It’s wet outside, England play Turkey an hour after I go back to work and there’s only a week left until Pro Evolution Soccer 3 comes out. How fitting that I’m sitting at my ‘pooter with a warm cup of soup, writing about Codemasters threat to Konami’s football crown, Club Football. How fitting also that the game turns up a full day after I slated Manchester United’s title chances on the GameFAQs football board, only for me to find out that I’ll shortly be reviewing a game that evolves around them. As the supporter of a team once referred to by their ambitious Egyptian tycoon of a chairman as the “Manchester United of the south”, as a Fulham supporter who sat at Old Trafford on our first Premiership appearance to watch our boys lose 3-2, as a fresh faced teenager watching at Craven Cottage our team beaten by 3 goals to 2, and as a TV spectator watching that French Fairy Fabien Barthez prance around in the goal at Loftus Road to make our prized midfielder Steed Malbranque miss his penalty, this is pure hell. Imagine sending a Celtic scarf to a Rangers fan for Christmas, or a Wayne Rooney poster to your Liverpool-supporting nephew, or a Chelsea shirt to me. The only good factors to come from playing this monstrosity is that I didn’t pay for the privilege and I didn’t get a Manchester United case to stare at either.
What you have to remember is the football genre has been split between two titles; the first being FIFA. This attracts fans because of its license from the governing body of world football and great graphics. In-game the atmosphere is amazing and presentation top class, but where many (including me) leave the FIFA titles on the shelf is the shallow gameplay. Based on the American Soccer leagues action is direct which means barely any focus on midfield play and just end to end football. Great for action fans, but when was the last time a Merseyside derby ended 12-10? At the other side of the argument (and where I stand strongly) is Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer. With no license, questionable presentation and average graphics many are put off before even playing a match. Those with knowledge of the series however will lap up the engrossing gameplay, where no two matches are the same. Building up play slowly in the midfield, pulling opposition defenders out of position, slotting a through ball to your striker only to fire over the bar is all part of the experience. So any newcomer to the genre has to offer something new. What we do need is a title that has both engrossing gameplay and top-notch presentation. And after a great build up like that I would love, just love it (great Keegan impression eh?) to say ‘and here is the perfect football title’. Ho hum.
Given Codemasters track record it brings no surprise to see the high level of detail and presentation in Club Football. Another example of research at work is the background changes that smell remarkably like Championship Manager. On some screens you will see the club badge, others will have player faces. Another nice touch is having the animated players by the side of the screen performing with the ball. They dribble along, then stop and play keepy-uppy before displaying some nifty tricks. Then the ball is passed to another team-mate that comes along and performs his routine. Pretty stuff really, it kept me glued to the screen for a few minutes at least. But my favourite find of the first five-minute play was the menu screens. Neatly laid out with no loading in-between make for a fast click through team sheets, options menus and stats screens. Marvellous.
Of course, with the highly rated LMA series under their belts the management side of things (team selection, tactics etc) is a breeze, although remarkably familiar in the shape of PES. Plenty of formations are available to choose from including a cool position changer that allows you to alter player layouts slightly. This come in use for when you want to play a striker closer to the midfield or push up your full backs. Add to that a nifty ‘role manager’ which assigns Championship Manager-style arrows to players and you have the power to turn Norwich into Champions League contenders. What I didn’t like was the cosmetic use of the captain’s armband, which is regarded as one of the most important roles in football. Surely the team would be affected if quiet boy Wes Brown wore the captaincy rather than Roy Keane. Assigning free-kicks and corners to the manic Welshman on the left I head for the pitch, hoping that the gameplay will borrow tips from PES, just like the menus.
Sadly this is not true. Straight from the kick-off the feel of pain and anguish comes rushing back like an express train deep at night. Much more like UEFA Champions league than PES or FIFA players will struggle to play Club Football, and it’s all down to lack of detail. For instance, running on the ball across the park will draw a player onto you. Now in real life and other football titles if you were to turn as the player is pressing you could steal a few seconds in order to sprint away or pass the ball to a player in a better position, which is the main way to create goals. However in Club Football opposition players will glue their eyes to that ball, and even if you do turn away from them they won’t be fooled. Hardly realistic and bloody annoying after a while. Without this aid my game plan is knackered; resorting to passing the ball around the pitch to find openings it’s here you realise the opposition are of similar quality to robots with the ability to see 5 seconds into the future. As a gap opens up in the midfield you run through, and the forwards are showing all the signs of being ready to pick up a pass. As they run behind the defender quick through ball the opposite side should do the trick. But no. The defender magically moves 4 yards to his right within milli-seconds to block the pass. Undeterred, I try again. Pass the ball from the right full back to the left one, then left midfield, into the centre and.ha! A space has opened up! (Cue 007 impression- ah ha! Now Mr Burnd ah ‘ave you exactly were ah want yous). Going for the lob ball produces a different result, but sadly no attempt on goal. Instead the forward collects the ball in front of the on-coming keeper, and fails to shoot because he’s too busy making sure he won’t trip over. This stumbling effect wastes too much time and when you are ready to shoot (after franticly tapping the X button several times) the keeper has it covered. So next, lets run through them. Oh no wait that’s impossible because the defenders are much stronger than you are which means them getting the ball whilst your striker bites the dust. Again.
