2006 FIFA World Cup Hands-On

We lead England to World Cup glory as we check out a work-in-progress Xbox 360 version of EA Sports' upcoming soccer game.

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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. Unsurprisingly, one of the key differences between this game and its predecessor, FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup, is that you'll actually be able to compete in the final stages of the tournament rather than just play through the lengthy qualification process. We recently had the pleasure of seeing David Beckham lift the World Cup trophy after spending some time with a work-in-progress version of the game, and we noted a number of new features and improvements en route to our 4-0 demolition of France in the final.

For sheer passion, it's tough to top the World Cup.
For sheer passion, it's tough to top the World Cup.

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: Road to FIFA World Cup. In addition to the requisite quick play mode, you'll find Xbox Live support 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 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 and inaccurate with its play-by-plays, does a good job of letting you know what's going on in other matches that might be relevant to your cause from time to time.

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. Playing passes and through balls also seems a little more challenging in 2006 FIFA World Cup than it did in FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup, although lofted through balls to strikers in the attacking third are as devastating as ever.

The crowds, stadiums, and players are a visual treat to behold on the Xbox 360.
The crowds, stadiums, and players are a visual treat to behold on the Xbox 360.

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. Some of the objectives look like they could be quite challenging on the regular difficulty setting, and it's unfortunate that the game's achievement points aren't tied to them in some way. Instead, 2006 FIFA World Cup will give away its 1,000 achievement points for completing only five tasks, which include winning the World Cup, and beating all 40 of the historical scenarios.

2006 FIFA World Cup certainly looks like it will be a better game than its predecessor at this point, but just how significant the improvements will be remains to be seen. We'll bring you more information on the game as soon as it becomes available.

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