A little over three 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 pretournament drama, but if you really want to get your experience under way 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 soccer offering does a good job of re-creating the carnival atmosphere that surrounds every World Cup competition and boasts a number of gameplay refinements over last year's FIFA 06.
Gameplay options in 2006 FIFA World Cup include quick matches, online play, practice sessions, and penalty shoot-outs. In addition to those soccer game staples, you get global challenge scenarios, the excellent FIFA Lounge mode that was absent from last year's PC game, 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 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. Also, you'll get to listen to one of the game's many licensed songs, which come from an eclectic soundtrack spanning some 14 countries. Good prematch 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.
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), and the PC game doesn't suffer from nearly as much slowdown as its PlayStation 2 and Xbox counterparts. The drops in frame rate that do occur are predictably most common when there are a lot of players on the screen simultaneously, and they're generally not too dramatic--at least not when you're playing offline.
Slowdown issues aside, 2006 FIFA World Cup offers a soccer 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 are fully customizable, although those of you with a penchant for the Pro Evolution Soccer setup will find that it's not possible to replicate those controls exactly since, for example, the same button used for passing the ball has to be used for switching players when you're on defensive duties.
As you progress through the World Cup mode, 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 postscenario 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 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 relatively painless. Once you get online, you'll find that 2006 FIFA World Cup uses an outdated and unwieldy lobby system, with rooms where you can, in theory, find players who are from your region. In reality, at least based on our own experiences thus far, the only way to get a match started is often to hang out in either the United Kingdom or Deutschland lobbies (the others are empty for the most part) or to hit the "quick match" button, at which point you'll automatically be taken through all of the lobbies until a match is found.
We saw a lot more of 2006 FIFA World Cup's "Connection with other player has been lost" and other error screens than we'd like when attempting to get a match underway, but thankfully we never encountered any such problems once we made it as far as the prematch squad-selection screen. Our online experiences thus far have been anything but problem-free, though, because the wildly inconsistent frame rates that we had to deal with in some matches basically made the game unplayable. In between those exercises in frustration, we did manage to play a few decent matches, but they invariably suffered from lag at some point (perhaps because the game advertises that you can play with a 56Kbps connection) and so weren't nearly as enjoyable as those played offline.
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.
Since its offline frame rate issues are far less pronounced than those on the PS2 and the Xbox, the PC version of 2006 FIFA World Cup is the easiest to recommend. 2006 FIFA World Cup is well worth a look even if you already have FIFA 06 in your collection, especially if you're in a position to take advantage of the new FIFA Lounge mode. With better online play and a more stable frame rate, 2006 FIFA World Cup on the PC could have been a spectacular goal, and as the game stands, it's still a very satisfying one.