Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: April 25, 2006
I will continue to beat the "EA Sports' Xbox 360 launch lineup was disappointing" drum for a long while. Not only were the EA titles simply facelifted versions of last year's games, but they were also severely lacking in standard features, and Road to the World Cup was no exception. Here was a lackluster, stripped-down soccer game that was pushed through for the sake of having a "next-gen" soccer game on the shelves. EA has published 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany in time for the beautiful game's most important set of fixtures, which ought to be starting as you read this.
FIFA is most popular in North America, where gamers readily recognize the EA tag and associate it with all things having to do with sports. While there may be differing viewpoints on which soccer game is the best one, I've stuck by FIFA as my yearly installment for a few reasons. FIFA holds all of the major licenses one could want in one game; you can play licensed versions of AC Milan, Arsenal, Ajax, DC United and teams from the J-League and K-League. In FWC, you have every team that qualified for this year's World Cup. In Road to the World Cup, I was disappointed to see that one of my favorite teams, Trinidad and Tobago, was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, in FWC, the Soca Warriors are represented in fine order. You can even choose T'n'T as your favorite team so you glimpse the likes of Stern John, Dwight Yorke, Kelvin Jack and even that Trinie-By-Extension, Chris Birchall, through the various menus.
FWC uses the same engine as its predecessor, but there has been some progress made since the prior game's release. In RTWC, there were some serious normal mapping problems, as well as some modeling issues concerning players' uniforms and how they continually ruffled like Liberace's blouse. Thankfully, the visuals have been toned down and refined to make a more visually pleasing game. Faces are reminiscent of the corresponding players, but every once in a while, you'll notice during a replay how some players simply don't look anything like their real-world counterparts. For example, Wayne Rooney looks like some jug-eared pensioner rather than the bright-eyed up-and-coming star that he is.
The stadiums do look really good, though, and the crowds have a roiling ferocity that makes them look alive and excited. Banners, confetti and flares are all nice touches, as is the dynamic lighting of each game. As the game progresses into the mid-day or evening, you can see the shadow line creeping across the pitch. The grass looks neatly trimmed rather than some hard Astroturf surface, and the ball moves across the ground realistically according to the weather conditions. A wet field kills any through-balls you put on the ground, and high winds can cause a crossing pass or long direct kick to sail off target.
While FIFA World Cup might be an evolutionary step over the dreadfully mundane RTWC in terms of its visuals and ambience, it is definitely a step up in gameplay. FWC's gameplay is perhaps the single reason that raises this title above EA's earlier X360 soccer effort. Whereas earlier versions of FIFA had you pass the ball in the direction of the desired target, FWC allows you to play the ball into space and doesn't automatically assume who you are trying to pass to. This is a much more realistic approach to passing and allows you to run players onto the ball and likewise allows you time runs and passing with much more satisfying results. You can also switch to a player who's off the ball and call for a pass as you run through the defense on your own.
Shooting has changed from earlier versions as well. Previously, you held the shot button, and a power gauge came up, which allowed to adjust how hard you took your shot. FWC replaces the strength value with a height value. Tap the button, and your player will shoot as hard as he can, but the shot will be on the ground. Hold the shot a little longer, and you'll fire off a perfect knee-high shot. Hold the shot even longer still, and you can put a shot beyond the keeper's reach and into the corners, but beware, as you run the risk of missing your target altogether. I like this approach to shooting, since anyone who takes a shot is going to shoot as hard as he can, unless he is chipping the ball over a charging keeper, which FWC also allows you to do.
However, FWC is somewhat lacking in the game mode department. You can choose a team and run it through qualifiers and regional play-offs to earn a berth or a seed for the World Cup, which can allow you to make a dream run for the likes of Nigeria or Costa Rica. Unfortunately, you cannot run this mode like a franchise, where you develop players and groom younger talent into crucial assets of a team. It would logically follow that if a team is qualifying for the World Cup over a four-year period that some players would grow old and deteriorate, while some would develop into better players, which would then have you decide on which players to train up, which to move back to being substitutes, and which keeper is going to start between the woodwork for you. You also cannot modify players or create your own player, which always bums me out. Clearly, Trinidad needs me to create opportunities and orchestrate their offense from center midfield. Alas, my T'n'T boys will have go without and settle for me commanding the game via the controller.
I am very glad to see that FIFA World Cup's core gameplay elements have evolved to make the game experience more dynamic and realistic. The new passing and shooting systems make for a more creative take on offense. Of course, there are all of the set-piece plays that have been in earlier versions, but with the new passing and shooting system, scoring goals is not necessarily easier, but more intuitive and accessible, which was not the case in RTWC. In fact, anything you could have done in RTWC, you can do in FWC and do it better and more accurately. It goes without saying that if you're looking for a soccer game for the X360, 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany is the way to go.
FIFA World Cup isn't perfect, though, and those who want league play and are more interested in Champions' League and earning the EPL's vaunted Treble will be left out in the cold until next year. Even so, if you're that much of a soccer fan, then FWC will certainly whet your appetite and give you a chance to represent Trinidad and Tobago, your new favorite World Cup team. Go on, Trinidad! Impossible is nothing!