A little over five weeks from now, the 2006 FIFA World Cup will kick off in Munich when the tournament's German hosts take on Costa Rica. Recent player injuries are already providing plenty of pre-tournament drama, but if you really want to get your experience under way a month ahead of time, you can claim the FIFA World Cup Trophy for your country in EA Sports' 2006 FIFA World Cup. EA Canada's latest football offering does a good job of re-creating the carnival atmosphere that surrounds every World Cup competition, but the game suffers from frequent and noticeable slowdown, which makes it more difficult to recommend than its predecessor, FIFA 06.
Gameplay options in 2006 FIFA World Cup include quick matches, online play, practice sessions, and penalty shoot-outs. In addition to those football game staples, you also get global challenge scenarios, a slightly reworked FIFA lounge mode, and, of course, a chance to guide your favorite international team through the World Cup competition. The World Cup mode will almost certainly be your first port of call, and although its default settings see you assuming control of one of the 32 teams that qualified for the finals, it's possible to play as any of around 125 different teams from all over the world. Furthermore, you have the option to take your chosen team through the relevant territory's qualification process or to jump straight to the last 32 teams using real or randomly generated group information.
The presentation throughout the World Cup mode, and throughout the entire game, is great. Before each match you'll see a camera, which is positioned somewhere in orbit around the Earth, zoom in on the appropriate German stadium, and then you'll be treated to flybys of the grounds where it looks like almost every supporter in the crowd came through the turnstiles armed with streamers, confetti, and balloons. You'll also get to listen to one of the game's many licensed songs, which come from an eclectic soundtrack spanning some 14 countries. Good pre-match commentary replete with World Cup trivia and anecdotes is the icing on the cake, and as your players line up on the pitch before kickoff, you feel both excited and nervous at the same time--exactly as you'd expect to before a real match. It's unfortunate, then, that 2006 FIFA World Cup takes a turn for the worse once the referee's whistle gets the game under way.
Although there have certainly been some improvements made to 2006 FIFA World Cup's gameplay over the already superb FIFA 06 (which are most noticeable in the shooting and passing mechanics and in the very dramatic penalty shoot-outs), both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of the game suffer from frequent and quite dramatic doses of slowdown. These drops in the frame rate are predictably most common when there are a lot of players on the screen simultaneously, but they're certainly not limited to those occasions, and are even a regular occurrence during replays, set-piece camera close-ups, and the aforementioned pre-match buildup. It's a real shame that 2006 FIFA World Cup has been released in this state, because there's really very little else about the game that's easy to pick fault with.
Slowdown issues aside, 2006 FIFA World Cup offers a football experience that, while not quite as realistic as Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer (Winning Eleven in North America) games, is certainly comparable in terms of quality. It's a lot easier to score goals in FIFA than it is in Pro Evo (largely because FIFA's keepers aren't too clever), but they can still be very satisfying. And if you're playing on the correct difficulty level or against a suitable opponent, you'll inevitably still have goalless draws from time to time. The player animations are uniformly excellent, and although every player on the pitch has a handful of skill moves at his disposal, you'll find that good use of the excellent first-touch controls along with passes, through balls, and dummies are generally the best way to beat opponents. The controls on the PS2 and the Xbox are equally good, though the Xbox controller's poorly positioned black-and-white buttons do come into play when you start employing some of the game's more advanced moves.
As you progress through the World Cup, you'll inevitably earn points by fulfilling some of the 200-plus objectives that the game tracks for your profile. These objectives include beating certain teams, winning by a certain number of goals, scoring at different stages of matches, winning streaks, and lots more. The points that you're awarded can be spent at the game's store, which stocks more than 20 classic players, 25 different pairs of licensed boots, more than 20 Adidas balls, 10 classic strips, and five "AI unlockables"--those being additional options for perfect difficulty, invisible walls, no infringements, slow motion, and turbo mode. The unlockables are a little disappointing, not only because the different boots and balls are barely noticeable during gameplay, but also because the classic player and classic strip options are so limited. The 10 classic strips, for example, include only two each for five different European teams, and although the classic players all deserve their places in the game, it's not hard to think of dozens more who are conspicuous by their absence.