When you do eventually get through one-on-one you find the keepers are insanely difficult to beat. Or maybe it’s the inability to direct your shot. Running down the goal line towards the post no one tackles you, leaving a route to goal. Pressing the shoot button would leave me thinking ‘go on, just slot it by the near post’. But the bugger hits it in the middle of the goal where the invincible keeper is standing. Passing it across the six-yard box is pointless too as a defender just mops it up. And that’s another point; running and passing seem way too weird. Now maybe I’ve been playing PES way too much but when sprinting (which to me has no effect on how you get away from defenders) you feel handicapped, as if you can’t turn or run as well as you do off the pig bladder. After a while I gave up running and just passed the ball around, letting ‘it’ do the work instead of me. Passing is also unconvincing, although the best of the pick from the gameplay. Whilst I have been careful not to bring up the topics of FIFA or PES in the gameplay section, here is an exception. The passing is nothing like the two games, and although I do reward something different this has no real claim to a prize. Why? It just doesn’t feel right, but until the technology to put emotions into reviews comes along there is no actual way of explaining, just it feels too loose, too detracted from the game itself.
A big plus for Codemasters however comes in their attention to detail in everything else. Players actually look like themselves and blend in with the graphics superbly. In fact you could well believe that the computers characters just jumped out of their Ferrari’s, put on a shirt and shorts then walked down the tunnel to the pitch. Clothes hang off them as opposed to being painted on, hair blows in the wind and their faces show a variety of expressions, from a delighted ‘we just went one up’ smile to ‘**** off ref, I never touched him!’ frown. When scoring a goal the celebrations are like those on Sky Sports. The camera goes up close and you hear them shouting ‘YYYYEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSS!’ to each other as the crowd goes wild. Late equalisers and winners are greeted with a shot of the manager jumping up and down with delight on the touchline. One mis-hap is a return of the flat crowd that we thought we’d seen the last of on the PSOne. A nice touch to brighten this up though is walking stewards in the terraces, and as the matches start you see them walking around in groups a breaking off the different parts of the ground.
Looking at Club Football won’t strain your eyes either. Nice and bright with a cool mixture of TV blur to make it look like a kick-off on Match of The Day, complete with opening comments from Gary Lineker. Again some great touches here by the Codies as the former England striker picks out the most likely hero of the match and runs down quickly what attributes this key player has. The way you get sucked in as a spectator is cool too, as one minute you’ll be playing from a TV-style view, then when an incident happens the camera switches to pitch-side action-cam. It’s like being in a big armchair watching TV.
Again though, some annoying niggles break through the icing on the cake. Whilst commentary is done by the superb Barry Davies his level of vocabulary leaves many wondering how long he had to practise his lines. Words and phrases are often repeated several times during a match, like ‘they are coming forward’ is repeated 4 times as I take the Red Devils from one six yard box to the other. Again, bloody annoying. The other niggle? Well like I said before I am a Fulham fan, so obviously I won’t want to play as the red half of Manchester all the time. When I go to play for the white half of West London however it is shocking to see how little care has gone into the clubs. The addition of division one teams is a great bonus, but when the club badges are wrong and the line-ups cut so short this does detract from the experience. Unless you’re a Man Yoo fan obviously, in which case you won’t take a blind bit of notice of the other clubs and instead rattle on about how ‘you’ won the title last year and how ‘you’ so don’t need Beckham anymore. Oh **** off.
It’s full time then, and Club Football has missed plenty of chances to take the game, instead PES3 and FIFA beating the newcomers comfortably. But don’t get me wrong; what Codemasters have here is a great platform to build on. With a little more detail to the presentation and tighter gameplay Club Football could, just could be challenging for a Champions League place come the start of next season. For now it’s third place. Back luck old boy.