FIFA 06 Hands-On

We get hands on with EA Sports' next soccer game and get all excited about its much-improved career mode.

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During a recent visit to Electronic Arts, we got our first look at the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of FIFA 06, which are both currently scheduled for release in November. FIFA 06 promises to improve upon its predecessor in a number of ways, both on and off the pitch, and we're pleased to report that the game's career options are getting some much-needed developer love. Before we tell you about that stuff, though, we'll give you the lowdown on the action on the pitch.

You'll need more than star players to succeed in FIFA 06.

One of the key features of this year's FIFA, which comes into play the moment you access the team selection screen, is "team chemistry." When deciding which team you'd like to play as, you'll notice that the usual attack and defense statistics for each team in the game are joined by a team chemistry rating that indicates how well that team's players play together. By introducing this system, EA Sports has been able to make teams play more like their real-life counterparts without artificially altering individual players' attributes. Bolton Wanderers, for example, is a team with relatively few big-name players, which has made it a difficult team to play with in previous incarnations of FIFA. In FIFA 06, Bolton Wanderers has a high team chemistry rating, so its players aren't quick to lose heart if the team is losing. And in fact, the team will even raise its game in that situation, as the players attempt to claw their way back into a match. The opposite will be true for a team with low team chemistry. And although we didn't notice any teams with particularly poor chemistry ratings during our time with the game, they'll likely be teams with star players whose egos aren't compatible, teams that are overly active on the transfer market, or teams that simply haven't been performing as well as their rosters suggest they should in recent seasons.

On the pitch, your team's chemistry rating will affect how quickly your players' morale goes up or down. Your team's morale will be indicated on the screen by a number of bars that light up as it improves, and it will be affected by factors such as goals, injuries, and ball possession. The morale of your team will purportedly have a noticeable effect on how well it plays, but we'll need to spend some more time with the game before we can report on just how significant morale really is.

The implementation of the advantage rule will help to make FIFA 06 the most realistic FIFA yet.

Far more noticeable during our time with FIFA 06 was the implementation of the advantage rule, which has been conspicuous by its absence in previous incarnations, as well as the improved set-piece controls. In FIFA Soccer 2005, you didn't have a lot of freedom to experiment with set pieces other than throw-ins, and it wasn't difficult for human opponents to figure out what you were doing a lot of the time. In FIFA 06, your opponents will no longer have any onscreen clues as to what you're planning, and you'll find that your options are far less restrictive. You'll finally be able to play a short corner rather than kicking the ball straight into the box, for example. The only other obvious changes that we noticed on the pitch on this occasion (which you may or may not consider to be improvements) are that there's no longer an option to control two players simultaneously using both of your controller's analog sticks (we never used it anyway), and the match commentary now comes courtesy of ITV's Clive Tilsley and Andy Gray combo rather than from the BBC's duo of John Motson and Ally McCoist.

The big big news for FIFA 06, then, is off the field, where last year's disappointing career mode is being replaced with full-blown management options courtesy of the same development team previously responsible for the console versions of the Total Club Manager games. The Total Club Manager franchise will be exclusive to the PC from now on, but we're incredibly pleased to report that practically all the features you associate with the console versions of those games will now be available in FIFA as standard. Last year you might remember that the only way to play FIFA with decent management options was to take advantage of its "football fusion" compatibility with Total Club Manager.

FIFA Lounging

The first thing you'll need to do as a wannabe manager is choose which team you'd like to manage at the start of your 15-year career. You'll be able to choose any team in the game rather than being forced to start at the bottom and work your way up, and you'll even have the option to choose one of several potential sponsors for the upcoming season. Licensing issues mean that your chosen team will still play wearing uniforms adorned with its real sponsor logos, but the sponsor selection actually adds quite a lot to the gameplay, since each sponsor will task you with meeting certain objectives. Your sponsor might demand that you win a cup competition or achieve a certain league position, for example, and if you fulfill the sponsor's requirements, you can expect to be rewarded. You'll also get bonuses from sponsors for exceeding their expectations or for continued loyalty to them.

As a manager, you'll have the option to spectate matches rather than play them.

Besides working the realistic transfer market and making team and tactics selections, one of your most important responsibilities as the manager of a team will be to keep your players' morale and team chemistry as high as possible. This will be a demanding part of your job, not only because your sudden arrival at the team of your choice is likely to have an adverse effect from day one, but also because your numerous responsibilities (many of which can be handed off to subordinates if you prefer) will include dealing with player contracts and, of course, the press. Every decision you make will have an effect on your team, and constantly juggling its morale with other considerations (such as your club's financial situation or your own job security) should prove to be very challenging. You'll also be able to control your team on the pitch as normal, of course, although the suit-wearing management types among you will have the option to just quickly simulate or spectate matches if you prefer.

Those of you particularly interested in the management aspects of FIFA 06 will be pleased to hear that your off-the-pitch options will include everything from setting ticket prices to expanding your team's stadium. It's worth noting, though, that the game has been designed with soccer--rather than spreadsheet--fanatics in mind, so when setting your ticket prices, for example, you'll simply decide to make them low, medium, or high rather than have to count pennies. At the end of every match, you'll be given a financial breakdown that weighs your players' salaries against your income from tickets, sponsors, and competition bonuses.

When you're not attempting to lead your chosen team to glory in FIFA 06's much-improved career mode, it'll most likely be because you're playing the game with up to seven of your friends in the all-new FIFA lounge mode. The FIFA lounge mode has been designed specifically to cater to those of us who enjoy playing soccer games with a group of friends rather than online. And although we've not had the opportunity to play FIFA 06 in that situation yet, we can report that it boasts some quite intriguing features.

When playing FIFA lounge, all your performances against friends will be recorded. That information, along with your chosen teams, will then be used to predict the outcome of your next match against them. Why is that important? Because the rewards you get for winning a game when the odds are against you will be greater than those for winning a game that it would be almost impossible for you to lose. What are these rewards that we speak of? Mostly they'll be points that can be spent unlocking bonus content and "tricks" that you can use in subsequent FIFA lounge matches. Tricks will include randomly giving your opponent's team a handful of yellow cards before the start of a game, for example, or even denying it the use of one of its star players.

Some FIFA lounge tricks will make individual players more effective.

The one FIFA lounge mode that we played pitted our Bolton Wanderers side against the Arsenal of one of the EA representatives that was presenting the game. Predictably, Arsenal was the hot favorite to win the match, so when we caused something of an upset with a 2-0 victory, we were rewarded with a trick that would make our goalkeeper 30 percent more effective in the subsequent match of our choosing. When the rematch screen appeared, we also noticed that we were narrow favorites to win. Like them or loathe them, FIFA 06's tricks should certainly prove interesting during gameplay sessions with friends, although you might want to remove anything that could be used as a weapon from the room before you deny your friend the use of his number one striker.

Unlockable content in FIFA 06 will include videos of player interviews and some of the greatest goals in history. Additionally, we're told that the PlayStation 2 version will even feature a playable version of FIFA 94. We're also told that FIFA 06 will include a "club transfers" option for downloading updated roster information, although only one update is planned currently. We'll bring you more information on FIFA 06 as soon as it becomes available.

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