In the good old U.S. of A., a soccer videogame is about as popular as a quality penguin documentary. For the most part, your everyday American surfs to the next channel, but the true penguin aficionado relishes it like a delicacy. I won’t lie to you; I likes me the penguins.
We live in a country where football refers to a sport in which only two team members on the roster actually put foot to ball, and a portly old guy named Madden is the be-all/end-all of sports games. Can a soccer videogame be worth playing, or is it just an attempt by a major publisher not to alienate the rest of the world?
Before we go any further, FIFA stands for Fédération Internationale de Football Association. As far as I can translate, that’s French for International Federation of Football Association. Association Football is soccer, and if I interchange the words “soccer” and “football” throughout this review, please forgive me. This paragraph is over.
FIFA 2006 is the latest in a lengthy line of soccer games from Electronic Arts. From its humble roots on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System to the multi-platform FIFA 2006, it’s a franchise that has flourished in the overseas market while doing surprisingly well in the US. While FIFA doesn’t enjoy massive widespread popularity like EA’s other sports franchises (Madden, NHL, etc.), it’s almost the only show in town for the footy fan. Like most sports games, it has a few big issues to address.
One major hurdle for all sports games is the learning curve. As game designers strive to add more and more realism to the gaming experience, more complex controls are required. The modern sports game must strike a balance between a realistic simulation and control that doesn’t require 12 double-jointed fingers. FIFA does this fairly well—a novice could probably get by with just the left joystick and three buttons, but where’s the fun in that? The right joystick controls special moves, allowing the more experienced footballer to perform cool moves like step-overs, stutter-dribbling and feints. Leaving a defender in your wake after a clever sidestep is a very rewarding experience, but you haven’t truly lived until you’ve sent a brilliant free kick over the wall and into the top corner of the opposing net.
Gameplay is enjoyable, but much like a car turning over on a cold winter’s day, it takes a while to get started. After a few somewhat frustrating matches on the easiest difficulty setting, a novice footballer will begin to slowly acquire the fundamentals of passing, shooting and defense. Dialing up the difficulty level forces the player to learn the expanded controls or lose…a lot.
Where the game really picks up speed is the actual sport itself. Ball physics are very good, with balls playing realistically off traps and headers. Shots on goal still force a real balance among accuracy, shot power and aim—I’ve found it’s even more rewarding to truly beat the keeper with a precision touch shot than to just belt one by him. The shift-on-the-fly strategy system adds a new dimension to gameplay. Fluidity of motion and play is great, and it’s an overall enjoyable soccer simulation.
However, a few imperfections mar the fair face of FIFA’s gameplay. It’s far too easy for a defender to steal the ball. Apparently, footballers in FIFA have little in the way of ball-handling skills, as it seems a good bump or two is all that’s required to dispossess them. The developers also removed the rudimentary set pieces from dead ball situations and corner kicks while removing nearly all of the control from free kicks and penalty kicks.
Like all of EA’s sports games, it’s a satisfyingly deep title, with options for online or in-house multiplayer, league play, tournaments, single games or a unique single-player career mode that focuses on the manager instead of the team. In career mode, the manager has fifteen seasons in which he’ll potentially be employed by different teams, starting from the lowly ranks of a semi-pro team and rising to football’s elite, guiding the likes of Real Madrid or AC Milan to football sovereignty. As the manager, you have control over team strategies, player selection, transfers and the development of the coaching staff. You have the option of manually playing each game, or making it a truly managerial experience and simply simulating them. While career mode may not be as deep as the franchise modes in other EA sports titles, it’s well done and makes for a richer gaming experience.
FIFA 2006 includes tournaments, comprising teams and players from leagues all over the world, ranging from Italy’s Serie A to England’s Premiership to the United States’ Major League Soccer. If the thousands of players included in the game fall short, you can always create yourself and jump in the game personally—Ruud van Nistleroy’s riding the pine tonight, because Steve Hamner is playing striker for Manchester United.
The in-game graphics are nothing spectacular and have really changed little from recent FIFA titles. They’re very functional, but they’re not eye-popping. However, the FMVs of free-kicks, goal-scoring celebrations, slow motion replays and pre-game activity are top notch. The players are very recognizable as their real world counterparts, the action is incredibly fluid and it’s really a pleasure to watch.
Audio is extremely well done—the resounding thump of a hard shot or the pained grunt as a body goes to ground are of the highest caliber, while the crowds enthusiastically cheer and belt out songs appropriate to their clubs. A dozen modern alternative songs are included during the menus, which is cool, but seems somewhat superfluous.
Play-by-play commentary is no longer provided by BBC correspondent John Motson (who is awesome). That role is now filled by Clyde Tysdale, who does a passable job, but lends little to the experience. Color commentary is done by Ally McCloist. McCloist has little to add, and his rather limp observations have one wishing the more creative and colorful Andy Gray was still on the EA payroll. Unfortunately, the commentary gets repetitive too quickly, and in an era where most sports games have literally thousands of short sound bites, it’s a shame EA didn’t spend some more time in the sound booth.
Replay with FIFA 2006 will ultimately fall to personal preference. Online multiplayer via Xbox Live and PS2 Online will doubtless contribute to health and long life for the title, but GameCube owners are limited to in-house multiplayer (blame that on Nintendo, my brothers).
Before putting this review to rest, an important X factor regarding EA’s position with FIFA and soccer videogames must be brought to light. Konami’s line of Winning Eleven football titles are absolutely exceptional. While one might call Konami’s contribution more of a hardcore football simulation, the graphics, sound and absolutely spot-on gameplay are all truly inspired. While FIFA maintains a stranglehold on the licensing of nearly every major league, Winning Eleven is just a better game.
Winning Eleven 7, released in early 2004, won the G4 TechTV Sports Game of the Year—quite an achievement for a soccer game. Even Europeans will concede that Winning Eleven is a magnificent football game, and EA needs to do something really special with future FIFA games if they plan to reclaim the top spot on the table.