Fewer than six months ago, EA Sports released FIFA Soccer for the PSP. Based on the FIFA Soccer 2005 console games, FIFA Soccer offered a surprisingly similar experience on Sony's then-new handheld. Our only real criticisms of it at the time of its release were some occasional frame-rate issues and a somewhat tricky control scheme. Evidently, EA Sports has been hard at work these past six months, because FIFA 06 not only addresses the aforementioned problems, but also adds online play and an entertaining ball-juggling minigame to the mix.
The PSP version of FIFA 06 is, predictably, based on the recently released console games of the same name. The most obvious difference between the PSP version and its console counterparts is that the handheld game doesn't include a career mode, which is unfortunate given that it was a strong feature of the console games this year. Your gameplay options, then, include play now, which lets you quickly jump into a match between your favorite team and a rival team; challenges, which task you with completing a comeback or a rout based on a real-life match; season, which lets you play through an entire season with your chosen team; tournament, in which you can either compete in cup competitions from all over the world or create your own; and multiplayer, which this year means ad hoc play for up to four players or infrastructure (online) support for head-to-head games.
The only other gameplay option on the main menu is juggling, which is a rhythm-action-style minigame that tasks you with keeping the ball in the air by hitting the D pad in the directions indicated by onscreen arrows. You'll turn your PSP 90 degrees counterclockwise to play the juggling minigame, which gives you a rare opportunity to check out the model of your chosen player up close. Juggling is a nice addition to the FIFA 06 package, and it's a great way to kill a few minutes when you're not in the mood for a match proper.
When you do decide to play a full match, you'll find that your prematch setup options include half length (2 to 10 minutes), one of four difficulty levels, and whether you'd like to enable player injuries, bookings, and the offside rule. There's no option to alter your control scheme, unfortunately, but given how much the controls have improved over FIFA Soccer's, this really isn't a cause for concern.
The biggest improvement over FIFA Soccer, as far as FIFA 06's controls are concerned, is that you're no longer required to use the D pad for first-touch controls at the same time you're trying to move your player with the analog stick. First-touch controls are now achieved simply by using the left trigger as a modifier for the analog stick when one of your players receives the ball, which works every bit as well as the second analog stick setup in console versions of the game. The PSP's D pad hasn't been made redundant, though, since you can now use it to set one of either four attacking strategies or four defensive strategies for your team on the fly.
Another highlight of FIFA 06's control scheme is the ease with which you can send your players on surging runs forward when you're in possession of the ball by double-tapping the right trigger--and then lobbing through balls to them by double-tapping the through-pass button. Defensive moves are equally intuitive, since the modestly named tackle button actually tasks one of your players with automatically chasing down the opposing ball handler before attempting a tackle. Options to call in a second defender or to have your goalkeeper charge off his line are also present, as is the requisite sliding-tackle (or cynical-foul) button.
Once you lead your team on to the pitch, you'll find that FIFA 06 plays quite a fast-paced and realistic game of soccer. The CPU players are a little slow to pass the ball to their teammates at times, but the four difficulty levels should pose a decent challenge for you, regardless of your ability, and besides, everyone knows you're supposed to play sports games against friends. Right?
FIFA 06 not only lets you play with up to three of your friends using the PSP's wireless ad hoc functionality, but it also lets you test your skills against those of total strangers in online head-to-head matches. Unlike those in FIFA Soccer, the ad hoc games in FIFA 06 are almost entirely lag-free. Our only complaint about the setup is that, for some inexplicable reason, the host of each ad hoc game is responsible for selecting both teams. This isn't true for online games, thankfully, which use a cut-down version of the EA Nation lobby system for matchmaking and stat-tracking.
We were never able to find more than a handful of players waiting for opponents in the FIFA 06 lobby (which includes multiple rooms that encourage players to match up with opponents of similar skill), and on average it would take us three or four attempts to get a match going successfully. Once the match got under way, though, the game performed admirably. The controls weren't quite as responsive as they are when playing offline, but the impact on gameplay was minimal, and the only excuse we can offer you for losing as many online matches as we did is that we were invariably pitting our Bolton Wanderers against the likes of perennial powerhouses Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid, and AC Milan.
When you're not playing online, you'll be earning "points" for completing certain goals in all of FIFA 06's offline modes. Successfully completing one of the game's 40 rout or comeback challenges, winning a match by five goals or more, scoring a hat trick, beating level 10 in the juggling minigames... All these achievements will earn you points you can spend on unlockable extras, such as third uniforms, match balls, stadiums, and additional music tracks.
FIFA 06's soundtrack comprises around 40 different songs from artists like Jamiroquai, Oasis, Bloc Party, and the ever-present Paul Oakenfold. The selection is so good that you might find yourself spending more time in the menu screens than you really need to, at least until you find your way to the EA Sports Pocket Trax player, which lets you listen to the songs in any order you like while watching trippy oscilloscope animations.
Those animations aren't bad, but they're not nearly as impressive as those in the game. All the player animations in FIFA 06 are wholly believable, and they really add something to the game's already impressive visuals. The sport's most famous players and stadiums are instantly recognizable, and our only real criticism is that on certain field surfaces, the yellow ball used in English Premiership games can be a little difficult to keep track of when the camera angle changes suddenly after a free kick.
The PSP version of FIFA 06, then, is a significant improvement over its predecessor, which is no small achievement given that the two games' release dates aren't even six months apart. The lack of a career mode--with transfer market options and such--is a little disappointing, but FIFA 06 still represents great value for money, particularly if you're in a position to take advantage of its various multiplayer options, and even if you picked up the last FIFA iteration on the PSP.