Euro-centric national teams, a couple of Cup-revolving-in-space animations, and some preview versions of the features being worked on for the next “real” FIFA title.

Those are the rules, and FIFA 06 for the 360 is no exception.

“But,” you might ask, “since we know this before buying, why be such a grouch about it – you can’t expect a game to deliver more than it’s promised, can you?” No, I guess you can’t at that, but when any digital version of the Beautiful Game comes to market with a featureset as plain vanilla as that of FIFA 06: RTFWC, it ought to at least play a damned fine match of football. And FIFA 06, sadly, does not.

The first issue gamers are likely to notice (once they’re past the admittedly great new “take some shots on goal” minigame/loading sequence) is that it is hard…HARD…to keep the ball at your feet. I’ve been playing PC and console football games for a bit over twenty years now, and I don’t think I remember one with this steep a ball control learning curve. This, in and of itself, is not a huge problem – after all, sports games in general (and EA Sports titles in particular) have taken a forked path lately, with pick-up-and-play seemingly relegated to the Street leagues. So we already know that any new “serious” title is going to have a larger set of more sim-like controls, many of which will only really make sense to true fans of the sport.

The amount of finger-acrobatics FIFA 06 expects players to perform in order to simply maintain possession, however, is frankly surprising. Not only can you forget completely about using the D-Pad’s strategic options (you’ll never have time), but if you’re anything like me, it will take hours to even get to the point where one of the world’s greatest athletes can avoid being stripped of the ball by any scrub who asks kindly enough.

And there’s the rub. Because, while you’re toiling away learning how – and, if you’re not very well-schooled in the nuances of the sport, when – to use one-two passes, fake shots, first touch moves, and step-overs to hang onto the ball, you’ll likely make a discovery that makes FIFA 06 a lot less fun. Since goals don’t come around too often (and because you’ll spend your first few hours of play building up calluses and muttering words you were taught never to say aloud), you’ll probably remember an incredible amount of detail about every goal you do manage to squeak past the AI’s fairly well-balanced keepers.

Unfortunately for EA, as soon as you stop to go over these successful shots in your head, you’ll come to a disappointing realization: despite all of EA’s attempts to Winning-Eleven-ize the franchise, success at FIFA can still be achieved by repeatedly setting yourself up for a few types of (often improbable) plays that almost always work. And, of course, once you’ve tasted the forbidden fruit of sweet goal-scoring in a game that’s been so difficult thus far, it might just prove impossible to resist the urge to use it, no matter how unrealistic it can seem (“…and that’s a THIRD far-post header past a diving Otto Kahn!”).

In combination with the long learning curve, a defense mechanic that often boils down to frantic clicking of the Soft Tackle button (Slide Tackle is more of a penalty generator than a viable defensive option), and teammate AI that makes you wonder if ball-stealing is simply reserved for your opponents, grinding-for-goals earns FIFA 06 a red card in the Gameplay department.

Graphics

Visually, FIFA 06 on the 360 (especially on an HDTV) just can’t help but impress – at first glance. Unfortunately, since you might pay up to $60 for this game, you’re probably going to want to take more than one glance. And that’s where the trouble starts.

The game’s nine stadiums are pretty, if not particularly numerous, and they’re packed with thousands of seemingly independent spectator models that look great from a distance. The occasional crowd zoom, though, reveals these not-so-discrete fans moving in jerky hive-mind unison and wrapped in textures that should never be displayed at close range. At the heart of the stadium, the pitch itself is quite beautiful and comes planted with very realistic-looking grass. Of course, that grass is about three times longer than it ought to be, but at least FIFA 06 owners will know that their Xbox 360s can render the heck out of a prairie, should the need arise.

FIFA 06’s footballers also underscore the graphics’ tendency toward misleading first impressions. Players look fine when viewed from the game’s familiar default camera distance, but they’re really designed to be seen in FIFA’s slick and frequent Instant Replays. The first few times you see one, you’ll swear you could squint and pretend you’re watching Match of the Day. Once you’ve had the time to examine them more closely, however (and you will have that time, because FIFA 06 replay framerates can get down into Viewmaster territory), those initially-handsome models become increasingly creepy.

Mysteriously (and despite moving in completely different social circles), these footballers all seem to have contracted the tragic shiny-skin disorder plaguing their hoop-shooting cousins in the 360 version of NBA Live. They’re also bathed in the weird phosphorescence that EA has slathered all over this year’s FIFA titles. And to top it all off, once these guys get moving, they’re all loose jaws and dead eyes; quite a surprise, considering how great they look when they’re not in motion.

After a few hours of play, it began to feel like I was controlling a kick-around between squads of scorned handymen in rubber masks, all drenched in glow-in-the-dark paint and desperate to steal Old Man Jenkins’ retirement money.

