Since 1994, not a year has gone by without EA Sports releasing at least one new FIFA soccer game. And, predictably, 2005 is no exception. The isometric pitches and teams of identical players that graced EA Sports' earliest offerings have now been replaced by stadiums and players that can be difficult to distinguish from their real-life counterparts. And although there have been some ups and downs along the way, the series' gameplay has evolved at an equally impressive rate. FIFA 06 is particularly unusual in that it ditches some of the series' recent innovations in favor of tried-and-tested gameplay mechanics. However, it also adds plenty of new features that help make it the most realistic and accessible (and best) FIFA game to date.
The first time you play FIFA 06, you'll be prompted to let the game know which of its 500-plus teams is your favorite, and then, before you know what's going on, you'll be challenged to a match against a formidable "Classic XI" squad that counts such men as Zico and Eric Cantona among its players. Winning that match will award you your first 1,000 points to spend at the fan shop on such unlockables as classic player profiles, all-star teams, different-colored balls, alternate team uniforms, extra player celebrations, new stadiums, and season highlights footage from last year's German, English, French, and Italian leagues. To stand a chance of winning that match, you'll need a good grasp of FIFA 06's control scheme, which--although there have been some improvements made since last year--certainly won't be a problem if you're a fan of the series.
If you're not a fan of the FIFA series but are taking the time to read this review, it's probably because you're a Winning Eleven devotee, in which case you'll be pleased to know that the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of FIFA 06 let you opt for an alternate control scheme that's straight out of Konami's soccer franchise. The PC game also features customizable controls, although it's impossible to re-create Winning Eleven's controls perfectly.
Once you've decided which button you want to use for shooting and which you want to use for long passes, you can start familiarizing yourself with some of FIFA 06's new controls, which include using the D pad or left analog stick to change offensive and defensive tactics on the fly, as well as using a single button to perform a dummy move (either to yourself or to a teammate) whenever a pass is headed your way. There are eight different tactical changes and team mentalities you can switch on and off on the fly, including counter attack wing play, box overload, offside trap, and zone defense. Like many of FIFA 06's new features, these aren't really explained in the instruction manual but are instead covered comprehensively via easy-to-follow help screens in-game.
Other changes you'll find on the pitch in FIFA 06 include much simpler (almost to the point of being retro) control systems for set pieces, much-improved commentary and TV-style presentation, and the all-new playing-style feature, which affects your team's performance based on how well your players feel the match is going. This doesn't necessarily mean that your team will become stronger if it's winning, though, because your players' morale is influenced by recent action on the pitch rather than by everything that's happened since the kickoff, as well as by whether you're playing the match at home or away.
The boost your team will get from stringing together a few good moves against a team it's losing to is definitely noticeable, and you'll find the opposite is true if you're in charge of a winning team that's struggling to retain its lead. Individual players can also be affected by events on the pitch, and if you notice that one of your players is feeling particularly down, it's invariably a good idea to replace him with one of your substitutes--none of whom enjoys sitting out match after match on the bench.
On the pitch, FIFA 06 is undoubtedly the best game in the series to date, but it's not without its flaws. The goalkeepers, for example, are extremely slow to come off their lines--even when the ball has been hoofed from the other end of the field and there are no other players with a hope in hell of reaching it before they do. This is actually a good thing when it's your keeper, because you can bring him off his line manually, and you don't have to worry about him going on a walkabout of his own volition. The keepers on CPU-controlled teams, though, appear to be largely unaware of the "keeper charge" button, although they do become more proactive as you move up through the game's four difficulty levels. FIFA 06's other main flaw, which is more of an issue on the PS2 than on any other platform, is that the whole game can slow down quite dramatically when a large number of players is onscreen simultaneously. The drops in the frame rate aren't so bad that the game is rendered unplayable, but they're certainly noticeable enough to be worthy of mention.
If you're playing FIFA 06 solo, one of the first gameplay options you'll want to check out (perhaps after playing a couple of practice matches) will undoubtedly be manager mode, which lets you take charge of a team anywhere in the world so you can play through a career spanning no fewer than 15 years. You won't be able to assume control of whichever team you want from the outset, because most of the top teams seem to be happy with their current managers, but there are plenty of jobs to choose from that will make for great stepping stones en route to the management position of your dreams (if it isn't available on day one).
Once you've taken a job as a manager, you'll receive your first e-mail informing you of the board's expectations for the season, and you'll be introduced to FIFA 06's simplistic backroom staff system. As a manager in FIFA 06, you'll have eight staff members working under you, including a negotiator, a scout, a stadium manager, and coaches specializing in fitness, goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders, and strikers. Each member of your staff has an effectiveness rating of between 1 and 10 that can be upgraded simply by spending money on him. Money isn't always easy to come by in FIFA 06, though, so you'll almost certainly want to keep some funds available for the transfer market and for sending your scout in search of young, unsigned player talent from time to time.
One of the easiest ways to make money for your team, of course, is to sign a lucrative sponsorship deal, of which you'll have plenty to choose from before guiding your team through its first match. You'll choose your sponsor based on the various amounts of cash offered to you in the form of match funding and as bonuses for different competitions. Opting for the sponsor that's offering you the most money seems like the obvious thing to do, and you actually can't go far wrong if you do so. However, it's worth noting that the sponsors offering smaller figures generally have less-strict qualifying requirements for their handouts. So while one sponsor might offer you a fortune for winning the league, for example, another might offer you a more modest sum that you can get your hands on simply by finishing in the top half of the table. The other ways you'll earn money in FIFA 06 are by doing well in competitions and by charging fans to come and watch your team in action. And before every home game you can choose to set a low, medium, or high ticket price--bearing in mind that you won't endear yourself to fans by charging them an arm and a leg to get through the turnstiles.
