Currently scheduled for release toward the end of April, 2006 FIFA World Cup is EA Sports' officially licensed soccer game of the tournament that will be kicking off in Germany in June. The most obvious difference between this game and last year's superb FIFA 06, of course, is simply that you'll get to play through both the qualification and final stages of the world's biggest soccer tournament. Electronic Arts' Canada-based development team has been busy improving upon other features of the game as well, though, as we discovered when we get our hands on a work-in-progress PlayStation 2 version recently.
The first thing that we noticed after loading 2006 FIFA World Cup for the first time is that the game's menus have benefited from a major redesign, and they now boast a number of options that weren't present in FIFA 06. In addition to the requisite quick play mode and FIFA 06's excellent lounge mode, you'll find online support on the PS2 and the Xbox for ranked and unranked matches, lobbies, and leaderboards; a global challenge mode where you can play through 40 historical World Cup scenarios (albeit with current players); and a store, where you can spend the points that you earn every time you play on unlocking classic team uniforms, classic players, different soccer balls and boots, and a handful of additional gameplay options. Furthermore, you'll find practice match and penalty shoot-out options, which are probably a good idea to check out at least once or twice before heading into the World Cup mode proper.
When you choose to compete in the World Cup, you have the option of playing through one of six regional qualifying competitions from around the world, or jumping straight in as one of the 32 teams participating in the finals in Germany. The default settings for the World Cup mode will see your chosen team being pitted against the same opponents that they'll be facing in June, but you'll also have the option to randomize the groups or switch some of the teams around manually. You can even move teams that failed to qualify into the final 32 if you wish, provided the team in question is one of the 127 (there are 205 teams in FIFA's world rankings) that made it into the game.
If you choose to play in a qualifying competition, you'll likely have a squad of around 40 players to choose from before each match. When you head to the finals, though, each team is only permitted a squad of 23, so you'll have to decide which players are making the trip to Germany and which ones you'll be leaving at home. The default squads of 23 that we looked at seemed to check out as far the rosters were concerned, but it's good to know that you'll have the option to update them once the real-life lineups are announced or that you'll be able to include one or two of your favorite players.
When playing in the World Cup finals, every match in 2006 FIFA World Cup is preceded by some really impressive shots of the accurately re-created stadiums which are, of course, full to capacity with supporters releasing balloons and such. You can skip all of the TV-style prematch stuff if you like, but we definitely felt that it added something to the whole experience of the game by emphasizing just how important every single match is to the fans and to the players involved. Further World Cup television authenticity comes courtesy of the commentary team, which, although occasionally repetitive, appears to do a good job of reporting on matches both accurately and enthusiastically.
On the pitch, 2006 FIFA World Cup initially feels a lot like its predecessor, but as we spent more time with the game it became clear that changes have been (and are in the process of being) implemented. The most noticeable change is undoubtedly the context-sensitive shooting, which alters the accuracy and power of your shots by taking into account such factors as pressure from nearby defenders, your distance from the goal, and, of course, the skill of the player that you're shooting with. The length of time that you hold down the shoot button will determine the trajectory rather than the power of the shot, which is going to take some getting used to. When we were in possession of the ball, the CPU opponents in the game seemed to be a little more aggressive than their FIFA 06 counterparts, and they frequently succeeded in taking the ball from us when we attempted to beat them using the trick stick.
In between rounds, you'll have a chance to flick through the pages of a virtual World Cup magazine filled with tournament statistics, updated team rankings, and such. You'll also be able to check out your "EA Passport," which fills up with stamps from all 127 national teams in the game as you beat them. 2006 FIFA World Cup also boasts a list of 49 "objectives" for you to fulfill as you spend more time with it, which includes everything from winning streaks and clean sheets to scoring a certain number of goals with a single player in a match and, of course, winning the World Cup. 2006 FIFA World Cup certainly looks like it will be every bit as enjoyable as its predecessor at this point, but it remains to be seen whether or not the game's World Cup license and new features will make it a worthwhile purchase for any of you who already own last year's game. We'll bring you more information on the game as soon as it becomes available.
Note: All screenshots and video are from the PS2 version.