You can also earn points to spend at the store by playing 2006 FIFA World Cup's global challenge mode, which basically tasks you with matching or bettering memorable team performances from World Cup history in 40 different scenarios. Your major objective might be to jump into a game with 30 minutes remaining and win by the same margin that the victors did in real life, for example. And bonus objectives might include keeping a clean sheet, not having any players booked, or winning by a larger margin. You'll be awarded a bronze, silver, or gold medal based on your performance in each scenario, along with a corresponding number of points. The global challenge mode is a great addition to the game, but it's unfortunate that none of the appropriate historical strips or players are present, and also that the post-scenario commentary invariably reflects upon the game as if it were a 2006 match. One of the scenarios, for example, tasks you with taking control of Scotland and beating the Netherlands by at least three goals in the group stage of the 1978 tournament in order to progress to the second round. Scotland came home from Argentina early after managing only a 3-2 win in real life, but if you achieve that same result in the scenario, the players, the crowd, and the commentary team will react as if you've just earned yourself a spot in the last 16, regardless of the fact that you failed to fulfill any of the challenge's objectives.
When you feel like pitting your 2006 FIFA World Cup skills against a human opponent instead of the CPU, your most obvious options are to play online or to get some friends over for a FIFA lounge session. Like FIFA 06 before it, the game requires you either to pay a small fee or to hand over your e-mail address so that you can be sent spam before you can play online. But if you already have an EA account set up, the process is pretty painless. Once you get online, you'll find that 2006 FIFA World Cup uses an outdated lobby system, with rooms where you can, in theory, find players of similar ability or who are from your region. In reality, at least based on our own experiences thus far, there are rarely enough players online simultaneously for this system to work properly, and you're better off either going into the same room that every other player is in or simply hitting the quick-match option. You can also choose to create or search for matches with certain criteria, or to enter a "quick tournament" for four or eight players. Both the PS2 and the Xbox versions of the game support voice chat, and both suffer from occasional lag, though this isn't very noticeable given that the game suffers from some nasty slowdown anyway.
2006 FIFA World Cup's strongest feature is undoubtedly its lounge mode, which supports up to eight players but can certainly be enjoyed by just two or three. Like the lounge mode in FIFA 06, 2006 FIFA World Cup's lounge keeps track of your performances against all of the other players in the room and gives you a number of different options for determining who gets to play next when there is a large group. The mode also retains the "cheap shots" feature, which gives you an opportunity to level the playing field against opponents by using cheats that you've earned as a result of previous performances. You can use up to three cheap shots ahead of each match, and they include things like giving yellow cards to opposing players, benching star players, and setting the fatigue level of every opposing player to 50 percent before the game has even kicked off. The system works just as well in 2006 FIFA World Cup as it did in last year's game, though it's unfortunate that you can only use cheap shots when both players are using their favorite teams, because the mode's new Risk-style map feature (where you can take control of countries on the map by winning games with them or against them) does an excellent job of encouraging you to experiment with other squads.
Regardless of whether you're in the market for the PS2 or the Xbox version of 2006 FIFA World Cup, you can expect an almost identical gameplay experience. The slowdown issues are slightly less pronounced on the Xbox, and that version certainly looks a lot better than its PS2 counterpart. But the issues that we've already mentioned (along with some other relatively minor stuff, like there being no option to tinker with your team at halftime) hold true for both versions. If it weren't for the dramatic drops in frame rate, 2006 FIFA World Cup would be an easy game to recommend even if you already have FIFA 06. As it is, EA Canada's latest game has plenty to offer but feels like it might have benefited from a little extra time in development, making it a near miss rather than a spectacular goal.