Fan support is one of three considerations you'll have to bear in mind every time you make a decision as a manager, along with team chemistry and your job security. You're scored on each of these considerations with a number between 1 and 100, and letting any one of them fall too low can have disastrous results. For the most part, you can keep everyone happy by simply winning matches, but you'll also be presented with random managerial decisions to make, from time to time, that invariably have an immediate effect on the parties concerned. Typical managerial decisions include dealing with problems in the dressing room or answering an interview question for a local newspaper. And although the "correct" answers are usually obvious, some of the situations you'll find yourself in are really quite tricky. Some of the random events in FIFA 06 unfortunately don't give you an opportunity to provide any input whatsoever, so don't be surprised if you find yourself falling out of favor with your fans and superiors after a squabble with a rival manager outside your stadium once in a while.
FIFA 06's manager mode is easy to get to grips with and is undoubtedly the best way to play the game if you're on your own. A little more depth during transfer negotiations, in addition to more feedback from your directors, fans, and players, would have been nice, but the simple fact that you can now search every league in the game for players you might like to sign--according to their positions and ratings--makes this a dramatic improvement over last year's career mode.
When you're not playing FIFA 06 solo, and especially if you're in a room with no more than seven of your friends, you'll definitely want to take advantage of the all-new lounge mode, which, despite what it says on the packaging, is not a feature of the PC version of the game. If you're playing FIFA 06 on the PS2 or Xbox, lounge mode is the perfect way to enjoy the game with your friends, not only because it'll keep track of all your results throughout the session (and subsequent sessions, if you choose to save your progress), but also because it incorporates some quite ingenious features designed to level the playing field when players are mismatched.
These "cheap shots" are essentially power-ups for your team (or power-downs for the opposition) that you'll be awarded according to your standing in the lounge mode league table. There are 20 different cheap shots in total, including such devious prematch plays as issuing yellow cards to a bunch of opposing players, setting your opposition's fatigue level to 50 percent before the game even gets under way, and benching a rival's star player. Some of the cheap shots can even be activated in the middle of a match, such as instantly fatiguing an opponent or, if things really aren't going your way, restarting the game completely. The weaker players in your lounge group will invariably end up with more cheap shots in their arsenals than those of you with mad FIFA skills, and they'll have the option to store them for as long as they like and can play up to three in a single match, which really turns the tables in their favor. It's an innovative and unusual handicapping system for sure, but it's one that works extremely well, even if there are only two of you in the lounge at the time.
The other gameplay mode you'll want to check out, if you're properly equipped to do so, is online play, which is the one feature of FIFA 06 that varies quite considerably depending on which version you're playing. Quick match, tournament, and outdated lobby options (as well as an EA Nation membership requirement) are featured--regardless of your hardware choice--but that's really where the similarities end. The Xbox version of FIFA 06 boasts the best online play at this point, not only because it's the easiest to get started and the majority of players have microphone headsets, but also because it's the only one that doesn't require a $2 subscription fee to play.
Not that the PlayStation 2 and PC versions of FIFA 06 actually require $2 from you. No, not at all. You can instead choose to have a well-known soccer Web site "pay the subscription for you" in return for an e-mail address that can be used to contact you about "offers and promotions." Given the cost of purchasing a copy of FIFA 06, the request for an additional subscription fee or e-mail address seems like something of a slap in the face from EA. It bears mentioning that EA has once again made the Xbox Live service rather unwieldy and tougher to use as well, thanks to its insistence on using its outdated online service conventions. However, it's still the best online option available amid the different platforms, regardless of such butchery.
Based on our experiences to date, the PS2 version of FIFA 06 simply doesn't like to be played online. After using the game's clumsy lobby system to locate an opponent with an acceptable ping (nobody ever seems to use the quick match option), you'll have an opportunity to tinker with your team selection, and then, if you're lucky, you'll get to play a game without too much lag. More often than not, though, you'll find that the frame rate sucks and that there's a short delay between you pressing a button and your player actually doing what he's told. If you're even more unlucky, which we apparently were during our testing of the game, you won't get to play against some of your opponents at all but will instead have an opportunity to check out FIFA 06's less-than-glamorous "connection failed" screen.
The PC version of FIFA 06 uses the same EA Nation online infrastructure as other EA Sports PC games, meaning you can bet credits from your virtual wallet on the outcome of matches, choose an EA Sports-themed avatar for your profile, and use an entirely different, clumsy lobby system to search for opponents. With that said, the online play in the PC game performs well once you get a match started, though you won't be able to use any custom control setups against online opponents until the first FIFA 06 patch is released, because there's currently no way to save them.
Regardless of its less-than-perfect online play, FIFA 06 is a game that no soccer fan should be without. The offline gameplay is difficult to fault, the graphics (especially the stadiums and player animations) rarely fail to impress, and the game's eclectic soundtrack (which boasts no fewer than 38 tracks from all over the world) never sounds out of place. The sound of a stadium full of fans chanting in FIFA 06 is also a real treat, and it really helps set the atmosphere ahead of an important match. To quote one of the game's many musical anthems, FIFA 06 "feels just like it should."