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FIFA 06

It's entirely debatable as to whether EA's FIFA 06 coverage offensive coinciding with the start of the new football season is lucky coincidence or astute planning, but there's no question that the uber-publisher is cute to the fact that gamers will soon be searching for the latest console kickabout to help remedy their football fever.

So with the new season comes a new FIFA and, with bitter rival Pro Evolution Soccer 5 also limbering up, EA seems more determined than ever to win the hearts and thumbs of the nation's armchair Peles. And, from what we've seen, the discerning footie fan (ie PES disciple) might think twice before selecting their regular first choice from the shelf.

Before even picking up the pad, watching a match in progress reveals graphical improvements all over the park and, most noticeably, a much greater natural movement to player animations, which now look smoother and far more realistic.

Continued spectating also allows us the opportunity to witness a new free-kick system in action. Gone are the targets and arrows, replaced instead with a clutter-free screen that requires the player to rely on practiced skills rather than generous visual assistance.

Aesthetic and design embellishments aside, a hands-on play further galvanises our initial positive impressions. The controls have adopted the PES button configuration and feel both responsive and far more in tune with the players on the pitch.

Displays of fancy footwork are performed using the Skill Stick - or the right analogue twiddler as it's also known - and is such an intuitive system that ball balletics, such as step-overs, 360 spins and side shuffles, can be quickly and effectively woven into play.

Obviously not wanting to leave any area of the controller redundant, on-the-pitch team tactics can be put into action using the D-pad. Up to four different strategies can be assigned to the directional buttons before kick off making mixing up match tactics mid-game totally effortless and, again, extremely intuitive.

The flow of FIFA's game certainly seems far more fluid in this latest version. Off-the-ball runs and player positioning - despite the occasional blip where it can appear slightly automated - is more intelligent and feels as close to emulating the real-life sport as the series has ever been.

Of course, just as it's impossible to assess the true abilities of a player from an injury time run out, it's equally as difficult to accurately gauge how much FIFA has raised its game after playing just 180 virtual minutes.

However, despite not putting the gameplay through its paces at any great length, sampling its on-the-pitch nuances or exploring the extensive manager mode, we're in no doubt that FIFA 06 is warming up to be the most radically different - and vastly improved - update to the series yet.

FIFA 06 will be released for PS2, Gamecube, Xbox, PC, DS, GBA and PSP in autumn

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