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.