I am distressed. Team VideoGamer.com flies out to Los Angeles for the behemoth that is the E3 trade show on Saturday June 12. That day, as anyone who's ever kicked a football knows, is the day England open their World Cup account against the USA. I'm not sure of the time zones, but I will probably miss the game.
I'm so distressed that I'm considering simulating the game in EA Sports FIFA 2010 World Cup, with mates round and beers and everything, because that's about as close to the real thing as I'm going to get. Sniff.
Let's be honest, FIFA's no substitute for the real thing, just like watching a game on telly's got nothing on watching from the stands. But the brains behind these different experiences do their utmost to make them as authentic as current technology allows. This is as true for EA Canada with World Cup as it is for the production team behind Sky's Super Sunday.
So, what does this mean for the game? Well, it means that it looks and sounds like the World Cup. As players walk onto the pitch, more confetti than you've ever seen in a video game fills the air. Fireworks shoot out of stadium rafters. Fans are dancing, because, you know, that's what fans do at the World Cup. The mind-numbing buzz of countless vuvuzela horns drowns out team sheet announcements. And, of course, you're bombarded with all the proper World Cup branding, including that annoying kiddy font and Zakumi, the mascot with attitude.
Is this, fellow football fans, what we should expect from the World Cup? Face painted fans boogying to some inane, endless beat; streamers and who knows what else cluttering our view of the action; and, of course, the vuvuzela horn drilling a hole in our brains? FIFA is, after all, an authentic simulation of the beautiful game, warts and all. Maybe missing the odd game or two isn't such a bad thing after all...
You do get the feeling, however, that EA's team at Vancouver has over-egged the festival of football feel ever so slightly. The game cuts to shots of the managers - the first time all of them have been represented in a video game - so often, that you quickly get sick of them and the way they hold their hands up to their faces. There's so much confetti that you start to worry that fans will suffocate. The fans themselves look ridiculous: they sport silly Mohawk haircuts and garish face paint. They also dance, like, proper dancing, not just jumping up and down doing that boing boing thing. Even England fans bust a move, which is ridiculous, because England fans do not dancefloor dance at football matches. Or wear extreme Mohawks. Or do anything other than stomp up and down and call the ref a trucking banker.
The vuvuzela horn, though, is about right.
Thankfully, you can turn the dancing fans, confetti, streamers, fireworks and vuvuzela horns off leaving you free to get on with the good stuff: playing virtual football. If only you could do the same to match broadcasts with your telly remote.
What you can't turn off - not that you'd want to - are the many improvements EA Canada's made to the in-match graphics. The lighting system has been completely redone (it's hard to notice at first, but a quick game of FIFA 10 highlights the effort that's been made), and the pitches look a lot more authentic; they have a textured feel that you imagine may actually affect player movement (they don't). Player faces, particularly for the bigger teams, look astonishingly realistic. Liverpool right back Glen Johnson, for example, is unnervingly lifelike. The lesser known nations haven't enjoyed as much work, as expected, but when it comes to the famous players, like Wayne Rooney, we're approaching photorealistic levels of fidelity.
While welcome, the new graphical bells and whistles aren't the main attraction here. Every FIFA fan wants to know about the gameplay. This, really, is the crux of the matter: why should I buy World Cup if I've already got FIFA 10?
Well, EA Canada's supposedly implemented over a hundred gameplay improvements. A hundred. You'd think, then, that World Cup would feel vastly different than FIFA 10. But it doesn't. It feels ever so slightly more responsive, and as a result a touch faster, even though we know it isn't. Ultimately, World Cup feels instantly familiar, as FIFA 10 did before it.
This isn't a slight. FIFA 10 was, in my mind, the greatest football game ever made. Indeed by virtue of iteration, World Cup is the better game. Keepers don't rush out like mad men at the mere whiff of a one-on-one. Chip shots are now much harder to score from. The new penalties, which charge you with stopping an oscillating needle within the "composed" area and aiming with an invisible reticule, are the best penalties ever in a football video game. There are new animations, like controlling a lofted through ball without losing momentum, a new command-based celebration system, new skills, new shot techniques, better player awareness, and loads of other stuff going on under the hood that makes World Cup play like the incredible simulation it is. And there's even a tad more depth, with altitude now affecting player stamina and player form affecting performance.
As with any game that only incrementally improves on its predecessor, some of FIFA 10's failings have unfortunately made the cut. For a start, the crowd looks ridiculous, particularly during the silly dancing cutscenes. Player faces from lesser nations still look like waxwork nightmares, and up close, player bodies still have the posture of apes. The last word on this, though, is reserved for the commentary, which, while excellent, still suffers the odd hilarious moment, like Clive Tyldesley screaming "amazing save!" when keepers catch harmless crosses and shots.
