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, and although the Xbox 360 game still lacks some of the best features from its PlayStation 2 and Xbox counterparts, it's a much easier game to recommend than last year's FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup.
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 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.
Perhaps the easiest way to give you some idea of how much FIFA football on the Xbox 360 has improved since last year's game would be to state that 2006 FIFA World Cup plays more like FIFA 06 than the disappointment that was FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup. 2006 FIFA World Cup for the Xbox 360 still doesn't feel quite as tight as the PS2 and Xbox games of the same name, but it's not far off, and it doesn't suffer from any of the awful slowdown issues that those two do. The Xbox 360 game plays the same fast-paced style of football that you'll find in other versions, but its ball physics are slightly less convincing, its players are less proactive off-the-ball (though you always have the option to send them on forward runs manually), and the match commentary, while very good for the most part, is more repetitive and less accurate.
It's not difficult to score often spectacular goals in FIFA, largely because the game'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 Xbox 360 are largely unchanged since last year's game, and you still have the option to switch between a traditional FIFA control setup and one that will be more familiar to fans of Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer/Winning Eleven games.
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. It's unfortunate that these objectives don't translate into achievements on the Xbox 360, but the handful of achievements that the game offers are at least somewhat challenging. The points that you're awarded for completing objectives can be spent at the game's store, which stocks more than 20 classic players, loads of 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 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. It's barely worth mentioning, but the Xbox 360 game also lacks all of the unlockable licensed boots from Nike, Umbro, and Adidas that are present in the PS2 and Xbox games.
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, you can either get some friends over or play online. The Xbox 360 game lacks the excellent FIFA lounge mode that other versions enjoy, unfortunately, and also doesn't support "quick tournament" play online. If you choose to play 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 if you want to play games of a certain length, for example.
The quality of your online experience with 2006 FIFA World Cup can vary quite wildly with each opponent, not because of the way they behave, but because the game's lag is different every time. We invariably found that our online matches kicked off relatively free of lag, but got worse as the game progressed. For the most part the lag never got so bad that the game was rendered unplayable, but there were one or two occasions when quitting out prematurely and getting a DNF (did not finish) black mark next to our profile looked like a tempting option.
With very little in the way of competition, 2006 FIFA World Cup is undoubtedly the best football game available for the Xbox 360 at this point. Since the PS2 and Xbox games suffer from obnoxious slowdown, this game doesn't feel like a poor relation alongside its namesakes, though opting for the Xbox 360 game does mean that you'll miss out on a few features and gameplay refinements. If you're in the market for a World Cup game or simply for an Xbox 360 football game that doesn't suck, 2006 FIFA World Cup is the way to go. If you can live without all of the excellent World Cup presentation and 480p HD visuals, though, then you're still better off with last year's FIFA 06 on the PS2 or Xbox.