Version tested: Xbox 360
They say that the closer you get to realism, the more you notice the stuff that's missing.
So, by that token, FIFA 06: Road To FIFA World Cup must be one of the most realistic games ever made, because I have a notepad full of things I've classed as "missing".
Of course, what they really meant was that as you start to better emulate the smallest details - moving eyes, mouths, jawlines, flushing cheeks and so on - your brain does a much better job spotting the smaller blemishes, and weighs them more heavily against the overall image. In the case of FIFA 06 on Xbox 360, things like the way that everyone's been glazed in slime, the way John Terry's jaw appears to be trying to escape his face, and the way that David Beckham looks like some sort of comedy duck. Close in on someone's face in Pro Evolution Soccer and you're left in no doubt that it's unrealistic, but the makings of resemblance are easier for your brain to reconcile with than what we have here, which is the reanimated occupants of a mausoleum caught in the bask of a full moon. After a gunge-shower.
Shot, it has to be pointed out, against a backdrop of choreographed muppets, who leap up and down in unison and clap their hands as though Mr Motivator is standing behind you with ten pounds of C4 strapped to his chest and a sign saying "Work it!" held above his head. To round out the effect, we have the effects. I have no idea what the individual technological terms are, but I can tell you that they have given us grass that appears to be six inches long for no other reason than we need to be able to marvel at the grass, and a thin layer of blurry fur that appears to be stuck to every man, woman and child (and ball and goalpost) in the stadium - presumably a side effect of the varying focus, which blurs anything it doesn't expect you to be directly looking at, resulting in a headache for this writer after extended play. There's also the lighting effect, so powerful and intense that when you pause and unpause the game, it takes about a second for it to refill the world with its faux-vibrancy.
The animation system had the potential to rescue FIFA from the horror of its make-up department, but sadly fails just as spectacularly. The player models are often quite impressive (I've never seen so many shadows and ripples of muscle on a man's calf, for example), but only in very small doses. When you first see Rio Ferdinand turn to the ref and his eyes widen, before he wheels round raising his arm in a mixture of anger and bewilderment at a peculiar decision, it's rather more believable than anything else you've seen in a football game (assuming it's Rio and not, say, Zombieface Terry or Ben Grimm Rooney). But when you've seen it 25 times, from different players, it loses its impact.
The mistimed challenges that prompt the animation certainly don't lose their impact, however; one of the most entertaining things in this version of FIFA (if not the only entertaining thing) is scything down your opposition and then receiving a close-up replay of the highly detailed models - almost human from the waist down - attempting to redistribute a person's joints using their studs. Of course, the fact that your ludicrously braindead tackling prompts genuine disbelief and confusion in players and commentators alike merely serves to reinforce the fact that this game is actually far, far less believable and engaging on a pure footballing level than anything Konami's made in the last five years. The parts themselves, even if you can overlook the genuine hilarity of their overall composition, simply don't work together believably.
What's amazing is that I haven't even mentioned the awful slowdown that occurs in all the replays yet - nor the absolutely dreadful regular animation, where players appear to be frolicking along as though held up by the strings of a puppeteer, managing to lumber somewhat like zombies as well as resemble them, and then manoeuvring like dancing fleas as they pirouette inorganically three or four times in a row on the spot whilst under no pressure at all.
But, you know, if we're going that way, we might as well get into the game itself.
You will already have spotted that this is a "Road to the World Cup" edition. The reasons for this are twofold: 1) it's the World Cup next year, and obviously we need a game which allows us to play through the group stages with a similarly slothful and depressing lack of endeavour, and 2) obviously the content creation for a far more visually intensive next-gen console game is a lot simpler when you can get away using around 15 per cent of the players you featured in the last Xbox version.
Here you can adopt the mantle of one of around 72 teams involved in the quest for qualification, and guide them through their group stage (including a few preliminary friendlies for good measure). You can also create custom tournaments, practice, and play matches (ranked or unranked) on Xbox Live. That's it. But this skeletal structure is not even the most obvious reason not to buy it.
The problem appears to be this: a couple of years ago, EA sat down and thought, "Why is Pro Evolution Soccer so popular?" Its answer was, "Because there are no goals!" It didn't quite understand this, but somebody hit 'New' on the flow-chart application anyway and what we've got at this point is game which feels slow, cumbersome, awkward and unexciting. Where it's virtually impossible to get into the final third without relying on cheeky lofted through-balls that are cut out more often than not anyway; where the ball switches possession more often than Wayne Rooney uses a purple word; where players don't so much embark on runs as they do map cul-de-sacs whilst dragging a ball and chain; and where the differences between individual players are best catalogued using their facial deformities and the commentators' habit of paying undue attention to whichever's been in the papers lately, as their actual skills are almost indistinguishable from one another.
The ball moves seemingly on rails, at weird velocities with unjust momentum, robbing any lofted ball of the feeling of weight. Precision is at an absolute premium. Players move glacially, even the nippiest ones, so that they can be scythed down in time to prevent them reaching anywhere dangerous. The ball bobbles along like it's made of wool and someone's snagged an end on one of the salmon in the stands. There are virtually no breakaways, and defenders just drop off and drop off and drop off; goals are often scored simply because you've comically dispossessed somebody on their six-yard line, or the ball's scuffed in off someone's shin.
Dropping deep is something the AI does in PES, of course, but while it defends deep there it also gives you the means to defend. With its unbelievable ball behaviour, erratic AI and inconsistent or unmanageable tackling mechanics, oft-inexplicable player selection, and that prevailing sense that if you point the stick the right way and hold the pressing button you'll solve the defensive problem before it becomes an issue anyway, FIFA is ultimately hugely tedious, and utterly misses the point. Worse, in the context of the series, is that the goals don't even look spectacular any more.
Really, to describe what EA has produced here as dreadful would be to do a terrible disservice to things that merely inspire dread. It's a game that not only fails to live up to the potential inherent to the new graphics and processing hardware at its disposal, but arguably in its failure manages to raise valid questions and concerns about everybody else's attempts to wield said technical advances as tools of realism, because it exposes so expertly the potential flaws in this approach. In a sense, it's not only awful, but it's also sabotaging everybody else's efforts at the same time. As a game, it's not much better. I like football, I like football games; I find it hard to recognise this in either category.
2 / 10