Version tested: Xbox 360
The Road to the World Cup was as rocky as it's ever been for EA. After some appalling defending and ill-advised tactics, the critics were sharpened their knives in readiness as another blunderous effort went wide. "2/10!" howled an exasperated Bramwell. "Dreadful...a terrible disservice to things that merely inspire dread," he fumed. Even the more generous, forgiving critics and diehard FIFA fans were less than polite in their assessment of EA's first next gen footy title. When even this lot mumble "I'd have given it a 6, personally," you know something's up.
How could the mighty EA turn this one around in less than six months? With the odds stacked against them and a mountain to climb, it would take a turnaround of Middlesbrough proportions to win people over. Last time out, the entire game engine was fundamentally broken in so many ways that it didn't even feel like FIFA anymore, never mind football. Players were too even in their pace, making breakaways almost impossible, possession constantly switched, making the football scrappy and frustrating, and the ball dynamics simply didn't work in any sense that resembled football. Throw in dire frame rate issues, goo-zombie facial likenesses and about 15 per cent of the content of FIFA 06, and it's hardly a great shock that it was greeted like a fat hairy old streaker at the Playboy Mansion. Get out, get out, GET OUT.
Evidently EA's answer to these kinds of problems is to shove another, far better edition out of the door as quickly as possible and hope that we all forget about its past misdemeanours equally swiftly. Well, World Cup is certainly a vast improvement on what went before. It fires in some vicious, dipping volleys of its own that had us leaping out of our seats, but still manages to find some new and interesting ways of tripping over its own bootlaces on the way to scoring a few all-new own goals and gaffs that Nick Hancock himself would be proud to include on his next collection,
It's in the game
First the good stuff. Aside from the gloss that comes as standard with every EA Sports title, the most important (though not necessarily immediately obvious) enhancements are in the tweaks made to the way that World Cup plays compared to recent FIFAs. Although still nowhere near perfect, the game at least flows much more than it has done in recent years, and there's actually a huge amount of fun to be had if you stick with it beyond the frustrating first hour or so.
By and large, players actually move to collect passes rather than stay rooted to the spot (though this still occurs now and then) and this crucial extra element of intelligence immediately makes for a more instinctive, flowing game of footy where stringing passes together isn't some happy accident. Not only that, manoeuvring with the ball feels more convincing, and you'll especially notice the subtle difference between the star players. Actually pulling off different types of shot, passes and cross is straightforward and intuitive, largely thanks to a more transparent way of dealing with their power, weight and direction. It takes time to truly fathom the more advanced nuances of the controls, but even the basics work reasonably well.
As ever, the bedrock of the controls focuses on basic pass/shoot/cross/through-ball dynamics, with the fitness-draining right-trigger sprint option adding the first layer of depth. Beyond that, the left trigger acts as the modifier for just about everything you need in the game, with more advanced moves like the chipped through-ball a particular favourite, not to mention the chip shot (especially with very talented strikers) or low cross.
With extensive practice, you'll even start to suss out the range of double-tap moves you can pull off in conjunction with the left trigger, such as the one-two pass (ground or lob), early crosses, as well as dummies and skill moves (using the generally unnecessary right stick), but these always seem more 'miss' than 'hit' in our extensive experience. Anything that takes the focus off passing and moving with often unpredictable results is bad form. We wish such silky showboating skills were just an integral part of the way that these gifted gods of the beautiful game received the ball (maybe automatically pinging the ball ahead of themselves to gain the extra space, rather than expecting an extra prod of the skill stick), the way they ran and the way they pass, shoot, cross or head. But adding that extra layer of control distraction just doesn't work and never has.
Master and commander
You certainly won't master everything (and will more likely get yourself into trouble unless you're really good) for a long while, but even within the parameters of the relatively basic moves, FIFA World Cup plays a decent game of football that is often exciting, flowing, unpredictable and downright spectacular when it wants to be. Perhaps more significantly, it does the ugly stuff too. The scuffed shots that cannon in off a defender's body, the sliding shots that dribble in off the upright, and the hilarious calamities when keepers and defenders get in a tangle. Unlike FIFAs of old, you'll score all manner of one-off, unique goals, and identical situations won't always end up with the same result. For example, you might well work out that your star striker is great at chipped shots over the onrushing keeper, but sometimes it'll end up on the roof of the net, other times off the post, and sometimes in the keeper's hands. It's proof that there's much more going on to make the game feel more convincing than ever, and thanks to this the results aren't as predictable either. Even against inferior teams you'll have curious off-days where nothing goes in, and the game's much more intriguing for it.
