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.