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 pre-tournament 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 football 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 football game staples, you 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.
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), the GameCube version of the game suffers from some occasional doses of slowdown. These drops in the frame rate aren't nearly as pronounced as those in the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of the game and generally occur only when there are a lot of players on the screen simultaneously. The flip side, though, is that the GameCube game doesn't look nearly as polished as those versions.
Occasional slowdown issues aside, 2006 FIFA World Cup offers a football experience that is certainly comparable to what's offered on other platforms in terms of quality, though it's not quite as realistic. It's not difficult to score goals in 2006 FIFA World Cup (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 and through balls, is generally the best way to beat opponents. The GameCube controller handles 2006 FIFA World Cup very well, with the caveat that since it's lacking a fourth shoulder button, there are no "dummy" moves in the game, which is really unfortunate.
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, 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 use cheap shots only 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.
Although its visuals are lackluster and there's no online support, the GameCube version of 2006 FIFA World Cup is an easier game to recommend than its PS2 and Xbox counterparts simply because it also lacks those games' awful frame rates. 2006 FIFA World Cup is about as good as football gets on the GameCube right now, though that's not saying much given that it has very little competition.