The buildup to this year's FIFA World Cup has already begun, and the nationalistic fervor will crescendo until the matches begin in June. For those who can't wait that long, EA Sports is releasing 2006 FIFA World Cup, a follow-up of sorts to last year's FIFA 06: Road to the FIFA World Cup. We've already taken a look at the console versions of the game in a previous preview; here we dive into the handheld version of 2006 FIFA World Cup for the PlayStation Portable.
Of course, the main draw in 2006 FIFA World Cup is the big tournament itself, which pits 32 of the best national teams in the world against one another. Unlike the Road to the World Cup game, which took you through the lengthy qualification rounds that lead up to the Cup, this game is the real thing--you can choose to play either the preliminaries or go straight to the final-32 tournament. Should you not like the way your group lines up, you can swap out any team in your group for one of your choosing and create a World Cup entirely of your design.
As you work your way through the matches in the tournament, you can keep track of your future opponents by checking out the results and statistics of all eight groups in the tournament, as well as looking at the lineups for each participating team. The game's redesigned menus are put to nice effect here, giving you a quick and easy summary of each player's abilities across a number of attributes such as attacking, defense, shot power, speed, and overall quality, as well as their individual performances in the tournament. From the main tournament window you can also choose to manage your own team, such as by choosing your starting 11 players, adjusting defensive and offensive tactics, and deciding which formation you wish to use on the pitch. Finally, you also have the option to either play out each game on your schedule manually, or quickly simulate through each one.
The other mode that's new for the game is the global challenge, a series of in-game challenges with very specific requirements for success. The challenges available in this mode re-create 125 of the most famous moments since the FIFA World Cup tournament began in 1930. Challenges run from the mundane--such as protecting a lead late in the game--to the far more specific and difficult, such as score four goals in a match and maintain a clean sheet, or attain 75 percent possession rate and make 10 shots on goal. Completing challenges or playing through the World Cup tournament with certain teams will unlock items such as classic kits, new soccer balls, and special 2006 FIFA World Cup videos. The game will also support multiplayer games in both infrastructure (for two players) and ad hoc (for up to four players). Unfortunately, we only had one copy of the game on hand, so we weren't able to see if some of the frame rate issues that were problematic in previous PSP FIFA games were present here.
On the pitch, the biggest change you'll notice is the new context-sensitive shot button. Previously, holding down the "shoot" button in FIFA games determined the amount of power behind that shot; now it determines the angle of the kick. Tap the button for a low line drive, for example, and hold it down to put some loft on the shot. As in the console version of the game, shot power is determined automatically through a number of factors, including position on the field and the speed at which your players are running. Longtime FIFA players might balk at the new system because it seems to put too many choices in the hands of the CPU controlling the power of the shot, but on the other hand, with some practice and a bit of touch, you will probably cut down on the number of shots soaring over the net. At least, that's the theory.
2006 FIFA World Cup is making impressive use of the PSP's graphical hardware, exhibiting complex and stadium-specific shadowing on the grass and player models that are nicely detailed when viewed up close. Various prematch shots of the teeming crowds celebrating their favorite squad with balloons and streamers convey the pageantry and passion of the sport to great effect and lend a lot of color and life to the matches. The same can be said for the game's audio, which features roaring crowds chanting and cheering their favorite team and pretty accurate and unobtrusive commentary work. For the musically inclined, the game's soundtrack includes songs from acts such as Fischerspooner, Howard Jones, Ladytron, The Go! Team, and Stefy Rae.
With 127 real teams to control and plenty of challenge to be found along four different difficulty levels, 2006 FIFA World Cup looks to be a good choice for soccer nuts who simply can't wait until June for the footy madness to begin. Luckily they won't have to wait long at all, as the game is currently on track for a late-April release. Expect our full review of all versions of the game as soon as it's released.