(First published on Gamepad Magazine, 25th January 2011)
Truth be told, I love football games. As appealing as a real life kick-about is, the football game on a console is a perfect retreat to play the game as you see fit (or if you have a distinct lack of talent like myself, pretend that you are a footballing god). As a result, football games have for a long time made up a sizeable number of my games collection. What I intend to do in this article is cover every football game that I have played, and come to an overall conclusion on how far the genre has improved. So without further ado, let me take you back in time to 1997…
ACTUA SOCCER 2 – 1997 – GREMLIN INTERACTIVE
And so we start with a series that has long since been forgotten: Actua Soccer, the only series to have the endorsement of Alan Shearer. The second instalment was intended to cash in on the upcoming World Cup that would take place in France, and as a result it only features international teams. However, all the teams had a proper roster of players for the time, and importantly, you could actively tell the difference between the great and weak teams, something that doesn’t necessarily occur in later football games. The gameplay was great fun, albeit with quite snap-to passing, and executing set pieces was a doddle. Graphically, this was one of the best sports games on the market, with a full 3D game engine and motion capture provided by none other than Michael Owen, although player faces appeared to be made out of burnt wax. This was more than made up though by some excellent commentary by Barry Davies and Trevor Brooking, which remains one of the most spot on commentaries I have heard in a game. All in all, Actua Soccer 2 was a very fine game to serve as an introduction to the football genre and the fact that I would not buy another football game for four years serves to show how much I enjoyed it.
UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE 2000-2001 – SILICON DREAMS – 2001
Whereas Actua Soccer attempted to be realistic with its gameplay, UEFA Champions League 2000-2001 is right at the other end of the spectrum. This game (despite have fully licensed club teams from the 1950’s to 2000 and the Champions League license) is firmly rooted in the arcade style of football, and as a result delivers some of the most ridiculous matches you could ever hope to see. It was so stupidly easy to score; anyway near 40 yards out, you could have a pop and chances are it would fly in. Chips from outside the area are commonplace, you can score directly from kick off by holding down the circle button and having the opposition goalkeeper take it over the line, and thanks to some inspired developing, by pressing a easy combo of three buttons when the ball was in the air you could perform some breathtaking overhead and scissor kicks. As a result of this, a common scoreline would be around 10-0. It is so much fun though that you actually do not care. I still maintain the absolute greatest goal I have ever scored was performed in this game; from my own penalty box, Dennis Irwin hit an overhead kick straight into the opposition goal. No lies.
If only the rest of the game was as fun as the scoring. Make no mistake, this game was horrible. The graphics were truly awful, and no one player is recognisable from another, while the stadiums are blocky messes of polygons. The sounds were incredibly dodgy as well, with some random electro track on the main menu, and some very stiff commentary from Peter Brackley. And finally when you come down to it, winning so easily is no fun at all. Hence the reason I quickly lost interest in this game and moved onto sampling the ‘player’s choice’ of the time.
PRO EVOLUTION SOCCER – KONAMI – 2001
If you already had ISS Pro Football 2, then this game was the biggest rip off ever – all it did was change the names of foreign players. If you were new to the series however, then this was a fantastic little game. It may not have had any properly licensed teams (Manchester United are known as Man Red and played at the Trad Brick Stadium) and absolutely lacklustre commentary, but elsewhere this was THE football game to have. The gameplay was terrific: now you actually had to build up play in order to score goals, and games were very close between yourself and a very competent AI. Pro Evo also worked to ensure that players felt different with stats; whereas a top striker for example in another game like Actua Soccer would have pace, strength and finishing second to none, in Pro Evo all the forwards felt just that little bit different; Thierry Henry was a pace monster, but didn’t have the strength of Ronaldo for example. What this does is make you play to your teams individual strengths.
And then there was the Master League. Oh, how much time I spent in the Master League. You start off with a set of default, and quite frankly crap, players, and have to build up your team to eventually break through to the first division and win the title. Winning games would give you credits, which you could then spend on buying new and better players for your team, until you had a squad capable of conquering all. I have fond memories of struggling and saving my way to 40 credits, where I would then buy Shevchenko and start dominating the world. The Master League was so immersive that it quite happily kept me occupied for years, until my disc finally gave up the ghost. Happily, the series had evolved and was now ruling all on the PS2.
