If there is one sport EA has been under pressure to perform with in the gaming sector it's football/soccer. Pro Evolution Soccer is still seen by the purists as the better of the two games but in the past few years EA has made leaps and bounds in this franchise, none more so than this year. FIFA 2006 is a nice swansong to this generation of football games, and for those who refuse to play the game because of PES, you are missing out on one of the best football games ever made.
When we first saw this game a few months ago, we were astounded by how far EA had come. Watching the game mesmerised us as EA have taken a leaf out of PES' book and worked extremely hard on the animation of the players. Getting control of the game for an extended period of time has only sought to enhance this. The fact is you won't like FIFA for the first two hours, saying "it's too hard", "this is not what professional football is" etc, but once you play more and more you see the small nuances that make it exactly what professional football is like, and then you begin to appreciate just how far the series has come.
There really isn't anything major added to the game this year other than what appears to be complete overhaul of how the players react to balls. EA for the first time have added the handball rule however unlike in PES, it only occurs rarely and only if it seems intentional (yes in replays it looks like the player sticks his arm out to stop the ball). You can still perform all the tricks with the right analogue and score some crazy goals but this year EA focused on the gameplay rather than something spectacularly new, and it has paid off.
From the first moment you kick off you will notice this is unlike any other FIFA game before it. The players pass how they do in real life, for instance with Arsenal, the players pass long, fast balls while other players will do short flick passes. The player models are even more lifelike than previous years and it's hard to see just how EA managed to pull this amount of power out of the aging PS2 console. Players react to poor decisions and tough tackles as well and will plead with the referee for fouls. The ball seems harder to control and one thing which disappoints us that it is almost impossible to take players 1 on 1 and win, which reflects the lack of dribbling in the professional game today.
One thing that will come as a bit of a surprise is that this game is hard. 1-0 and 0-0 scorelines are quite common. EA has really reflected just how hard it can be for two strikers to get through four defenders and this can lead to a great deal of frustration. Tactics become key in being a success in the game and really running up to the goal is impossible in 2006, unless you beat the offside trap.
EA has always been big on licensing and it is no different this year with the retention of the exclusive FIFA license as well as licenses such as the English Premier League and lower divisions from the UK and other leagues from around Europe all have their official club stadiums (most big clubs), proper uniforms, sponsors and coaches. You can also take on the management side of things in manager mode as well which tasks you with improving a team's chemistry and generally keeping them from relegation. For those who just want to kick a ball around, the leagues are available outside manager mode as well.
Visually the game is a real treat. EA has worked super hard this year on the player character models and animations as mentioned before but EA has also captured the big match atmosphere extremely well. You can tell when you have a derby on your hands as the crowd is almost deafening and the players seem to go in harder and want the ball more. EA has finally replaced John Motson with a new commentator, who again comes from the Sky sports stable of characters and does a superb job in improving the games atmosphere.
FIFA 2006 is absolutely positively one of the best football games ever made and shows that EA is serious about competing with Pro Evo Soccer. PES5 will likely still be just ahead but EA is catching. The winner is the consumer as each development team pushes each other to bigger and better games. We can't wait to see what the two can pull out for next gen. Until then, FIFA 2006 remains one of the premiere console games, and we can't recommend 2006 to football fans enough.