The “FIFA” franchise by EA Sports has made a name for itself as soccer’s most well-known video game series. Past editions have been met with rave reviews, and this year’s is no exception.

The first noticeable improvement over earlier versions of the game are the graphics. In game situations, the visuals are stunning in their clarity and smoothness. The graphics designers have rendered players’ faces in vivid detail, and the athletes’ emotions are apparent when they score goals or get carded.

The gameplay is also more realistic than in past years. The ball physics have been further developed, and passes are more difficult to aim at a specific player. This might make things frustrating for beginners, but experienced gamers will enjoy the newfound need for more accurate and conscientious dishes.

Some added player controls will excite the series’ seasoned veterans. Pace control – which allows players to slow down to keep control of the ball during special moves – is a nice new option. Dummying the ball gives you the option of playing a pass or stepping over the ball to allow it to reach a distant teammate. All of the new functions are explained with tutorial videos.

In terms of new features, the 15-year Manager Mode is a welcome addition for diehard soccer fans. Gamers are allowed much more than mere on-field control over a team. For a successful career, special attention must be paid to international scouting, team finances and staff changes, among other things. You can even sign a sponsor for additional cash flow. The Manager Mode provides a big lift to the game’s re-playability appeal.

One area that might trouble players is the new free- and corner-kicking controls. Gone are the familiar arrows and visual helpers in aiming and spinning the ball. The camera angle now helps to determine the ultimate direction of the ball, but this isn’t clearly apparent at first. It’s a good thing that you can’t perfectly place the ball in a predictably indefensible area for the opposing goalie to flail at, but EA could have made this element of the game more user-friendly and less tedious.

The soundtrack in “FIFA 06” is, expectedly, superb. The franchise has built a reputation for including a wide variety of musical genres, and this year’s evolution doesn’t disappoint. While the “NBA Live” series relies heavily on hip hop and “Madden” goes more for the rock approach, “FIFA” mixes it up with tunes organized into seven editable playlists.

There are even more add-ons that will enrich the experience for long-time or fresh-faced gamers. While a video interview with international star Samuel Eto’o might not move you to the edge of your seat, EA has included a playable version of the original “FIFA” from 1994, complete with its pixilated graphics and flat crowd noise. This mode will certainly make old-timers happy. The “FIFA Games Retrospective” provides a quick and entertaining look at the history of the series from 1994 to 2006, replete with explanations of how each game built on previous years and added new and improved features.

“FIFA 06” is a complete game for soccer or gaming fans who are looking for a solid sports title with eye-popping graphics and enjoyable gameplay. Believe it or not, it’s definitely superior to its already-impressive predecessors.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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