Early next month, 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 underway ahead of time, you can claim the FIFA World Cup Trophy for your country in EA Sports' 2006 FIFA World Cup. The PlayStation Portable version of EA Canada's latest soccer offering is faithful to its console counterparts in almost every way, and while the game isn't without a few quirks, there's plenty of enjoyable, fast-paced soccer to be had here.
Gameplay options in 2006 FIFA World Cup include quick matches, online and ad hoc multiplayer games, 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 127 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 more or less throughout the entire game, is great. Before each match, you'll be treated to flybys of your chosen stadium, where it looks like almost every supporter in the crowd came through the turnstiles armed with streamers and confetti. Also, you'll get to hear samples from the participating teams' national anthems as you're treated to close-up shots of the players lining up in the center of the pitch before kickoff. Realistic crowd noise and good match commentary really add to the experience once a match gets underway, and the game's licensed soundtrack is so good that it makes navigating menu screens or waiting for opponents who have paused the game a pleasure rather than a pain.
Although there have certainly been some improvements made to 2006 FIFA World Cup's gameplay over the already great FIFA 06 (most noticeably the realistic ball physics, set-piece plays, and the superb player animations), the PSP version of the game does have a few minor problems. Some of the World Cup stadiums, for example, cast crazy-looking shadows onto the grass below, and these shadows are so pronounced (much more so than those cast by the players) on the PSP that they occasionally make it difficult to focus on anything else. This problem is particularly noticeable in the Global Challenge mode, where a light-blue ball is used that might as well have a camouflage pattern on it in some stadiums.
Our only other complaint about 2006 FIFA World Cup's gameplay, aside from the fact that using the "select" button to control a player's pace is awkward at best, would be that the replays that interrupt it after goals and other incidents really drag the game's presentation down a notch. Replays of goals are too lengthy not to skip because they employ extremely slow slow-motion techniques, and painful postfoul close-ups invariably show the player who committed the foul rather than his victim being helped up. Furthermore, anytime you're treated to a close-up of a player--at which point the low-resolution kit and face textures don't hold up too well--there's a good chance that the background will start flickering wildly in places or even disappear completely.
These quirks aside, 2006 FIFA World Cup offers a soccer experience that, while not quite as realistic as Konami's Winning Eleven series, is certainly comparable in terms of quality. 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, are generally the best way to beat opponents. The PSP game's lack of "dummy" moves is unfortunate since they work very well in the home-console versions, but since every usable button on the handheld is already performing multiple functions, it's difficult to know how they could be implemented.
Perhaps the best way to work on improving your skills in 2006 FIFA World Cup is to play through its Global Challenge mode. After choosing a team to take control of, you'll be tasked with beating no fewer than 127 (compared to 40 in the home-console games) different match scenarios with varied objectives. The challenges, which get harder as you progress through the mode and travel to different continents, typically start midmatch and task you with achieving a certain result before the final whistle is blown. Some of the objectives are much more interesting than that, though, and really do a good job of forcing you to focus on specific aspects of your game. There are challenges where you're required to retain possession of the ball for a certain percentage of the time, for example, and others where your opponents are only allowed a certain number of shots at goal before you fail. In what we'll diplomatically refer to as a nod to Sony Europe's World Tour Soccer series, 2006 FIFA World Cup also offers challenges in which you're required to score a certain number of "soccer points" by playing attractive soccer.
The unlockable bonuses in 2006 FIFA World Cup include five Adidas balls, a dozen videos showing off the German stadiums where the World Cup will be contested next month, and classic strips for England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. You'll unlock each piece of bonus content either by beating a territory's global challenges or by succeeding in the World Cup with a certain team--the specific details of how you unlock everything can be found in the game's rewards menu.
When you feel like pitting your 2006 FIFA World Cup skills against a human opponent instead of the CPU, the game's options include ad hoc play for up to four people and one-on-one online play. The ad hoc matches that we played were completely lag-free and were even more enjoyable than the time that we spent playing solo, simply because the CPU-controlled opponents are a little predictable at times. Our online experience of 2006 FIFA World Cup, on the other hand, wasn't nearly as painless. After going through the usual EA Nation ritual of agreeing to let a soccer-themed Web site send you spam via email in return for having your $2 fee to play online "sponsored" by them, you'll find yourself in a lobby where there are four different rooms designed for players of varying abilities. To date, we've never witnessed more than a handful of players online simultaneously, though, so in practice you'll just want to head for whichever room everybody else appears to be hanging out in.
Before starting a match with another player, you'll have an opportunity to check out their win and loss statistics, as well as the percentage of games that they've started and then quit out of early. We recommend paying attention to that last one because, at least based on our experiences with the 2006 FIFA World Cup community thus far, many of them prefer disconnecting midmatch to losing. Irritating players aside, 2006 FIFA World Cup can be a lot of fun online. It's not lag-free by any means, though, and the slowdown occasionally gets so bad that the game becomes frustrating.
The PSP version of 2006 FIFA World Cup plays a very enjoyable game of soccer and offers enough improvements over its predecessor to make it worth a look, even if you already own that game. Regardless of whether or not you plan to take advantage of the game's multiplayer features, there's plenty of content in 2006 FIFA World Cup to keep you entertained up until, during, and long after the upcoming tournament in Germany.