Reviewed: October 24, 2005
Released: September 13, 2005
The sport of soccer translates quite nicely to video games. Second only to tennis and a half-notch above hockey in my unofficial “pure sports” video game list; the game of soccer can be played either as straightforward or as calculated as the gamer pleases. Like tennis and hockey, soccer knows no borders or language boundaries – it is as international and universal as a game can be.
Soccer is deceivingly simplistic for all of its complexities; the ability is there for formations to be tweaked and tuned at infinitum as the gamer sees fit, but it is not a requirement for playing the game – hardcore players can find hours of fun lining up their players like chess pieces, yet new players can easily jump in with default settings and still have a great time.
This is very much unlike NFL football games, which requires gamers to have a fairly good grasp on the finer details of a fifty-plus entry playbook, including down-specific formations and plays, and then forces them to make pivotal play calling choices every 10-15 seconds. New players often give up under the pressure – feeling intimidated, even abused.
As you know, the FIFA series has historically been chastised by soccer purists (especially in Europe) for its arcade-like take on gameplay and ball control; critics often using words like “money” or “magnetic” to describe the way the ball tended to magically hit goal from half-pitch, or lob perfectly to the waiting feet of cross-field teammates, and slide tackling was the primary method of defense. Purists tended to side with Winning Eleven (called Pro Evolution in Europe) for its more realistic gameplay, passing and penalty calling.
EA heard the call, and over the past three years has been reformulating their game to make an appeal for the hard-core soccer fans, while not alienating or intimidating the casual players like Winning Eleven tends to do.
I fall a bit mid-stream when it comes to soccer. I do know and understand quite a bit about the mechanics and techniques of soccer – the passes, the crosses, the corners, the shots – but I tend to steer away from making significant formation changes or fiddling with rosters too much, because that is when playing soccer becomes work. And to be honest, I tend to do more harm than good anytime I try to tweak. I like my soccer to be pure fun – and that is exactly what FIFA 06 is…pure fun.
FIFA 06 kicks off with a real bang by asking you to pick your favorite control scheme and team, and then immediately plunking you and your team into a humbling match against the Classic 11, a team comprised of history’s biggest soccer legends. It’s here – sans the ability to change any gameplay or difficulty options – that you first experience the newly refined gameplay of FIFA 06.
FIFA 06 is somewhat like a Trojan horse; from a distance it is big, beautiful, and quite impressive – but the real surprise is hidden deep inside. FIFA 06’s surprise might not be a hundred bloodthirsty Spartans ready to lop your head off, but it is a whole new game of soccer – and I would have to believe that most of us would rather have the latter.
FIFA 06 may not immediately strike players as being a whole lot different than the previous versions, but enough significant strides have been made to the AI, ball control, and penalty calling, as well as EA’s enhancing and even adding play modes – even getting rid of some old baggage – that make it quite a different game than we are used to seeing. It would be difficult to address every nuance of the new FIFA to the readers, but I would like to address a few of the significant additions.
From the main menu, you will notice your standard quickplay, tournament and single game modes. You will also notice an entirely new game mode – the FIFA Lounge.
When I first read the name “The Lounge” I assumed that this was the FIFA equivalent to “The Crib” or “The Dorm Room” of the football titles – where gamers could store all of the trophies and bling-bling obtained from the career mode. I couldn’t have been further off base, because the Lounge is actually a new “party-play” offering which allows a group of friends to play a number of different games and game scenarios, and all the while FIFA will tracks stats and ranks the players based on scores.
One cool factor is the handicapping method in which lower ranked opponents are awarded special one-time-use “cheap-shots” with which to inflict on the higher ranked opponents either before or during matches. There are a dozen or more cheap shots available, and they will range from making star players ineligible for play to causing an entire team to lose half their stamina. It sounds strange to be awarded for being bad, but it does help keep the play even throughout the night.
EA has also upped FIFA’s Manager mode. The Manager mode is not unlike the franchise mode from Madden, allowing the gamer to control every aspect of a team from the stadium design to sponsorship, from signing of talent to the managing of the talent’s off-pitch exploits. The measurable of a good team – other than the obvious monetary gains – is the concept of “Team Chemistry” which gages how cohesively the team works with one another. This chemistry then goes on to affect the in-game play. So, if you have a solid team, with happy fans and happy players, you will end up with great chemistry and the players will play that much better. But if the team starts to take a downward trend, then the fans become increasingly unhappy, ticket sales wane, players’ salaries must be cut, and so forth. This team chemistry appears to be the newest push by EA and is a bit like we found in the “Total Team Control” of NASCAR 06.
One of the coolest aspects of manager mode is that you actually are playing the roll as a new league Manager – you don’t have a choice but to start at the bottom and work your way up the league. You can’t simply start with a top rated team and then ride out your years on the top, you are assigned a team and given fifteen seasons in which to impress owners and sponsors enough to get new job offers and sponsorships and climb to the top of the league.
Now that we have discussed the major additions and enhancements to the game modes, now let’s get into the meat of the gameplay.
As I mentioned, FIFA has made significant strides in their overall gameplay by mimicking the Winning Eleven series a bit. Passes, lobs and shots more are getting less and less “magnetic” as they have been in previous installments of the game. Also, the AI is much better, with teammates and opponents playing more as calculated teams and less as a swarm of killer bees vamping on the ball – FIFA has always had top notch AI, but now it seems a bit more calculated, and more like the competition. And in a final nod to Winning Eleven, while you can still pull off an absurd amount of slide tackles, you will be penalized a bit more than in past games – mind you, the penalizing is nowhere near as severe as in Konami’s game, but still it has gotten a bit more difficult.
