As far as launch titles go, sports games have historically been judged on far more forgiving criteria than their action-adventure cousins. While games like Perfect Dark Zero, have to prove to be next-generation in their gameplay, Live-integrated multiplayer, and graphics, the most that is reasonably desired with sports games is that they simply play like their last-gen cousins, but have all the appearances of a sparkling diamond. In an ideal world, we’d all love it if publishers took the jump to a new console as an opportunity to completely reinvent the wheel, but it’s understandable that this is an impractical expectation.
Upon putting FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup into your Xbox 360 for the first time with those sorts of expectations, you will be in for a big surprise. Not only did EA fail to put in any significant new features; not only did they serve up a plate of castrated game features; not only has the core gameplay taken several measurable steps backwards for the genre, but the graphics, conceivably the most basic measure of the game’s prospective success, are not only unimpressive, but buggy, distorted, and ugly. Color me shocked.Beginning right where the title suggests, FIFA 06‘s main gameplay mode is… you guessed it, the Road to the FIFA World Cup. You can take one of 72 international teams through the qualification process to appear in the 2006 World Cup tourney in Germany. These 72 teams, the overwhelming majority of which are European, represent the entirety of the club options in FIFA 06. There are none of the obscure international teams nor any of the club teams that show up in the Xbox version, meaning that if you’re intent on taking the vaunted Brazilian team through the game’s main gameplay mode, you have to fudge new imaginary qualification groups. The Road to the World Cup mode would otherwise be fairly short, if a number of imaginary tourneys and mandatory friendly matches weren’t thrown into the mix. There might have been some utility to these friendlies if EA had included a dynamic where one could build team chemistry, but in its absence these extra games show their true role as artificial filler. There’s very little satisfaction in conquering the mode, but it does yield a considerable chunk of gamer points for those so inclined.
Part of what makes the Xbox 360 such an exciting platform is the seamless integration of its online component into each and every title. Sadly, while the barebones gameplay modes are available and relatively easy to use, there is little in the way of options beyond playing a friendly or a ranked match. There’s none of the online tournaments or leagues that have for so long been the stuff of gamers’ dreams. To Microsoft’s credit, their matchmaking services shine rather spectacularly where they are used – it’s a fairly simple matter to find a match, and once started, the games are for the most part lag-free. The amount of potential squandered here is absolutely infuriating, especially with the knowledge that it will likely be included next year, as if this version never existed.
The exhibition and practice modes could have provided a certain measure of solace if the game played well, but alas it isn’t the case. Moreso than basketball or football, soccer is a sport that requires extreme forethought and manual dexterity. If you’ve ever gone to a professional match or watched the World Cup on television, their mastery at controlling the ball and delivering it with precision is self-evident. EA Canada has utterly failed in their charge to bring this feeling of control into FIFA ’06. Every part of the game feels like it’s on some sort of rail-guided easy mode, as if they didn’t trust the player to put the ball where he or she sees fit. Every single pass is guided, no matter where you aim it, so that it will connect with a player on the field. If you see a seam between two defenders and try and plunk in a pass to lead your forward into a scoring position, there is a 99.99% certainty that the game will force your kick directly at one of your defenders.
The one part of the game where you do have some measure of freedom is in the air game, but it is so wildly imprecise that even with truly world-class players, you’ll find yourself firing errant crosses and ridiculously placed shots more often than not. The defensive game essentially amounts to holding the RT and B buttons, making your player automatically challenge the person with the ball. The way EA Canada sees the game; an entire match consists almost entirely of back and forth stealing. Even the flashy dribbling moves have seen a nerf in the face of this bizarre stealing dynamic. And to make it even worse, the conservative tackle button, which you’ll be holding the entire time you’re on defense, is also the shoot button – which means there is a lot of inadvertent shooting at especially frustrating moments, and because you took a shot the game also forces you to sit through a slow-motion replay of your muck-up. FIFA never had the edge in precise gameplay, but FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup is a step into the abyss.
So what is this game then, if not a glorified graphical demo for the Xbox 360, right? There’s no franchise mode, the online gameplay is neutered, and the actual soccer itself is hopelessly flawed – so it at least looks great, right? Wrong. From the default broadcast view high above the field, the game does actually take some appreciable qualities. The lighting is pretty nice, the field textures are as close to grass-like as can be remembered in a FIFA game, and the players at least appear to animate fluidly, but this illusion is all cast down as soon as the game zooms in close during any of the innumerable replays, which themselves suffer from chronic framerate drops. While the dynamic lighting is pretty spot-on, it looks a little strange on the uniforms, where the contrast of light to shadow is a little overplayed. Instead of being realistic, it simply makes the uniforms look wrinkled.
Many of the superstar players like Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney are instantly recognizable, but they look over-textured and plastic instead of realistic. Players with longer hair demonstrate the bizarre … hair physics of the game; a player’s hair moves in the opposite direction he moves, at a 90-degree angle in the case of Ronaldinho of Brazil and his ponytail. In addition to all this, there is a strange blurring effect behind all the players when viewed close up. It’s difficult to tell if this technique was used in lieu of more advanced anti-aliasing, but it’s extremely jarring every time it comes up on screen.
For what it’s worth the game is at least presented well. Taking a cue from NBA Live, FIFA ’06 also sports the same A