As the years crawl by, we can be sure of only three things: The sun will rise in the east, you'll remember less today than you did yesterday, and another FIFA will come out right on time. It's been that way for about a dozen years now, and luckily, FIFA 06 also heralds a fresher path for the franchise while giving you more of the depth and accuracy you've enjoyed since the beginning. It's not a new kick, but it's a marginally better one.
Most of the modes and features are back, though all see some notable tweaks. The core Manager Mode delivers over 500 real teams, 10,000 players and tracks a 15 year career, all of which should be more than enough for any hardcore soccer buff. With a create-a-player option, you also have the basic tools to drop yourself into the game. In addition to balancing your budget between hiring talent, coaching staff, and renewing contracts, you can set ticket prices for your games while keeping fan support high. As long as your team is winning and exciting, blowing big bucks on stadium expansions could be a smart move, since you'll attract more punters with deeper wallets.
This budding empire needs cash to burn, and your flow streams in via a range of sponsorship deals, each with payoffs as large as their expectations. One sponsor might promise a wealth of dough if you win the whole shebang, but if you're not confident in your team's noobish level, you could go with another sponsor with more attainable goals and smaller payoffs. Once you eat your fingers over who's ad should mar the back of your shirts, you'll have to decide to stay with the sponsor and soak up loyalty bonuses or jump to another sponsor with your newly juiced team. All the while, you have your job security and team chemistry to balance.
Risk assessment on this level is unique to FIFA 06 and is quite effective, since you're ultimately defining your own risks and rewards as you move up the financial ladder. It also allows for a great sense of victory if you squeeze out some impossible wins, cash in big, and upgrade your team quickly to a higher level. Manager mode's tweaks are welcomed and make for a satisfying, deep experience.
Of course, all that means nothing without solid gameplay to back it up. To that end, FIFA's Off the Ball control scheme returns with an added tweak. You can still lead a teammate in advance for a pass and use the First Touch quick shimmie for tight jams after receptions. The new ability is Pace Control, which will make your dribbler trap the ball, square up a bit, and become more sensitive to analog stick tilts to help you juke the defender before you blow past him. Pace Control is augmented by players forwarding the ball ahead of themselves, so you can trap the ball, take a small lead, and juke more precisely.
The increase in control options is a double-edged cleat, though. FIFA 06 feels like more of a hardcore sim than it used to, but it's also clunkier since most of the control input is activated discretely. EA recognized this and, as a quick fix, has added a New Dribble preset control scheme, effectively ripped straight from Konami's Winning Eleven monster to make FIFA's own control adjustments look like innovations. This is obviously designed with the hope of easing any transition fans of the Winning Eleven series may consider, though it misses the point of that game's elegant inherent control scheme.
Using the D-Pad to call plays will now display a pop-up showing you what you've activated, helping you make a basic mental log of what the hell you're doing without the need to stop the action. This is a nice change since there are a ton of possible play-calling options. Combining two plays will yield customized, finely-tuned strategic results, such as a zone or man defense coupled with one of the many traps. Additionally, setting your team's attitude to defensive, neutral or offensive to adapt automatically to the plays you're calling will further fit your personal play style.
Players are also affected by morale. Depending upon how the game is going, they'll more feverishly swarm an attacking dribbler or defensively fall back into the goalie's box. It's an intelligent A.I. response, but this kind of auto-adaptation can take the match's tempo out of your hands, much like the annoying assisted player selection. The game still insists that you want to use "this" dude in "this" defensive context rather than letting you pick him yourself; so you constantly struggle with toggling to the right player at the right time, which can be a frustrating leash to contend with.
The resultant arm flailing is nothing compared to how hard you'll freak once you encounter FIFA's online cross-marketing Pyramid scheme. On the PS2, you actually have to pay another two bucks for a subscription to the online service. That sucks, but if loose change equals survival, you can opt for the other plan, which involves giving a real soccer-oriented website your email address so that they can spam you with "offers and promotions." In exchange, they'll pay your two-dollar fee. Once you jump through these corporate hoops like a nice little monkey, you'll find that online play is riddled with latency issues, choppy framerates, and disconnects. EA, WTF? Do you really need to milk fans out of a measly two more bucks?
The Xbox version is a bit better off since, by virtue of Xbox Live, you dodge these shady shenanigans and have relatively few latency run-ins. Either way, it's better to play with people right there next to you, so dust off that multi-tap for FIFA 06's new, funky Lounge mode.
This is the best way to play FIFA with your cronies, since your losses over time will affect how many debuffers you can use either before or during a game. Cutting your buddy's players' energy by half or benching a targeted player are among the twenty different cheats you can store or use against those with mad skills to help level out the playing field. What something like this is doing in an otherwise strict soccer sim confuses and frightens me, though it's a fun and refreshing addition nonetheless.
The graphics are equally exciting, having gotten some love and thus is the best looking FIFA to date. Animations being as important as they are in soccer games, FIFA 06 does a solid job of keeping the detail high and clean throughout. When the action gets really intense and too many of these highly-detailed players are onscreen, the framerate drops and slowdown gets the better of the PS2. The Xbox does a better job in keeping up to speed, as expected, but will have a special moment here and again. Otherwise, the game looks good, with nice textures and burly stadiums.
New announcers Andy Gray and Clive Tydsley are a revitalizing replacement from past commentators. Their chatter is accurate, short-winded, and varied enough to keep you entertained for a couple hours, more than what you can say for most sports games. Still, you'll spend a good amount of time with just the crowd blaring in the foreground, which always adds a sense of stadium excitement.
FIFA has come a long way in the last twelve years, but most of its changes take a few iterations to refine. This is again the case with FIFA 06, a solid all-around improvement over last year's game. Still, EA should focus on really nailing the online play missing in Winning Eleven and stop embarrassing the franchise with petty control tweaks. It's the best FIFA to date, but still only the second best player on the pitch.