FIFA '06 is an immersive, sleep-depriving experience
Posted: Monday October 17, 2005 11:38AM; Updated: Monday October 17, 2005 1:33PM
The most stunning improvement in FIFA '06 is the eye-catching attention to detail.
Courtesy of Electronic Arts
By Lang Whitaker, SI.com
In retrospect, it was probably breaking my team's bank for a mid-season acquisition of Freddy Adu that doomed my managerial career in England.
After all, I'd had a contentious but successful run at Fulham, and at the time, my Millwall squad was solidly mid-table, one of the most promising young teams in the Football League Championship. But I was getting scant midfield production, and with the transfer window closing and Millwall's board of directors applying pressure, I felt I had to make some kind of move.
And then I glanced over at the clock and noticed it was 3:07 in the morning.
FIFA Soccer '06 is the latest iteration in EA Sports' long-running series of soccer video games. While EA has dominated the general sports video-game market for more than a decade, its closest competition in any sport has historically come in soccer, from Konami's Winning Eleven series. This year, EA has not only given FIFA more nips and tucks than Janice Dickinson, but it has also given gamers the option of using alternate controls that are suspiciously similar to the controls of Winning Eleven. Hmm ...
The most sparkling FIFA improvement is probably the least obvious: The details are brilliant, from players raising their hands when a ball goes over the touch line to the clusters of cops wearing orange coats, huddled around in the corners of the field. They've also improved the individual player animations, so you can easily spot Ronaldinho's ponytail bouncing along behind him or Thomas Gravesen's gleaming bald dome. Also, Wayne Rooney correctly resembles a fire hydrant. And I loved the announcing of Andy Gray and Clive Tydsley. Though Tydsley dominates the booth, he's perfectly cheeky, once describing a hopeless shot I fired from near midfield as "speculative."
EA has added new net animations, so a shot that bangs into the top corner of the goal stretches the net realistically. Factor in a new collection of stadiums (giving the game 44 different grounds), and FIFA feels like a brand new game, even if it's not totally different than previous versions.
Visuals aside, the game also has new wrinkles in the play itself. One cool bit is the shielding move, where you can grab the ball and sit on it in the corner and let the clock run out. Prove you're good enough at wasting time and not trying to score and your player will be signed by a Serie A team. (OK, not really.)
The most useful addition is the "tactical button configuration." Using the directional pad, you can change your team's strategy on the fly, spreading your wing players wide to open the field, for example, or running an offside trap against an attacking striker. Once you set your team's philosophy, the defense (or offense, as the case may be) will react accordingly, and you have to re-configure your attack. EA has also introduced several new online modes, including one where you and your friends can create your own league and then use different cheats against your opponent (instantly fatiguing an entire lineup, for instance).
I found the most fun facet of the game was the Manager Mode, where you are charged with controlling a franchise's destiny. When you fire up this feature, you're given six world areas to choose from (i.e. England, South and North America, Spain and Italy). I looked around in Spain and Italy but couldn't find any team I was into -- the best teams (Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan) obviously don't need new management.
So I went to England and ended up going with Fulham: I figured since they were based in London, there was a chance I could share in Chelski's limelight and attract better players. Also, I wanted to use Americans Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride.
My first order of business upon taking control of Fulham was to sign a sponsorship deal. I was presented with about 18 companies, from British Telecom to T-Mobile, each offering various levels of financial support dependent on meeting goals (winning the league, winning a cup, etc.). I went with a Danish soccer Web site, only because they offered me a large bonus at the end of the season.
I tinkered with my lineup and got the Cottagers clicking, and we began the season 7-4-4 and settled into the top third of the table. Things were going well, until after one match, I was presented with a question, which periodically happens in Manager Mode. The media wanted to speak to me after a particularly close loss, and I was offered the options of: a) facing the media; b) sending an assistant coach; or c) blowing them off altogether. Like Jose Mourinho, I decided that I was better than the media and shut them out. This infuriated the board of directors (they sent me an e-mail chewing me out), and a week later I was fired.
At the end of the season, I was offered a variety of second-tier coaching jobs. After assessing my options, I elected to go to Millwall FC, where they have a long history of volatile supporters. I set out to put together a multicultural team worthy of a Benetton ad to change the mind set of the franchise.
That didn't work out so well, either. Between transferring players, upgrading my coaching staff, juggling my lineup to keep fresh legs on the pitch and trying to save enough cash to expand my stadium, Manager Mode can be pretty stressful, a visceral experience that more than once caused me to slam my fist into the couch.
For all its bells and whistles, where FIFA '06 really stands out is in how it captures the flow of the game. As soccer fans know, the beautiful game does not involve a bunch of fast back-and-forth. Soccer is about building up, probing and prodding, preparing an attack, trying to control the flow of the action in the bigger picture instead of making slick spin moves (although those are available as well).
FIFA '06 isn't a perfect game. For one thing, play still lags a bit, so you often find yourself hitting a button to make a pass a few seconds before the ball arrives, which leads to the occasional own goal or pass directly to a defender. Also, there is no referee on the field while you play, though they do show up in the cut scenes after fouls or dust-ups. At the end of the day, though, don't be surprised to find yourself sitting on the couch, fuming at one your midfielders, snapping a rash response at your board of directors or making fruitless bids to transfer Thierry Henry to your second-division team.
Basically, FIFA Soccer '06 is an immersive, entertaining game. Even at 3:07 a.m.