World Cup tie-ins - a mug's game? From the wretched World Cup Carnival in 1986 through to EA's last World Cup effort 20 years later, it's hard to think of one that has really been worth buying. In a world where even FIFA's annual releases come with a sense of built-in obsolescence, it's a challenge to recommend that people who have only just shelled out on the last FIFA buy another football game that has so much in common with its predecessor.
Yet, that's just what we're going to do. You see, it all depends on what you expect from a World Cup game. If you're expecting a big advance on FIFA 10 - a game that most people recognise as the defining football game of this console generation - then you may be disappointed by World Cup 2010. If you're looking for radical reinvention of the game, or a new direction, then you're not going to get it here. If, however, you just want a game that captures the magic of the tournament, and brings a little of the action in South Africa back into your home, then World Cup 2010 is a triumph.
With Euro 2008 EA Sports seemed to have realised that there was more to a tournament tie-in game than just gutting the last FIFA and throwing in the right stadiums, teams and fixtures. With World Cup 2010, you get an even stronger package.
Of course, there's not a whole lot in terms of style and gameplay to differentiate between this and FIFA 10. Despite some new animations, a few lighting enhancements and revised player models, World Cup 2010 looks very much like FIFA 10, and we doubt most players would be able to tell the two apart through a quick A/B comparison. Before you start complaining, however, bear in mind that this still makes it the best-looking football game on the market.
It's a similar story with the action. World Cup 2010 feels slightly faster and, if anything, offers a more fluid passing game than FIFA 10. The goalies seem a little tighter and less prone to being drawn out, and obvious shots on goal bear even less fruit than they did in last year's model. The defence feels less vulnerable in the midfield, and AI all-around seems a bit sharper, but in the end we're not talking anything radical or surprising. This is for the best. With its 360 degree control system and a new emphasis on speed and drama, FIFA 10 played a fantastic, genuinely exciting game of football. The last thing World Cup 2010 needed to do was fix what wasn't broken or go for a more casual, lightweight approach.
Arguably the biggest thing to change is a new penalty system, which transforms the bit that always puts England out of the cup into a mini-game of timing and accuracy that takes a little getting used to. Luckily, you can practice the new system before you have to use it in anger - a good idea if you want to avoid the full England 1990/98/2006 experience. Otherwise, the big news is a new two-button control mode for the terminally inept (hello Dads!) so that they have a vague chance of winning against experts who have spent the last 10 years learning the intricacies of the ever-evolving FIFA control system. As even hardened gamers can find getting used to FIFA a bit of a handful, you might even want to try it for yourself.
In other words, World Cup 2010 gets just about everything right on the pitch. All the same, that alone isn't enough to make it worth your money. What does? A magic trio of atmosphere, content and online integration.
The World Cup should start off like a party (even if it's going to end like a wake) and World Cup 2010 gets this right. Matches kick off with fireworks and streamers, and regular cuts to a cheerful, dancing crowd keep the festival feeling going. The commentary from Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend is excellent, with the duo consistently making smart, context-sensitive comments and naming the right players, and bringing in the results of other relevant matches (e.g. those in the same group), just as you'd expect during real-life coverage.
Even between games World Cup 2010 bends over backwards to maintain the World Cup feel. The African-themed background music is spot-on, and update screens give you the bigger picture of what's going on in and out of your group as you move on towards the later stages. In short, the game does a great job of capturing the feel of the real thing. Now, more than a month before kick-off, it's compelling. Once World Cup fever hits in June, it's going to be hard to resist.
Secondly, EA has definitely got the message that there's more to a World Cup game than just the replication of the tournament. As with Euro 2008 we get a "story of' single-player challenge mode where you can replay crucial sections of the qualifiers. Can you repeat England's thrashing of Croatia, or get Scotland past Holland and into the finals? There's only one way to find out, and you'll find yourself in some interesting situations while you're doing it.
We also get a World Cup version of Captain Your Country, an international variation on FIFA's Be A Pro mode, where you control just one player and try to do enough in each game to impress the manager to make the move from B-Squad hopeful to A-Squad stalwart and - eventually - captain. It's an interesting mode, asking you to think more about how you play a position and support your teammates than just going for glory, and while some of the odder decisions are bound to grate, you'll still find it compulsive. You can even import a virtual pro from FIFA 10 if you want to carry on the good work you've been doing on the national scene.
Finally, EA is promising some great things in terms of online action. As with Euro 2008 we're being offered the chance to take part to play our national teams in a virtual tournament, and besides that we can expect less structured online play, fixtures and teams that update as the cup continues, and a series of downloadable "story of" scenarios that will reflect key events in the finals. It's impossible to properly evaluate this stuff at this stage, but if EA lives up to its promises, then it's going to be unmissable. If you want to get closer to the action, this is as close as you're going to get without a long-haul flight and a whopping outlay. Of course, how much of the real-world tournament you'll want to replicate depends a lot on what happens in the group stages and beyond. With England, that's one question that nobody can answer.
If you just want a great football game, then there's no question that FIFA 10, with more modes, more clubs and more tournaments, offers a more comprehensive package. If you already have last year's game, then on the normal factors that decide whether you should buy a game or not - graphics, gameplay, features - World Cup 2010 doesn't make a lot of common sense. However, this goes beyond mere common sense, because it is as much a celebration as a game. World Cup 2010 is, unquestionably, a great football game, but more importantly it does a great job of capturing the spirit of the real event. Once the cup kicks off, you won't want to be without it.