But there are still some stupid, unforgivable flaws in the way World Cup plays which will dampen the enthusiasm of anyone. Chief of these is the way the game handles the jostling situation, regularly handing fouls against you when you're clearly the one on the ball and being shoved off it. At first, this seemed like a comical error - just one of those things that might be referee dependent, but when it keeps happening every few games it's clear that this is just one of those stupid bugs that haven't been sorted out. Interestingly it works both ways, so you can find yourself stabbing the B button to try and wrestle possession back, and win a free kick even though you were the one manhandling the guy in possession. Vinnie Jones would have had a field day.
And despite the general praise for the much improved controls in World Cup, the ball physics are still in dire need of a proper overhaul to take the game up to the next level. As easy as it is to see that they're better than ever, there's still a discernible lack of overall weight to it (despite what EA claims), and passes - in particular - seem, by default, to lack conviction and pace. Likewise, the requirement to add power to passes/shots/crosses/headers still feels off. The difference between letting fly with a powder puff effort and overcooked blaster is miniscule, and the reality is that you'll end up scoring with far more efforts that just trickle over the line for the simple reason that if you go for any semblance of power you also increase the elevation, so it's almost 99 per cent sure to sail over the stands. One day we'll actually able to fire shots in low rather than risking being called up into the England Rugby squad.
Go with the flow
What's definitely improved, though, is all-round responsiveness, and as a result you'll be able to pull off a lot more of the more instinctive and reactive things you always wanted to, but the game could never let you. There's still the inherent problem of having to wait for animation cycles to complete (a problem in every simulation-minded football game, PES included) before you can take shots or deliver passes and crosses, but it's certainly less of an issue now than it used to be. The implementation of a fast tactics option on the d-pad is certainly a welcome bonus, being able to swiftly order your team to, for example, flood the box, or play down the wings. Not only that, you can call up a quick sub, tinker with the defensive style or your formation during the game itself - an excellent innovation that keeps the flow going.
Being really picky, the player auto select is still prone to messing up at crucial times, forcing frantic stabs of the X button to get the guys who's really best placed, and, yes, it still seems notoriously tricky to actually maintain possession against even the weakest sides, and, sigh, the pacier players still don't have the kind of advantage they should, but there's still, somehow, a good game of football in there. Not the best, not by a long shot, but there's big progress in many other areas that all matter. In short: in gameplay terms there's room for improvement, but it's a lot more fun, and it's definitely getting there.
Learning to deal with World Cup's shortcomings is sweetened immensely by what's available elsewhere in the package. Like the Road to the World Cup, you can choose go back to square one and pick literally any international team on the planet and try and guide them all the way to the final, or just dive straight into the finals and pick one of the 32 teams that have made it in real-life. The former option's certainly a more attractive one if you fancy bagging an extra 250 Gamerscore points for qualifying for the tournament off your own back, and it acts as a really good, fun way of getting yourself up to speed with the nuances of the game before you unleash yourself on the elite teams and, inevitably, your mates. As ever, there are an array of skill levels, game speeds and match lengths to plump for right at the start of the tournament (which you can't meddle with once you're underway, so beware), but the old semi-pro fallback is a decent starting point for most mere mortals. Sure, you'll find the opposing defence backing off, backing off, backing off a lot more (certainly the weaker teams do this), but it's a good happy medium for getting your eye in.
Aside from basically reliving the qualifiers and trying to win the World Cup as various different teams, one of the most pleasing additions to the package are the 40 different challenges. Based upon 40 real-life international matches over the last few decades, the general idea is that you dive into a match in progress and try and change (or match) the course of history and fulfil various conditions to win a gold, silver or bronze medal. Sometimes you're trailing by two goals and have to pull the game back to win by two goals with just half an hour to play, or hold on to a lead or win a penalty shootout. Some challenges are easier than others, some are just plain evil (win a game from 2-1 down with three minutes left), but if you clean up all 40 there's the tempting carrot of 500 extra points on your Gamerscore, so for some of you it'll prove to be an excellent challenge. Qualifying for and winning the World Cup is one thing (you can choose to be Brazil, after all...), but scooping these challenges really proves your overall worth as a player when you're suddenly playing as Tahiti or St Kitts & Nevis and everyone's a bit rubbish. It's also a good way of showing a different, more human, less glorious side of FIFA that we don't often see, and forces you to change your approach to suit the players.
Another beneficial side effect of playing the game's single-player modes is to build up a stock of points, allowing you to visit the store and unlock all manner of legendary players (Cantona, Gascoigne, Zico, Beckenbauer and loads of others) which you can then bung in your team. The other unlockables aren't quite as exciting, though, with kits, balls, an extra 'Perfect' difficulty mode and slightly silly extras like invisible walls and slo-mo mode. On the plus side, if you do happen to win the World Cup, you then get the option of playing any game again at any specific stage in the 'Play Now' menu, saving you the slog of starting all over again.