PRO EVOLUTION SOCCER 4 – KONAMI – 2004
I say that up until 2010, this was the greatest football game ever made. PES4 had kept all of the qualities that had made the original PES (and its two sequels) great, but then refined them to even greater heights using the power of the PS2. So the gameplay that I knew and loved and the Master League were still in place, but now it had sufficient graphics to match it as well, as Konami started to put some real detail into faces and stadiums (although kit licenses were still notably absent). Other great additions included a full editing centre (allowing you to rectify names of players and teams, edit kits and adjust stats if you so wished), a training mode to practise set-pieces, and active player development in the Master League, meaning that younger players would come through and outclass older players. Add to this improved commentary from Brackley and Brooking and a unlockable level of six star difficulty, and you had a fantastic game. I got this game for £4 from WHSmith (a really random offer), which was an absolute steal. Admittedly the disc became unreadable within a year and I suspect the price may have had something to do with this, but many happy times were spent playing PES4.
PRO EVOLUTION SOCCER 5 – KONAMI – 2005
And so one year later, I bought PES5. And my word I was in for a shock, as the gameplay had completely changed. Whereas in PES4 it was quite simple to just pass the ball into the goal, PES5 had vastly slowed down play and introduced some very harsh AI defending and constant refereeing intervention. Goalfests had now turned into narrow 1-0 wins. Now initially, I was annoyed with this, but over time, I came to accept the slower gameplay and adopted a new style which I use pretty much to this day; keep hold of the ball and tire the opposition out. Or give the ball to Ronaldinho and let him wreak havoc.
There was some other notable changes as well. Konami had finally managed to get some licenses for example, as Arsenal and Chelsea had their proper kits and stadia, along with the entirety of the Spanish, Italian and Dutch leagues. It was now also possible to go online with PES, and although I never had the opportunity to try this out, I am reliably informed by a friend that it was very good fun. Otherwise though, it was pretty much a copy and paste job from PES4. At the time, it didn’t matter, because PES4 was awesome, but it established a worrying trend by Konami of letting the new game in the series be pretty much a carbon copy of the last game. And it was about to bite them in the arse.
PRO EVOLUTION SOCCER 2008 – KONAMI – 2007
This stands as being the worst football game I have ever played. The game just reeks of laziness on Konami’s behalf: pretty much bugger all had been changed from PES5 and PES6: the gameplay was exactly the same and had no improvement, the Master League had not been changed, the commentary is literally the same as the previous iterations, and the editing centre had actually been downgraded from the last time. Basically, you were paying £25 for updated rosters and licensed Tottenham and Newcastle kits (why these two were picked I have no idea, because they were both performing terribly in real life), something that you could get in PES6 with a patched online file. I was incredibly disillusioned with Konami after this game, and actually made the promise never to play Pro Evolution Soccer again. And basically this meant one thing: I would have to switch to the behemoth of the football genre: FIFA.
FIFA 09 – EA CANADA – 2008
I had played the PS2 versions of FIFA with my mates, and was not overly impressed with it. It felt slow and clunky, even next to the snails pace gameplay that was PES5. However, this changed when I played FIFA 08 on a friends Xbox 360. The jump to the new console had brought about a startling change in the series, much moreso than the transition of PES from PS1 to PS2: the graphics were beautiful, and the game played like a real game, changing constantly from scrappy to precise, from close midfield play to frantic end-to-end goal scrambles. So when I got my 360 in 2008, there was only one choice when my next football game purchase came around.
FIFA 09 was a delightful game to play, and is for me the epitome of the ‘old style’ football game (which I will explain soon). What made it so much better than PES was the feel of the thing; the ball now seemed to have the right physics, meaning that the spectacular could only be achieved with the best players, while say a League Two defender would always smash the thing into Row Z. Games were quick and frantic, and the amount of ways in which you could develop an attack had been greatly improved as well, with incisive through balls all over the place and some much improved crossing. And outside of the gameplay, it was the small ongoing changes to the series that impressed the most. Having the Arena to mess about in before the main menu and while games were loading (basically a way to hide ugly loading screens) was fantastic fun, and often you would get distracted by just purely pulling off tricks and sweet 30 yard strikes. The introduction of Be A Pro mode, where you control just the one player on the pitch, finally achieved what Libero Grande had tried to start off near to a decade beforehand. There was a proper soundtrack of actual songs compared to the mess of PES, and having an actual commentary team of Andy Gray and Martin Tyler actually improves the sense of reality within the game. You could now perform your own celebrations rather than going to a cutscene, allowing excessive amounts of gloating. And the introduction of DLC in January, called Ultimate Team where you could create a superteam by usuing a card game system, was also very well received.
