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 pretournament 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 soccer 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 soccer game staples, you get global challenge scenarios, the excellent FIFA Lounge mode that was absent from last year's PC game, 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 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. Also, you'll get to listen to one of the game's many licensed songs, which come from an eclectic soundtrack spanning some 14 countries. Good prematch 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.
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), and the PC game doesn't suffer from nearly as much slowdown as its PlayStation 2 and Xbox counterparts. The drops in frame rate that do occur are predictably most common when there are a lot of players on the screen simultaneously, and they're generally not too dramatic--at least not when you're playing offline.
Slowdown issues aside, 2006 FIFA World Cup offers a soccer experience that, while not quite as realistic as Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer (Winning Eleven in North America) games, is certainly comparable in terms of quality. It's a lot easier to score goals in FIFA than it is in Pro Evo (largely because FIFA'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, through balls, and dummies, are generally the best way to beat opponents. The controls are fully customizable, although those of you with a penchant for the Pro Evolution Soccer setup will find that it's not possible to replicate those controls exactly since, for example, the same button used for passing the ball has to be used for switching players when you're on defensive duties.
As you progress through the World Cup mode, 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.