As has been customary with every World Cup and European Championships since the year 1998, EA Sports has this year released a video game to cash in on the planet's biggest sporting event, the 2010 World Cup.
Being, you know, the planet's biggest sporting event, you can hardly blame EA as a business for wanting to make the most of it. If you had the exclusive license to make a World Cup game alongside your regular football game, you'd make one too.
You and I, though, are not businesses. We're consumers, many of whom shelled out for FIFA 10 barely six months ago, and who are six months away from shelling out for FIFA 11. That's a lot of shelling, meaning World Cup 2010 needs to do a damn good job of differentiating itself from the vanilla FIFA series if it hopes to convince people to forgo creating their own tournament within FIFA 10 and pick up this full price, custom game instead.
Bouncy Balls – While most changes to the recently-released FIFA 10 come on the presentation side of things, some tweaks have been made to core gameplay as well, most notably in a bouncier, less controllable ball (which, being more realistic, works wonderfully) and in improved goalkeeper AI (they're now more likely to stay on their line, removing the easy chip, one of FIFA 10's cheapest exploits).
Yup, It's the World Cup – There's no missing the fact EA has gone overboard in reminding you you're playing a World Cup game (or trying to distract you from the fact you're playing a focused hybrid of FIFA 10 and 11, only without the club teams). Official logos and products are everywhere, as is the actual World Cup trophy, while the roster of 199 sides now carries many more official licenses and kits (both important to die-hard fans) than FIFA 10 included.
Tickets To The Game - One of FIFA's weaker aspects is the way it fails to convey the sense you're part of an active league or competition. World Cup fixes this, by giving you half-time scores from other games, in-game scores from other games and between-game updates like results, injuries and suspensions from across the competition. Suddenly you're not playing in a vacuum anymore; you really are one of 32 teams.
The Situation – Taking a page out of Madden's playbook, World Cup features scenarios, dropping you into a particular situation based on an actual game from the 2010 qualification campaign. Play as Denmark and score against Portugal with three minutes left, for example. Or play as Ireland and right the wrongs of Thierry Henry's handball fiasco. These are quick-hit challenges, and are perfect for those moments you've only got 5 minutes and want to play some FIFA.
Penalty Spot – Penalties are a hit-and-miss affair in the actual game, so for years, it seemed EA was content to mimic this behaviour in FIFA's spot kicks. World Cup 2010 sees a big overhaul for penalties, though, with a "composure" meter acting like a golf swing and letting you judge the right time to kick, and an on-screen cursor letting you see where the ball's going to go. There's now even an option to stutter step on the way in to throw off the keeper. All three are excellent changes, and go a long way towards making sure penalties are something that can be practised and relished, instead of dreaded.
Hope You Like Lobbies – FIFA's online play has never been a strongpoint. Granted, most of this is down to FIFA's moronic rage-quitting playerbase than any fault of EA, but World Cup is still a mess. For starters, players are given right of refusal for an online matchup, meaning I spent hours sitting in lobbies waiting until somebody agreed to actually play my Australian team. Then, when you actually start playing, EA decided the best way to punish rage-quitters was to automatically award a loss to the team quitting. Sounds good in theory, but when my wife unplugged my 360 from the router to plug in her laptop and I was given a competition loss, it didn't work so well in practice.
Captain Your Country - FIFA's "Be A Pro" mode is one of the more promising aspects of the core series, one which has been getting better with each successive year. It takes a step back in World Cup 2010, however, the lack of club football forcing EA to replace that depth with a battle for places in the team against rival players. This only serves to highlight how broken the game's rating system is, rewarding you for basic passes while condemning you for a great run down the sideline and an amazing cross that the keeper has to tip over the bar.
Commentary – It feels strange listing this as a "hated" since FIFA 10's commentary is the best of any sports game ever, but things are different this time around. The sublime Martin Tyler & Andy Gray have been replaced by FIFA 10's unlockable "B-Team" of Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend, who lack the camaraderie and interplay of their predecessors. Sure, it's great that most matches feature specific commentary related to the team and the stage in the competition, but the actual in-game stuff is nowhere near the standard of regular FIFA titles.
Bugs? Bugs! – The core FIFA series has its fair share of bugs, especially in manager mode, but rarely has this affected the on-field action. In one week of World Cup play, however, I had a game stall in an endless goal celebration (in the 87th minute of a World Cup semi-final, which I had to quit to get out of) and, worse, was sent to extra time in one match despite winning it in regular time 5-2. These were the only two bugs I ran into all week, but that's two more than I've run into in six months of FIFA 10, and when they hit at the business end of a tournament, it's excruciating.
World Cup 2010 is, when compared to other single-event sports games like the Olympics (or even previous World Cup games), the best of a long, sorry bunch. EA has made sure to saturate the game with World Cup-specific content, and fans of both FIFA and the world game itself will appreciate the improvements made to EA Sport's core product and the immersion it provides for those wanting to simulate the actual cup in a few month's time.
But just because it's the best of a sorry bunch doesn't make it great. It simply makes it...less sorry. The addition of a few neat extras and cutscenes can't hide the fact this is FIFA 11: Prologue in a trench coat with glasses, and as such, paying full price for a game lacking the depth and flexibility of an actual FIFA seems a bit of a stretch.
World Cup 2010 was developed and published by EA Sports for the the Xbox 360 (version tested), PS3, PSP, Wii and iPhone. Released on April 27. Retails for $60. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for review purposes. Completed World Cup, played Online World Cup and tested scenarios and Captain Your Country.
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