FIFA 09 though, was not perfect, and with good reason. This game was all about one thing; pace. If you had a quick player, you would win, simple as. If you had a quick player with good finishing, like Cristiano Ronaldo, you could rip the opposition to shreds. Seriously, in my second game on FIFA 09 with friends, I played as Aston Villa, and scored seven with Agbonlahor. Against Chelsea. In this sense, 09 was like PES4; great gameplay, but way too easy to dominate. I also had issues with Manager Mode; if you had the money, you could sign anyone regardless of the prowess of your team (Messi came to Lincoln City lol), and the EXP system that was in place to improve attributes made it far too easy to create a team of 99 rated players. However, this game had left a deep impression on me. And the good thing was EA was about to get it even better
FIFA 10 – EA CANADA – 2009
And so we arrive at what is in my opinion, the greatest football game ever made. This game didn’t just revolutionise FIFA, it changed the entire genre, and there is one especially prominent reason for this. I said in my analysis of 09 that it was the best of the ‘old style’, what I meant by this is a football game where players can only move in straight or diagonal runs. FIFA 10 introduced full 360 degree dribbling, and my word it makes a huge difference. You now have the power to dribble the player where you want, rather than on pre-determined lines. Its like real football. And the result of this was a much better engine for matches, and you now had the freedom to attack and defend as you wished. Other tweaks were much welcomed as well. Pace was no longer so dominant as it had been a year before, as strong defenders could easily knock quick small wingers off the ball. The Manager Mode had been revamped so that player development and transfers were now much more realistic and believable. And the ability of Rory Delap to launch a throw in into the penalty box was welcomed as well.
My favourite addition though was the introduction of the Virtual Pro. Whereas in other games if you wanted to be in the game you would simply create a custom player, now you had the option to fully create your own player, even to the lengths that you could download a picture of your face onto the player. By then playing him in matches and earning ‘Accomplishments’ (stuff like complete 100 passes, score 50 goals, keep 25 clean sheets etc.), he would then improve and become even better. It was great fun to actively grow your own player, and it was made even better by the fact that you could form online clubs of people’s individual players and play matches against others, a mode where me and my friends spent a hell of a lot of time. Following on from this, FIFA 10 also happened to be the first football game that I played online, and I have to say it’s a mixed bag. Playing casual games against mates can be great fun as you banter with each other, but getting involved in ranked matches is a frustrating experience, as half of the time if you are winning the opponent will quit out in rage. Some kind of punishment system for quitting games would have been welcomed I must admit.
Sadly, even though FIFA 10 is significantly better than the opposition, I encountered a few major problems with it, primarily with Manager Mode. There are some horrible game breaking glitches thrown into it, such as sudden game freezes when trying to access team management, and a glitch by where if you moved club after about five seasons, you would end up with -£2,000,000,000 of debt. Luckily, I managed to get away with only experiencing this once, but you would have thought that EA would take the time to iron out such faults.
FIFA 11 – EA CANADA – 2010
And so we end up at the most recent version of the FIFA series. I must say that after much time spent playing 11, I am sceptical as to whether or not it makes that much of an improvement upon 10. There are a few new welcomed additions, such as finally being able to play as the goalkeeper, the ability to put your own soundtrack into the game (yes, you can have Eat My Goal play when you score) and the refinement of the Virtual Pro system with new positions and Accomplishments to unlock. But elsewhere, I have my doubts as to what EA did with the development of this game. Manager Mode has been again revamped, and in doing so they have fixed the bugs of FIFA 10, but then removed some key features like the ability to scout for new talent. Why not just leave it in there? Also, Pro Clubs has been altered, the result of which is now that it is much more difficult to get into a game, and if you get in it often lags about pretty badly.
Thankfully though, the core element of the game, the way it plays on the pitch, has not been drastically altered. A few tweaks from 10 have made it even more realistic (such as more variation on turning circles while dribbling and the accuracy of long range shooting), and the result is a good flowing match against both the computer and other players. I wonder though, if EA now has enough aces under its sleeves to keep FIFA ahead in the development race with PES. Perhaps for FIFA 12 you can play as the referee?
So, what is to be taken out of this trawl through the gaming past? It is clear to me that football games have taken a long time to develop despite the simplicity of Football itself. The modern games have had to introduce new gimmicks year on year to keep football fans interested, and for the most part it has worked. I just wonder as to how far into the future this trend can last, or whether technology such as Football on Kinnect Sports will finally allow you to have a real life kickabout in your front room and cast the simulation game to the rubbish. In any case, just keep that ball handy for a sunny day.