Technically, World Cup swings from standout brilliance to moments that would make Roger Moore's eyebrows wobble alarmingly. After the zombie-gunge fest that was the Road to the World Cup, EA has at least managed to come around to the idea that coating its players in slime isn't the brightest idea ever, and it has all been toned down, thank goodness. Some odd colour balance issues still contribute to giving almost everyone a zombie-fied pallor and a dead-eyed look, though. And not only that, some of the likenesses are frankly rubbish (why can't they do John Terry? Still!) while others are wonderful. It's all down to how important and famous they are, basically, but a huge variance in quality abounds.
Audio wise, expect the usual completely inappropriate commentary from Clive Tyldesley, and his parrot-in-chief Andy 'super wide tie' Townsend. Normally EA's commentary is peerless, but at least 25 per cent of the time they're talking absolute nonsense that has sod all to do with what's really happening on the pitch. Lame shot and even lamer saves, for example, are almost always reacted to with slavering excitement, while genuine thumping near misses are dismissed with derision. Tame tackles are completely over-reacted to, and they seem to spend half the time twittering on about nothing important. What happened EA? For what it's worth, this particular EA Trax selection is pretty poor, too, with some notable exceptions. Luckily you can turn the more irritating ones off.
The old frame rate catastrophes in RTWC are all but a distant memory in World Cup, with the exception of when you're taking corners, with the straining, groaning 360 still seemingly struggling to render all those calf muscles crammed into one section of the pitch at once. Quite why a console as powerful as this can't deal with this sort of perfunctory incident is slightly laughable, but it's not the only painful glitch you'll have to endure, either. During replays, players' feet don't properly connect with the ball, players continue to run when they've clattered into one another and there's a strange split second of oddness whenever the opposition makes a substitution. Admittedly this is all highly nit-picky stuff, but as Tom noted, the more realistic things get, the more you notice the things that are missing, or in this case the jarring moments that kill the suspension of disbelief. If you were marketing World Cup, you'll focus on how superb the animation is now, how detailed all the players are, how richly detailed the stadiums are (let's not talk about the rubbish crowds again, eh), and just how amazing the whole spectacle can look on a giant HDTV. Pump up the surround sound and it's alive with colour, atmosphere, authentic chants (hopefully not the Spanish ones, eh?) and a vibrancy that no other football game has ever managed.
In most respects, we've never had it so good, but then stupid little design decisions come into play, like an autosave feature that still forces you to confirm your settings will be overwritten, selects your hard disk and then requires a further confirmation that your tournament save will also be overwritten. FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD EA, SETTING THE AUTOSAVE TO 'YES' SHOULD REMOVE THESE PROMPTS FOREVER..
Elsewhere, for something with so much potential, the online side of the game is a massive disappointment. With nothing else to do than play single ranked or unranked matches, there's no opportunity to play online World Cups, or even anything approaching a quick tournament. Not only that, there seemed to be a bizarre inability to choose the rank of players you were matched up against (meaning you, a novice, could be pitched against someone of vastly superior rank), with no means of altering match times (even though the option is available, it wasn't selectable, even if you create a match yourself). In fact, the only selectable option was to tweak the Did Not Finish percentage, to weed out the idiots that quit matches the minute they go behind. And to make matters worse, every single game we played online (with the boxed copy) was laggy in a way that made the game an unplayable slideshow for most of the time. Some were worse than others, but at no stage was the performance smooth - something that can't be explained by heavy traffic, given the fact that the only other people playing the game were people like us who'd somehow sourced an early retail copy. Hopefully things will improve rapidly; EA must make it a top priority given Live's importance on the 360.
The back of the box says the game will be "Your Dream. Your FIFA World Cup", but perhaps inevitably, it's never quite the dream you want it to be. There's no doubt that World Cup plays a vastly better game of football than the rushed travesty that was the Road to the World Cup, but the various niggles gang up to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It's definitely a more instinctive, intuitive and unpredictable game than before, and one that's been tweaked in generally the right areas. With a bit more work on providing more realistic ball physics the game has the potential to become an irresistible alternative to PES, but as things are it's still not quite up to the mark. The online component, too, had enormous potential but feels like an afterthought, and right now is disgracefully laggy to even offer simple, acceptable one-on-one matches.
Luckily for EA, the crucial single-player element really does have a lot going for it, and for once it's possible to consider World Cup as more than simple by-the-numbers cash-in effort. It's still a high price to pay for what it is, but if you've avoided FIFA for a few years, this is undoubtedly the most solid release for some time - providing EA sorts out the online play.
7 / 10