So, really, you're getting a strikingly similar gameplay experience. Bearing that in mind, is World Cup worth a punt if you own FIFA 10?
Before I answer that question, it's important to know what game modes are on offer and how they're different to those in FIFA 10. The Be a Pro mode returns, this time as Captain Your Country. It works similarly: you create a pro, select an existing player, or import your pro from FIFA 10, and play controlling only that player in the hope of making the first team squad, and then the pinnacle of anyone's football career: captaining your country.
Beyond that, and the traditional exhibition and online modes, there are a raft of impressive new modes that, in some cases, genuinely innovate the virtual football space. The highlight is 2010 FIFA World Cup Online, the first ever official online-enabled World Cup mode in a video game. It works similarly to Street Fighter IV's online championship mode. You pick from one of the 199 playable countries, play against real life opponents firstly in the group stage, then in a knockout, with the obvious goal of lifting the trophy as world champions.
The Battle of the Nations mode, which lets you represent your country against players from other countries, feeds into World Cup Online. You score points for your selected country for doing well, points that feed into a global total, which sorts countries into an online leaderboard. What's to stop everyone picking Argentina or Spain, you might have asked? Good question. You won't get many points for winning with the best teams, so you're encouraged to play with the weaker teams. Wales here we come.
Then there's Coke Zero Story of Qualifying, a mode that's got Coke branding sprayed all over it, but only exists because of the extra revenue the sponsorship provided. The idea is that you replay games from qualifying packaged as short challenges and attempt to change history (well, virtually). Take the great football robbery that was Ireland's defeat to France, for example. The challenge begins just after France's cheat equaliser. It's up to you, then, to win the game, sending Ireland to the World Cup at Thierry Henry's expense. It's great, and surprisingly affecting; Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend's challenge-specific commentary is brilliant, and the teams are right relative to the players who were on the pitch at the time.
Lonesome players will find much to sink their teeth into here; some of the challenges are proper hard (probably why the real life games they're based on ended up the way they did). But when you're done with them, there's more.
During the World Cup, EA Canada will package games and make them available as similar challenges for free. So, if England - god forbid - lose 1-0 to the USA, the following day you'll be able to make yourself feel ever so slightly better by downloading the challenge and scoring an equaliser. With a Peter Crouch header, no doubt. Shudder.
So, is World Cup worth a punt if you own FIFA 10? The answer is, yes, but it's a victory on penalties. EA Canada's done just enough with its new game modes and carnival atmosphere to capture the imagination of - probably foolish - football fans. No matter what EA says, the lack of club teams is an issue, as is the lack of a manager mode. But elsewhere, World Cup is as good, if not better, than FIFA 10.
There's something about World Cup's appeal, though, that works on psychological levels. We all feel compelled to play it not because of a game mode we can play, or improved graphics we can see, but because there's something very special about the World Cup, and playing the official World Cup game taps into it. This summer's going to be great, hopefully. The nation expects, and all eyes will be on South Africa. There's a buzz even now, over a month away from the opening match. More than the Olympics, more than the FA Cup Final, more than any sporting event in the world, the World Cup, with England in it, transforms June into a month long bank holiday, and football fans into wide-eyed puppies who hope - however irrationally - that this year will be the one. FIFA World Cup taps into the hype with a planet-cracking drill, drawing from it geysers of excitement we just can't ignore.
Picture this: you're hosting a get-together to watch England play what will undoubtedly be a heart-breaking penalty shootout quarter final defeat to Portugal. At half time you can't bring yourself to listen to Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson's depressing analysis of our terrible defending, so you pop World Cup on and play a game against a mate instead. Your mate may be rubbish, but the new two-button context-sensitive control scheme levels the playing field. By the time it's over, the second half is just about to begin, and the agony can resume. Wicked stuff.
If you don't own FIFA 10, and are looking for a football video game to help fuel your World Cup fever, then you should absolutely buy this game. If you own FIFA 10, and are considering buying World Cup, then you need to work out just how big a football fan you are, and whether you can see yourself sneaking in a quick game during half time, or hosting a tournament when you get home from the pub after a boozy night spent celebrating/drowning your sorrows with your mates. If World Cup sounds like it should have been downloadable content to you, then it's probably not for you. If, while reading this review, you felt your hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and you dared to believe that this year may be the year, then make like Nike and do it.