Gamers will notice that while EA has kept the “First Touch” (a bit like Madden’s Hit Stick) of the 2005 game, they have done away with the “Off the Ball” control of the 2004 game. The Off the Ball controls were a progression of the “Run into Space” of the 2002 and 2003 games, where gamers could signal teammates to sprint ahead for an in-motion pass. It was a bit clumsy, and some protested its gimmicky nature – so it was dropped. Personally, I miss the control, but teammates intelligently run into space now and I’ve connected more through passes than ever before, so I cannot complain.
New this year is the “Pacing” button, which allows players to slow take the pace of the game down a few notches by slowing or stopping the ball movement long enough for teammates to catch a breath and fall into formation for plays. This is really a nice touch to have a conscious “slow things down” button, as so often in the previous titles, games would seem to escalate into this near tennis-match of back and forth ball runs that the game began to become a repetitive system of run, through-pass, cross, shoot, miss…run, through-pass, cross, shoot, miss,…etc.. Now you can slow the whole team down, let them form up, and then attack in a calculated manner. The pacing button is also an effective time-killer towards the end of the match, which comes in handy when you squeak a go-ahead goal in on a particularly tough opponent.
Really though, other than the obvious changes mentioned – the rest is essentially the same great soccer that FIFA has been giving us for over a decade now, and as a nice touch, FIFA includes a video montage featuring clips and cuts of FIFA games from the past to the present. It’s interesting to see how the series has evolved, and reminds us just how well games look and play now compared to those “golden” days we all seem to be nostalgic about.
Oh FIFA and your graphics…why do you build me up, Buttercup, just to let me down?
It must be an even year, eh? Because it seems like every other year (which just so happens to be the even years) FIFA comes down a case of the hiccups. Par for the course, FIFA 06’s visuals are a top-notch affair all around, but the evil hiccups kick the framerate in the shins each and every time the ball changes team possession. Really, it seems to be more a result of AI programming, as the teams regroup for the change from offense to defense it must draw a powerful load on the processor and you see a second and a half or so of shuddering of the players. It’s not game ending, but it is a bit of a letdown.
Other than the hiccups, you won’t find a more realistic looking soccer game. The players and animations are second to none, with most players instantly recognizable not only by physical appearance, but also by on-field style and form. And EA has always done a great job with the stadiums and pitches – each beautifully laid out with a proper sense of size and scope, and with details like smoke and particle effects, fireworks, flash bulbs, billboard advertisements, even unique grooming of the turf.
One item to note, when the game kicks off against the Classic 11 Legends team, be warned that things might look a bit, er, screwy at first. I nearly lost it when I saw my beloved FIFA suddenly look muted, fuzzy, washed-out, overexposed and colorless. Photographers call the overall look “Sepia” which a brown-tinted filter applied to photos to make them appear old and antiqued. Once I realized that this look was purposeful – and done to give the Classic 11 challenge a sense of antiquity – and that the normal game featured the same crisp, clear and colorful look we have grown to know and love with FIFA, I breathed a sigh of relief.
FIFA has always been top-notch with the sound quality, and FIFA ’06 does not disappoint. From the chants of the crowd to the realistic “thunks” of the ball nailing an unsuspecting striker, FIFA has always put the player right in the middle of the sold-out stadiums.
Announcing is no longer in the hands of John Motson and Ally McCoist, as EA has instead decided to go with Clive Tydsley and Andy Gray. This won’t mean a while lot for us Americans, as all of those Brits sound the same anyway, right? (Just kidding UK readers!). Really, though, you would be hard pressed to find many differences between the two teams save for some of the really killer jabs you used to hear between McCoist and Motson. EA has done a great job keeping the play-by-play up to speed with the pace of he game, and although you may hear them get a bit fumbled-up every now and then, it’s more comical than annoying.
And as for the soundtrack – this has got to be one of the best EA Trax soundtracks yet. Not because each and every song is great – because some really aren’t that good – but more because we haven’t seen such a great collection of international music on one disc in a long time (well, since FIFA 2005). The music varies from jangle-rock to euro-pop to reggae and back again. Very cool stuff and very much a well-rounded and eye-opening collection of tunes.
With the in-depth Manager mode, the lighthearted Legends mode, and all of the tourneys and friendly matches you can sink your teeth into, you can bet that FIFA 06 has unlimited value. And that’s not even including the online friendly play and tournaments – which can be a bit laggy, but still get the job done.
Again, soccer games – more so than football, baseball or even basketball – tend to be some of the most user-friendly sports games there are, and they are perfect for introducing inexperienced company to the world of gaming. They don’t require an hour of controller explanation, and you as the host can choose to play it easy without being insulting. I mention this because it is handy to always keep a soccer game on hand for company, and that is sure to add to the overall value.
EA has officially regained the top spot in the console soccer wars with FIFA ‘06. Winning Eleven will still be the choice for the unyielding hardcore “footballers” in Europe, but for the best overall appeal to gamers of every interest and skill level, it’s hard to top FIFA 06.
Really, the only knock would be the graphics. If it weren’t for the graphical hiccups, or even if the hiccups were there but maybe not at every change of possession, FIFA would be getting an even higher score on this review. One has to wonder if this is a result of the slightly rushed release of FIFA 06 as EA was trying to beat Konami to the punch in Europe (much like they did to Sega / 2K with last year’s sports war here in the States) and if they would have just cooled their jets or a week or two, FIFA 06 might play as smooth as FIFA 2005.
Still, it’s a great game and soccer fans would be remiss not to check out FIFA 06.