X05: FIFA 06 Road to the FIFA World Cup Hands-On

We check out a playable demo of EA Sports' recently announced Xbox 360-exclusive soccer game.

AMSTERDAM--At a North American press event, they wouldn't have been difficult to get ahold of, but at the X05 press event in Amsterdam, the controllers for FIFA 06 Road to the FIFA World Cup were almost as tough to get close to as the guys handing out French fries to the 1,100 hungry attendees. Fighting our way toward EA Sports' recently announced soccer game was well worth the effort, because even though the game is still clearly unfinished, we still had a lot of fun with it.

As its title suggests, FIFA 06 Road to the FIFA World Cup will focus on the qualifying stages currently being played for next year's World Cup competition. It's a decision that might not please fans of club football, but given the sheer amount of time and effort that must be required to model each and every player model in the game for the Xbox 360, it's an understandable one. Not that the players are photo-realistic, you understand. Not yet, anyway.

Given the power of the Xbox 360 and the obvious talents of the FIFA development team, you won't be surprised to hear that just about every player we encountered during our time with the game was instantly recognizable. If you're unfamiliar with the "uncanny valley" theory, though, you might be surprised to hear that many of them didn't look nearly as realistic when the camera got up close and personal. The resolution and level of detail is so high now that every imperfection sticks out like a sore thumb. David Beckham's smile, Wayne Rooney's ears, and Steven Gerrard's nose are just a few of the things that seemed to stick out. And while this is hardly a major worry, it does suggest that creating believable player likenesses for sports (or any licensed) games is getting more difficult, rather than easier, as consoles get more powerful.

But enough about player likenesses. What soccer fans really want to know is how they perform on the pitch, right? After pitting our England squad against a computer-controlled Portugal and a European journalist-controlled Brazil, we can report that FIFA 06 Road to the FIFA World Cup plays a pretty mean game of soccer. Or at least, it lets you play a pretty mean game of soccer. At this early stage in the game, the artificial intelligence doesn't quite appear to be up to scratch, as we noticed a few players doing strange things. But hopefully, these issues will be ironed out before the game ships.

In contrast, the players we controlled directly were incredibly maneuverable. The game lets you use your controller's trigger and shoulder buttons to slow down or sprint, and the right analog stick--as always--lets you perform tricks and special moves. The control scheme will be instantly familiar to fans of previous FIFA games, and we're pleased to report that the players are every bit as responsive to defensive controls as they are when in possession of the ball. We also noticed that the D pad can be used to access "quick sub," kick takers, formation, and tactics options at any point during a match, although we never actually felt inclined to try them out on this occasion.

It should also come as no surprise to anyone that FIFA 06 Road to the FIFA World Cup looks pretty incredible. The players look solid and animate well. Also, the stadiums look every bit as impressive as they do in real life, and the crowds that populate them are three-dimensional...at least when the camera gets in close enough for that to make a difference. The game boasts a slick TV-style presentation throughout, and even the individual blades of grass--which aren't visible from regular gameplay cameras, of course--look totally believable during replays of goals and such.

Even the commentary in FIFA 06 Road to the FIFA World Cup impressed us a great deal, because, although it seemed repetitive, it was never inaccurate, and it even included references to previous matches between the teams on the pitch. During our match playing as England against Brazil, for example, one commentator actually mentioned England's defeat during the 2002 World Cup.

We thoroughly enjoyed our two FIFA 06 Road to the FIFA World Cup matches at X05, and we look forward to bringing you more information on the game as soon as it becomes available.

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