This is why Americans don't like soccer.
Rarely does a game's title tell you precisely what it's giving you. Usually games have promising monikers, like Kingdom of Paradise, but less than Utopian content. In the best cases, they seem to offer something specific, like in the cases of Grand Theft Auto and Balloon Fight. EA's new FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup seems to offer more than just plain old FIFA 06, what with all the extra words, but actually provides way less.
What made the console version of FIFA 06 different from the previous year's offering - Manager and Lounge modes – are both gone. Instead we get only the namesake "Road to FIFA World Cup" mode, which is simply a sequence of mini tournaments until you get to the World Cup finals, win, and become the champ. Attempting to round out such thin game mode options are your basic Tournament and Practice modes, the former a simple multiplayer version of Road to FIFA World Cup mode and the latter barely counting as a mode at all.
EA didn't stop at completely gutting their gameplay options, they also shed roughly 8300 players and over 400 teams. Road to FIFA World Cup, despite its enormo king-of-all-licenses inherited from big papa EA, only features 1700 players and 72 international squads. So if you have a couple of favorite teams, you're likely to be disappointed.
With so little single player content, the main saving grace is playing this puppy on your HDTV with other humans. Online play provides unranked matches for fun and ranked matches for Leaderboard ascension. Up to four human players can compete per game (two on each side), or two can join the same team and battle the computer co-operatively. These features aren't special to Road to FIFA World Cup, though given the Xbox 360's streamlined online functionality, signing on and staying on is much easier than before. If you've ever played FIFA online, you know what to expect.
You'll also know to what to expect offline, including demure A.I. from your teammates. They'll stand there flatfooted, watching the opposing dribbler as if he has a divine aura of protection around him. It's entirely up to you to choose a teammate and attack the opposing player with a challenge or a go-for-broke sliding tackle. Thankfully, the game doesn't meddle with your player selection nearly as much as FIFAs past, giving you more control over how you attack opposing players.
While your teammates seem laid low by vicious hangovers, your opponents are apparently loaded up on PCP, steroids and rabies. They will challenge every one of your dribblers like Aztec athletes, playing for their lives, and they're always right on your ass, move for move. Jukes that would have left a fellow human wearing a graduation cap can't shake these guys - the A.I. defenders are always hot on your heels. The right analog stick shimmy is the only thing that occasionally works, although it's no substitute for network passing and strike formation. Even though these methods of attack should definitely be rewarded, you should also get to juke people, or at least count on similar efforts from your CPU-controlled defenders.
The learning curve required to defeat the AI. far exceeds most peoples' ability to just pick up the controller and have fun. On the other hand, the gameplay control interface has been dumbed down, with the face buttons providing your shots and passes and the L-trigger modifying each of them. Anyone with a nervous system would be able to have fun with this simpler scheme…if the 'roid raging defenders weren't so on their balls. But they are, making this a hard game to get into unless you really like multipaddle pong, I mean, uh, soccer.
Most of the effort in FIFA 06's translation to the "next-gen" focuses on its animations and textures rather than a more robust physics engine, which is what we were hoping for. Ball and player collisions aren't any more realistic than they ever were. A sliding tackle on a runner will send him flying convincingly enough, although we'd like some ragdoll physics to go with our next-gen entrees.
A well-known conundrum of graphical realism is that the closer you get, the more noticeable the flaws become – this is known as the Uncanny Valley. Road to FIFA World Cup's facial animations are emotionally powered and convincing at times, but overly bright lighting and a weird blur effect gives players a buttery-faced mannequin look. It's not pretty. A few players get the star treatment, with forehead creases, hair follicles, and skin imperfections, but many others have the waxy look of the clone upon their sullen mugs.
For the most part, the framerate keeps up with the players on the field, running at a steady sixty frames-per-second. The player animations are as smooth as the butter their faces seem carved from. The running animations have remained templated, however, so each player on the pitch runs kind of funny. It's like they all went to the same elementary school and learned to run from the same, weird P.E. teacher. Textures on uniforms are highly detailed and shaded, but bounce around as if made of Play Doh. The in-game auto-replays, on the other hand, are as janky as they come. EA used an odd aura-effect to disguise aliasing issues, which creates this weird ghosting effect. Come to think of it, that must be the divine light that keeps my A.I. players at bay. The framerate drops to somewhere around 20 fps during these mini-cutscenes.
Distracting your attention from the game's graphical annoyances is the quality commentary from UK specialists Andy Gray and Martin Tyler, whose blurbs are well-timed and mostly accurate, if not somewhat vague. Also, international tunes and stadium sound effects deliver big game noise, even if there's no big game here to back them up.
In the end, FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup lets the goalie out of the box by telling us the name of the game's only mode right there in the title. What it fails to mention is that there's nothing else here for FIFA, Winning Eleven, or soccer fans in general. If you don't have that luxury of getting this free with a haircut or something, you may want to adopt this game much later and for less money.