Gamers, don’t wait for a bunch of meddling kids and their mangy dog to bail out your football experience. If it’s solid graphics and unzombified players you’re looking for, do yourself a favor and wait for a full-scale football title to hit the 360. FIFA 06: RTFWC may not look bad, per se, but at sure as heck doesn’t look good, and that’s the rock bottom I expect from a “next gen” title.

Sound

Before I get into a discussion of the sounds that are in FIFA 06 (and they’re pretty good), I want to mention some sounds that aren’t there.

When I go to football games, and especially when I play football myself, the field is a pretty noisy place. And I’m not just talking about the crowd’s chants, the indecipherable echo of the announcer, or even generic player grunting and screaming. In my experience, the shouting of commands back and forth between players (and managers) is a constant auditory background to the game, and one that’s essential to on-field communications.

Over the past few years, a number of developers have tentatively included some type of “on-field sounds” in their football titles, but these have usually been intended more as ear candy than as a feature designed to enhance gameplay. Imagine, though, a football game in which a shouted “through!” alerts you that an AI-controlled striker is looking for a ball in space. Or a muffled “overlap!” lets you know that a teammate has your back. With a 5.1 setup, these sounds might even be directed at the player in such a way that audio cues, as in real football, could pre-empt visual cues in certain situations.

To me, that type of feature’s got “next gen” written all over it, but (as with the other what-ifs mentioned above) this title, despite being first out of the gate on the first next-gen system, just isn’t going to be the game to do it. In the meantime, however, FIFA 06 does at least offer a solid implementation of tried and true football game audio.

Andy Gray and Clive Tydsley cover the game from the booth and are a step up, in my opinion, from the previous team of John Motson and Ally McCloist, but this is probably just a matter of taste – there’s not much substantive difference between them. It also seems as if instances of off-topic chatter at inappropriate moments have decreased, but this improvement is definitely still a work in progress; dynamically generated play-by-play and color commentary, even on the 360, is still a grab bag of valuable information and analysis, repetitive cliché, and comically mistimed pronouncements. The music included in the title is a terrific sampling of tunes from the football-loving nations (i.e. just about everywhere on Earth) and lends much-needed global flavor to the proceedings. The sound effects, too, are realistic and satisfying.

Actually, FIFA 06’s audio is very much what I had thought the entire game (as a “Road to…” title) might be like: solid, technically sound, polished and, if not particularly innovative, at least a professional effort. It’s a shame that game audio is just about the only category that fits such a description.

Replay Value

As you can probably guess from FIFA 06’s subtitle, the Road to the World Cup formula offers something of a built-in obstacle to replayability. Since FIFA 06: RTFWC includes only the qualification rounds that lead up to the 2006 World Cup (as well as a couple of fake – and unskippable – filler tournaments), the question of how interesting the game will be once the actual Cup games have begun (and especially once they’ve ended) has significant bearing on the long-term value of the title.

Even more significant, of course, is the relative monotony of the gameplay itself. As discussed above, winning at FIFA 06 can be quite repetitive. And unlike every other platform’s “real” FIFA 06, RTFWC on the 360 contains exactly one other thing to do besides playing a full game of football, and that is to practice. Sadly, the practice modes are only useful for getting yourself up to speed on the interfaces for various set pieces. Once you’ve figured these out, I’d wager you’ll never want to try them again.

Of course, since this is an Xbox 360 game that we’re talking about, there is always Xbox Live, a factor that can increase replay value exponentially, if implemented with skill. I hate to sound like a corrupted MP3, here, but even the online multiplayer support is a stripped-down disappointment. There are no online leagues, no support for setting up online multiplayer tournaments, the matchmaking system is decidedly no-frills, and the game experience itself can be laggy to the point of unplayability. Ultimately, I’d consider FIFA 06’s Live support – and, in fact, its replay value on the whole – to be one of the game’s weakest points.

Bottom Line:

FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup is the only football title currently released for the Xbox 360, and if you have money burning a hole in your pocket, you’re absolutely starving for a match, you live hundreds of miles from the nearest pitch, and you sold your old ’box to pay for the 360, you might consider it. But first, consider your options.

If you still have your old-school Xbox plugged in, the Xbox FIFA 06 title is a far better game, as is the already-legendary Winning Eleven 9 International. If you’re a Europe-based gamer, you’re in great shape as Pro Evolution Soccer 5 (the European name for WE9) is on the backwards compatibility list for Euro 360s, so just drop it in the tray (try to ignore the last-gen graphics) and enjoy.

If you live in the US and your only console is a 360, however, you’ll just have to decide: 1) either pick up FIFA 06: RTFWC and deal with the many shortcomings resulting from EA shipping the game on launch day (ready or not); or, 2) wait for another option. I won’t try to influence your decision any further… but I will let you know that the next backward compatibility update is rumored to include Winning Eleven 9.

Related Links:

Official FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup Website

-D. G. Detsaridis




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