Posted: Friday May 26, 2006 1:00PM; Updated: Friday May 26, 2006 3:22PM
Claudio Reyna uses his head against Germany.
Electronic Arts (Xbox 360)
If you want to see the United States playing in the 2006 World Cup championship match, your best bet isn't tuning in to ABC on the afternoon of Sunday, July 9. If this is your life's dream, your raison d'ętre, then your best bet is to go out and buy EA Sports' new video game, 2006 FIFA World Cup (available for all systems).
In the real world, Team USA has one of the toughest roads to the Cup, not to mention having to escape Italy, Ghana and the Czech Republic in the opening round. But in the virtual world, anything can happen: Claudio Reyna's problematic hamstring can be as taut as a guitar string. Besides the Yanks, Wayne Rooney's fractured foot will easily support all of his 260 pounds, and Ronaldinho's dynamic dental work looks nearly normal.
As the lone officially licensed World Cup video game, this is your only option if you want to get in the game and play in the Cup. And in this case, having only one choice is a good thing. While Konami's Winning Eleven series has always had strong game play, EA holds the edge in visuals, and a large part of the World Cup is the over-the-top spectacle of it all. In this game, once you get to Germany, the tournament matches begin with a satellite image that starts with a rotating view of planet Earth and then zooms into one of the 12 official stadiums -- like Google Maps gone wild. The players move fluidly, and EA nails the shadows, the sign boards and all the details.
The game's English-language announcers, Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend, are terrific, though I still miss Andy Gray's rumpled analysis. Tyldesley is fine, though, and I enjoy their un-American sayings -- calling a long crossing lob "a searching pass," for instance. Once during a penalty kick, as the keeper and kicker stared each other down, Tyldesley described the impending mano-a-mano showdown as "almost gladiatorial." It's also funny when you try a hopeless shot from far out, as Tyldesley will randomly roar the player's name as the ball sails well over the net: "DONOVAAAAN!!!"
Electronic Arts (Xbox 360)
The disc comes with several games besides the big Cup. One interesting option is the Global Challenge. Forty classic World Cup moments are re-created, and you're inserted into the thick of things, required to play your way out. For instance, in Croatia vs. France from 1996, you're asked to overcome a 2-1 deficit in the final 20 minutes to advance to the Cup final. Or, in the '90 semis, you're asked to rescue England and win a game that, in reality, Germany won in penalties. These scenarios are fun, but strangely, you play with all the current rosters. I'm sure the English are upset they lost to Germany, but wouldn't it be more rewarding to win it with original keeper Peter Shilton instead of current minder Paul Robinson?
Another mini-game is a penalty-kick challenge, aspirationally called the "Ultimate Penalty Kick Mode." Here you square off against another country and go best-of-five from close in. What's fun about it is that you can make your keeper taunt the kickers, and the longer the kicker waits to go, the harder it becomes to accurately knock the ball into the space where you're aiming. This mode is also notable because it best displays some of the game's impressive facial captures and details in close-ups before the penalty rounds get under way.
If you buy 2006 FIFA World Cup, you're probably spending the bingo to, you know, actually play in the World Cup. There are a few ways to get there. Once you pick your country -- and there are 127 countries available, from Albania to Zimbabwe -- you can either go through the qualifiers and attempt to finish with enough points in your region and make the Cup, or you can jump directly into the round-robin first stage. I wanted to come correct and make it through all the quallies and friendlies, but after what felt like the U.S.' seventh match against Panama, I was ready to just get to playing for the real thing. (I'm not sure if there's a way to simulate some of the early matches, but if that option exists, it's so well-hidden that it'll make you want to just move on too.)
Australia tries to beat Brazil at its own beautiful game.
Electronic Arts (Xbox 360)
Once you reach the Cup, you get to select your own 23-man roster from a sizable pool of players from each country. Because the game was released before most of the rosters were set, some of the surprise inclusions aren't available. For example, 17-year-old England World Cup reserve Theo Walcott is not in England's top 40 players in the game, although that may speak more to outgoing manager Sven-Göran Eriksson than it does to EA's mind-reading abilities.
The game play is pretty much exactly the same as in EA's FIFA 2006, released last year (and reviewed here), which is a wise move, since that game played well. As you get deeper into the tournament, the games get faster and faster, reflecting the increased level of competition. One difference in this game is that your team's star players are represented with a little star over their heads. I like this move, because in soccer games it's not immediately obvious which player you're controlling, since the names appear on a bar in the corner of the screen. In Madden, the guy's names appear around their feet. Why can't they do this in soccer games?
Once you get into the games, each match is preceded by the appropriate pomp and circumstance. You start with a little-known fact: The Ivory Coast is the world's leading exporter of cocoa. As the camera lazily pans around the raucous stadium, the players line up for the pregame photos while confetti and streamers drop around them. The crowd roars, the lineups are presented and you're off.
The game could have used a few tweaks -- I found a few minimal glitches in the game, such as the picture jumping a bit from time to time -- but nothing severe enough to keep me from recommending this game.
What happens when you make the World Cup final? I can't answer that, at least not yet. My Team USA finally made it through the opening round, and now I've got my hands full in the quarterfinals. I'm assuming there will be a trophy presentation, or perhaps cash will eject from my PlayStation 2 or some outlandish reward will be triggered.
Until I find out, I gotta go -- got a match against Brazil in five minutes.