There's a crucial choice that every game based on real-world sports has to make. That choice is whether the game will aspire to simulating the real-world sport as closely as possible or whether to create an entertaining gameplay system that calls to mind a sport without really hewing close to the reality of it.

Soccer is an interesting sport to simulate because there is so much atmosphere to it. This, it could be argued (and I am), is the reason why EA's FIFA series never really manages to evoke the actual sport. This is in spite of the fact that FIFA has made the decision to be as close as possible to the real thing, backed by EA's considerable creative and monetary resources and implemented to a degree bordering on religious fervor. For all the work and money put into it, FIFA is still plastic; the organic and spiritual heart of the sport is absent. Soccer is a tricky beast to tame.

Winning Eleven, the other major soccer videogame, manages to be very sneaky when it comes to the choice between realism and entertainment in that it manages to reach both conclusions. On a micro level, it's an entertaining engine that, arguably, is less like the game of soccer than the mechanics in FIFA. However, on a macro level, it is an experience that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. My theory is that the Winning Eleven team at Konami have managed to recreate the experience of watching soccer, with the knowledge that this experience is far more widespread and attractive than the experience of actually playing soccer. So, in the end, you have a game that is very pleasantly not entirely unlike soccer while still evoking the feeling of soccer to the point where it satisfies the soccer purist.

What then, of World Tour Soccer 2006? That's a good question, seeing as this is a review of said game.

World Tour Soccer is indisputably a game attempting to recreate the real-life experience of soccer. It has the real players, the real clubs and the overall trappings of a game that aspires to simulate above all else.

The problem is that the game doesn't feel like soccer. It's not that fun to play, either. Real players and real uniforms can only you take you so far.

The most immediate problem is that the animations are extremely robotic. And when they're not, they often are triggered in inappropriate situations or fail to blend correctly with the animations that they transition to and from.

What happens when you elect to enable "turbo" is particularly awful. A lesson can be learned here. Turbo is a fairly common mechanic in a sports game. It represents the player trying just that little bit harder, digging a little bit deeper to create a temporary moment of heightened ability. Generally, this takes the form of the player being able to move faster. This is fine, it's simple, it's easy enough to fit into the game.

However, when somebody starts moving faster, they do not generally look as if you've just sped up their normal movements by some multiple greater than one. This looks silly and unnatural. It's also all over the place in World Tour Soccer 2006. Large portions of the game scream out for the Benny Hill music to be playing in the background, players flailing their limbs and scooting around the pitch as if they were being pulled by strings.

Additionally, the tactics never really evolve past shallow. There's never a real sense of momentum or of strategy making a serious impact on the play. Like FIFA, World Tour is concentrated on the now, the immediate movement of the ball and players. That the immediate is coldly and poorly implemented leaves little room for creativity or even catharsis. I get the feeling that the developers attempted to counteract the inability of the CPU to play a coherent game by rendering the player incapable of punishing the CPU for its frailties. This is not an especially good way to achieve game balance.

It's not as if the game is completely joyless. Scoring a goal, after all, is the little orgasm (or the big one, depending on whom you're talking to and how wild their eyes are). The afterglow, though, isn't something to savor; the joy never feels purchased through an act of work. The lack of anticipation undermines any feeling of accomplishment.

The real draw of World Tour Soccer, at least for many people, has been the fairly comprehensive modes in which real European leagues are simulated, complete with player movements and promotion/relegation. While admirably complete and rigorous for a console title, it is still relatively simplistic when compared to the dedicated soccer management titles. Yet, the real problem with these modes is that you have to play the games. There isn't an option to simulate through the fixtures and as a result, the management modes are doomed to failure regardless of whatever else they might offer.

If actually playing the game wasn't frustrating enough, the game is also very difficult on the eyes, with the font being both small and blurry. After you get past squinting at the screen, it turns out that the User Interface isn't that much better, with plenty of head-scratching as to how exactly the menus and options operate.

It's worth mentioning, I guess, that World Tour Soccer also has a feature where you can use an EyeToy camera to put your own face in the game. This is a decent idea, although it's limited to the sort of narcissism that leads to players putting themselves in the game in the first place. I can't really say how well the idea is implemented because I don't own the peripheral myself. I would hazard a guess that it would probably not enhance the game to the point of being enjoyable.

It's been a while since I played a World Tour title and coming back to the franchise has been a bit of a shock. After playing World Tour Soccer 2006, I had to wonder if my enjoyable memories of the earlier games were due to some kind of mental imbalance. Pulling them off the shelf, I was put at ease by the fact that the gameplay was decidedly more polished and overall less frustrating in the earlier iterations. It seems odd that sports games can manage to go backwards in quality over the course of time. Maybe it's not really that strange. It can be a murky path that circles back in on itself and abandons the developer (and thus the player) in quicksand. My advice to Team Soho would be brief: raze the series to the ground and start anew. This engine is long past its better days. This game is rated 3.5 out of 10.

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