When it arrived in stores last month, the Xbox version of FIFA 06 was undoubtedly EA Sports' best soccer game to date. Now, less than two months later, FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup has been released for the Xbox 360, and the Xbox version of FIFA 06 is still EA Sports' best soccer game to date. How can that be the case? At the very least, FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup must be the same game that was released for the Xbox but with better graphics, right? Wrong. FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup is inferior to its Xbox counterpart in just about every way imaginable, and is undoubtedly one of the most disappointing games available for Microsoft's new console at launch.
As its title suggests, FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup's main gameplay mode tasks you with leading an international soccer team through the qualification process to next year's World Cup competition in Germany. There are no club teams in FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup, so whereas the Xbox version of FIFA 06 boasts a rough total of 500 teams for you to play with, the Xbox 360 game features just 72, more than 50 of which are from Europe. No fewer than 132 of the international teams that participated in FIFA's preliminary qualification process for Germany 2006 are absent from FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup. The majority of you are unlikely to miss the likes of American Samoa, Chile, and Turkmenistan, of course, but the upshot of their omission from the game is that the European qualification groups are the only ones available in the Road to FIFA World Cup gameplay mode. If you want to qualify for the World Cup as a team from outside Europe you can create custom groups, but it's simply not possible to re-create the same qualification matches played by Brazil, Cameroon, or Japan in real life. Also, you can't ever actually play in the World Cup; only qualify for it.
Assuming that you choose to play through the real-world qualifiers as a European team, you'll be placed in a group with five or six other teams and be required to play each of them twice. Artificially lengthening the Road to FIFA World Cup mode, though, are a number of mandatory friendly matches, as well as two fictional tournaments. The additional games might be a worthwhile feature of the qualification campaign if FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup boasted something resembling FIFA 06's team chemistry for you to consider, but it doesn't, so playing through them can feel like a bit of a chore. With that said, you might want to beat each of the fictional tournaments at least once if you end up in possession of a copy of FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup, simply because doing so is one of only a handful of unimaginative ways that you can earn gamerscore points for your Xbox 360 player profile in the game. You'll also earn "road points" for your achievements in FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup that, at least according to the instruction manual, can be used to unlock a classic FIFA team, along with extra uniforms and soccer balls. There's no fan shop for you to spend your points in like in FIFA 06, though, and unlocking the classic FIFA team, Adidas balls, and such really doesn't appear to involve points at all.
In addition to the Road to FIFA World Cup mode, gameplay options for you and up to three friends include custom leagues and tournaments, friendly matches, and online play via Xbox Live. FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup, like other Xbox Live games from Electronic Arts, uses an outdated lobby system for matchmaking that's not nearly as good as Microsoft's own. How well the game performs online after a match gets underway can vary according to your opponent, but to date we've experienced only minimal lag during matches. We're also pleased to report that, because your ranking can be affected if you disconnect from a game prematurely, we've yet to have a single opponent quit out of a game because he or she was losing. There are no online tournament or league options in FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup, but it's possible to view leaderboards that compare your own statistics to those of the top 100 players, friends, or players in the same country as you.
If you're not feeling competitive, you might prefer to put your chosen team through its paces on the practice ground, where you can choose to just kick a ball around or concentrate on set-piece plays. A nice feature of the practice mode is that the teams wear practice uniforms that are quite different to those they wear in competitive games--though we should point out that only 10 of them are authentic. You'll also get to knock a ball around in a dimly lit sports hall using a few players from your favorite team during load times; incidentally, though, those 10 to 20 seconds before kickoff might be better spent checking that you're not about to miss your favorite show on TV.
After you make it to the stadium, one of the first things you might notice is that FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup's visuals, although impressive at first glance, don't represent nearly as significant an improvement over those of Xbox games as a number of the other Xbox 360 launch titles do (and playing the game in HD does little to rectify this problem). The stadiums are nicely detailed, and many of the players are even more easily recognizable than their Xbox counterparts, but FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup's bag of eye candy contains both sweets and sours, some of which taste worse than you might think is even possible on the Xbox 360. When the camera zooms in on players, for example, the strange ghosting effect that surrounds them will make you think you're suffering from double vision. Things get even worse when the supporters are on camera, because, presumably as a result of some horrific accident involving Photoshop filters, the assembled crowd appears to be either horribly pixelated or the subject of a malfunctioning Magic Eye picture. We've tried staring at the crowd until our eyes unfocus, even donning a pair of 3D glasses, but nothing seems to work. Ironically, the subtle blurring of the players on the field when using the default camera is very good. Other visual sours that you might notice in FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup include glitchy player hair, beige yellow cards, and cameras that occasionally take up positions behind advertising hoardings and such during substitutions.
Inconsistent visuals aren't enough to completely ruin a game, of course, but there are a number of other problems with FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup that give the game a distinctly unfinished feel. Even forgetting the fact that the game doesn't include a number of FIFA 06's best features, such as the playing-style mechanic and the all-new FIFA lounge mode, FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup can be a real disappointment on the field. The ball physics are quite obviously fudged so that the ball often gravitates toward players; players returning to their positions after a failed attack make no attempt to get forward again if you regain possession of the ball in the attacking third; and on more than one occasion, we scored a goal and had it go unnoticed by the linesman, the referee, the crowd, the commentary team, and...well, everyone, really. The problem of players being reluctant to attack can be addressed to some extent by clicking the right analog stick and switching to an all-out attack mentality. The same control is used to switch to an all-out defense mentality, though, and the only way to know which one you're using is by observing your players' movements. The frame rate also takes a serious nosedive during replays, for some reason.
The commentary in FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup comes courtesy of Sky Sports' Andy Gray and Martin Tyler, and it's both entertaining and accurate for the most part. Some of the trivia that the commentators come out with when there's a lull in the action is quite interesting, but after hearing them talk about England's World Cup defeat at the hands of Brazil or praising Ashley Cole for the umpteenth time, you'll wish that there were an option to exclude trivia items from the commentary the same way that you can omit individual songs from the eclectic soundtrack.
At the end of the day, FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup plays a passable game of soccer and is definitely fun when played against the right human opposition. There's not a lot of single-player content here, though, and the fact that the game is inferior to this year's PlayStation 2 and Xbox games in so many ways makes it nigh on impossible to recommend.