At a glance...

Reviewer Platform Publisher Developer Players Screenshots
Matt Bailey Xbox Electronic Arts EA Sports Canada 1-4 (Share screen), 1-2 (Xbox Live) Here
Requirements Also on... Buy from Amazon.co.uk
Xbox Live subscription for online play PS2, GC, GBA, NDS, PC, X360, PSP Click here to buy FIFA 06.

FIFA 06 review

"Another year. Another FIFA" as the saying goes. Many franchises now feature yearly updates - Burnout, Tony Hawk, WWE - but EA's FIFA is the king, having begun the trend many years ago. It also became notorious a few of years ago for simply issuing slight incremental updates, with new stats and players for a new season making up the bulk of the changes. However, FIFA's dominance of the market has faced an increasing challenge from Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer series, also released yearly, and now on its fifth version. Although Pro Evo was always trumpeted by critics as a better series, FIFA remained strong, heading to the top of the multi-format charts with its release on just about every platform, compared to the PS2-only Pro Evo. However, this year Pro Evo is also on Xbox, PC and PlayStation Portable, so how do EA Sports Canada respond to this challenge?

Well, they begun implementing significant new features a couple of years ago, and have been able to bring the series up to scratch, increasingly making it a contender for the best game in the genre. Yet with every new FIFA comes a new Pro Evo. So one of the main changes in FIFA 06 is the new controls - instead of B to shoot, X to lob, and so forth, you now use X to fire your shots at the keeper, while B will send the ball flying - i.e. you use the same controls as you would in Pro Evo. Yes, one of the biggest changes this year is the implementation of a rival's control system. It's not being marketed like this, of course, but the idea will be to win over those already used to Pro Evo. Admittedly it is a pleasing alteration - having recently being playing Pro Evolution Soccer 5 for it's upcoming review I was glad to not have to learn a new control set, or find myself spending too much time lobbing balls over the net instead of into it.

A new manager mode has been implemented this year to compete with Pro Evo's Master League. This new mode allows you to control budgets, manage coaching staff, decide tactics or play the transfer market. Sure, it's not as comprehensive as the likes of Football Manager or even EA's own FIFA Manager 06, but it's certainly a worthy inclusion, and another one of those efforts to bring the series level with Pro Evo. This concept of trying to take away the advantage is also seen in the new Create-a-Player mode. Now FIFA 06 allows you to build your own player, including customising his appearance and stats. This can work particularly well when used in combination with Team Management to produce your own dream team. However, again this isn't something which makes FIFA 06 a better game - it's just another feature that should have been included sooner.

The main theme of this year's edition appears to be retro. There are menus for EA Sports Retro which gives you an overview of the history of the series (though not the original FIFA Soccer title included in the PlayStation 2 version), as well as sections giving highlights of great sporting moments over the years which you can unlock by playing games - like Pro Evo's ...uh... Pro Evo points system.

What certainly isn't retro is the graphics engine. While the changes aren't major over last year's edition, they are noteworthy. In particular is EA Sports Canada finally grasping perspective, which means players are now smaller further away from the screen, which not only gives the field of play a more realistic look, but also makes it easier to manoeuvre, with more space visible on screen. Also, it would appear EA have again sharpened the graphics, with the detail on players impressive in general, but even more so when zoomed in. With the camera panning in after certain events like fouls, you'll notice how the background is carefully blurred, giving all the focus on the players, showing off accurate kits and faces. The replays also benefit from this look, and make them look almost pre-rendered and certainly glorious (unless the opposing team has scored against you). Pro Evo could certainly learn from this.

While the retro content and the graphical updates might be all well and good, they don't contribute to the gameplay - arguably even more important in sports titles. I mentioned earlier that the controls were an important change in the gameplay, though more fundamentally they are complemented by changes in tackling, dribbling and shielding the ball which provide for a better experience. This year it seems that keeping the ball is a difficult accomplishment - you'll often find both yourself losing a ball when trying to make a run, and your defence easily stealing a ball off the opponent. At least the change is fair, but it does feel a bit too easy. Arguably the game has moved on from the days of 10-0 wins between Premiership sides which should provide for a better game of football, but at the same time it moves FIFA away from it's niche as a licensed but more arcade-style game towards a Pro Evo clone with many more licenses. This is a move which has divided fans of the series, and could even be to Konami's advantage. This is especially true when playing the games back to back - while FIFA 06 is certainly the best in the series in providing a comprehensive and enjoyable game of football, it still doesn't offer the fluidity and excitement of Pro Evolution Soccer 5. There are also the occasional annoying bugs which crop up, such as computer-controlled players grabbing balls and running them off the field, though these aren't common issues, and shouldn't interfere with the gameplay.

Football games stand out in multiplayer, so thankfully you are catered for well in FIFA 06 with the new FIFA Lounge. This mode allows up to 8 players to set up what is essentially a mini-tournament. Each player chooses their team, and is then involved in a number of matches, with wins, loses, draws, goals, etc. all totalled up to provide rankings. Not only does this provide for a comprehensive experience between friends for a session, but thanks to the ability to save, or let your teams become computer-controlled, this is a mode which will likely be used again and again over a long period; certainly helping the game's overall longevity.

On the online side of things you are again presented with EA's version of Xbox Live, which like Burnout Revenge, has certainly improved over last year's offering. The Optimatch and Quick Match features work as expected, but the requirement for the game to log in to EA servers means you are faced with occasionally slow servers, and the likely eventual close down of online support - maybe even with the release of next year's edition. In game the flow is reasonably lag free - my first game was extremely laggy, timing out just after I managed to score, but games since have been smooth and enjoyable. The skill matching seemed to work well - after being thrashed on a Quick Match, I headed to Optimatch to get the game to match my skill level with other players, resulting in a far more balanced game which I eventually managed to win. Overall it makes for some great online football - and is likely better than on the PlayStation 2 version - and is another reason why the game will be played in months to come.

Ratings

Graphics Plenty of detail on the players and kits provide an authentic experience, while the blurring on the replays always make the goals look glorious. 9/10
Gameplay Certainly enjoyable, but hardly an improvement over last year. It's still not as smooth to play as PES, and it's possibly too easy to lose the ball now, but it is certainly a very decent effort. 8/10
Value Quite a bit packed into the package - from basic multiplayer through to online play through to the new management options. However, if you own last year's edition then it's going to be hard to justify the cost of a whole new game. 7/10
Lifespan The new FIFA Lounge and management options will keep the game going for quite a while - though the later isn't a comprehensive as the Master League. A good implementation of online support will keep people playing for months. 8/10
Audio The commentary is thankfully better than PES 5, though mostly because it's gibberish actually flows. The music score is pretty good, with the likes of Oasis, Jamiroquai and the Doves making appearances. However, as the music doesn't relate to in-game action, they are mostly overlooked. 8/10
Overall The FIFA versus PES debate rages on. As the former gets better, so does the latter, and so the status quo remains; while FIFA 06 is probably the best game in the series so far, it's also still unable to close that gap that makes Pro Evolution Soccer 5 the more fluid, more realistic, and ultimately more enjoyable game of football, but at the same time provides enough entertainment in itself to warrant a purchase as well. That is, if you don't already own last year's version... 8/10

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