When Kick Off was launched onto an unsuspecting world way back in 1989, it was hailed as one of the best football games ever, and Dino Dini became a software star overnight. When the sequel. Kick Off 2, hit the streets, it was hailed as THE best football game ever. A lot has changed since then; Anco, the company that published both titles, has since converted the latter game to a wide variety of console formats, Dini has parted company with Anco and moved over to Virgin, but he can't use the Kick Off name any more because it doesn't belong to him. Fans have been waiting an age for Dino to come up with the goods a third time - there's a new champion in town in the form of Sensible Soccer, after all - but how could he improve upon what is already a very classy title?
Goal!, the latest in the Kick Off saga, is much, much more than just a re-tuned, boy-racer version of the original, although when you sit down and play you immediately realise that the unique control method which underpinned Kick Off's success remains. There are, however, a variety of subtle tweaks added to give greater depth of gameplay.
The most important addition to the control of your characters is the ability of players to speed up and slow down on the ball. Keeping the joystick pushed forward causes your player to quicken his pace, which is useful when it comes to charging after an opponent who has the ball, but not terribly helpful for accurate control - more often than not, especially in the early stages of learning the rudiments of the new, improved system, you'll charge straight past your man. That's why it's important to gauge accurately the position your character should have reached in relation to the opponent in order to slow down, by nudging the stick as opposed to keeping it pushed fully forward. The gentlemanly art of tackling has been altered, too; it's impossible to run through the other players, and tackles are judged by the referee in order of severity. So, for instance, were you to go in for the ball from the side, the ref is likely to just wave play on or possibly award a free kick, but if you go in from the rear, it's more than likely that you'll be given a stern ticking-off or even shown a card.
CAUGHT IN A TRAP
As Kick Offs free-rolling ball (as opposed to the ball being permanently glued to the feet as in practically every other soccer game before and since the game's release) was so popular, it would have been foolish to take it out. However, one complaint was the trapping aspect - basically, the player would stand on the ball and it would be almost impossible to wrestle it from him without sending him crashing to the ground and giving away a free kick -or worse.
This has been rectified in the new version of the game; when the ball is stopped, it is positioned just in front of the character, allowing for more realistic tackling and, because there is less likelihood of the game being stopped due to a foul, the game flows more fluidly. The way the ball acts has been tightened up too; gone are the ludicrously long kicks from keeper to opposition 18 yard box which seasoned Kick Off 2 players used to their advantage; because there is no offside rule in Kick Off 2, you could pass the ball back to your keeper, wait for the opposition's defenders to move toward the ball and for your striker to move closer to the other side's goal. That trick cannot be pulled in Goal!, because you can't kick that length of shot anymore, and also because the new back-pass rule, which Dino has incorporated into his game, does not allow keepers to pick up the ball when it is kicked to them.
Offsides are still missing though -Dino felt they would stem the flow of the game, and I agree, but I believe there should at least be the option to play with the rule as it would add a greater level of challenge for experienced players.
As in the previous two titles, Goal! contains a number of helpful options which allow you to tailor almost the entire game to suit your skills. A variety of difficulty levels have been included to help even sad. Gateshead Diadora League players attain Aston Villa status in a matter of minutes. And speaking of individual teams, there's an absolute stack of them incorporated into Goal! All the big players are in there, as well as a whole host of international sides.
What is particularly impressive about this aspect of Goal! is that each side is made up of real players, and each player has his own statistics which mirror his real life form and general performance. For example, were you to select Arsenal (why on earth you'd do that I'm not quite sure) and take a look at Ian Wright's stats, you would notice that his aggression and goal scoring attributes are high, whilst his defensive and goal-keeping abilities verge on the laughable. There are around 3000 different players in there, and you can change the names of each to keep up with the transfer markets. Unfortunately, it's not possible to alter the actual statistics of the players, so you'll just have to hope that when, say. Manchester United finally decide to put Bryan Robson out to pasture, his replacement possesses similar qualities. Some hope.
Dead ball situations have been radically altered. Whereas in Kick Off 2 success in these areas generally relied upon your ability to use after-touch to bend the ball around the field, Dino has used a brand new system in Goal!. The screen switches to a Sensible Soccer pulled-back view of the pitch, showing far more of the pitch than usual. When taking a throw-in or a corner, a dotted line appears next to your player. This line can be adjusted using the joystick to place the ball wherever you wish, within reason. Short or long passes can be made, along the ground or high in the air; this system takes some time to get used to, but once you have mastered its use it becomes second nature.
While we're on the subject. I've also got to mention the fact that you can play the entire match using the Sensible Soccer style view should you so desire. Again, it takes some getting used to, mainly because, unlike Sensible Soccer which was designed to be a slower, more strategic game. Goal! in mini-mode plays at the same hectic pace as it does in the normal close-up view.
However, once you become accustomed to the pace of the game, you really do get the best of both worlds - the frantic arcade action for which Dini's football games are universally acclaimed, and the opportunity to do more than just kick and run because you can see more of the pitch, hence more of the players are in view and you can plan passes more easily than when having to rely on the scanner. That's not the only way to play, though - select Horizontal view on the options menu and the pitch swivels through 90°, creating in effect a whole new ball game! The joystick controls change accordingly, and it's actually much more satisfying to score a goal from this angle, as you can see more of the animation around the goalmouth.
One of the 'features' of Kick Off 2 which many players figured out at an early age was the ability to score a goal from the centre circle by simply hoofing the ball in a straight line - if you timed the kick correctly by letting loose right on the edge of the circle, nine times out of ten the ball would sail over the keeper's head and into the net. This bug has been rectified in Goal!, as has the other favourite which allowed you to run over the legs of an opponent in his six yard box, fall over and win a penalty.
Having been a massive fan of Dino Dini's soccer titles ever since I got hold of the original Kick Off, I was not at all sure how much more he could do with the genre he created single-handedly. After all, the control system in Kick Off 2 is near perfect, graphics were a bit tatty in the original but they served their purpose and it would be daylight robbery to release a supposedly new game which turned out to be the prequel with a face-lift. But now that I've got my hands on Goal! and tinkered with it for a period of time, I can categorically state that Kick Off 2 has come out of the plastic surgery with a facelift, tummy tuck and liposuction on the thighs and buttock region!
The bare bones of the original are intact, but the subtle additions and alterations to the gameplay breathe new life into what could have been a tired old package. Graphically there's been a hell of a lot of work done, and now the basic footballers are hard and chunky and move around the screen with a high degree of class (even if the goalkeepers look a bit like Adolf Hitler!). Dino has taken a leaf out of Sensible Software's hefty tome and included a large amount of digitised sound effects, many of which are crowd noises which crop up throughout the proceedings - there's a particularly effective noise for those occasions where you slam the ball off the goalpost too, which really makes the heart sink as you realise just how close you were to putting the pig's bladder into the back of the onion bag.
The new perspectives that you can select in Goal! are a fantastic addition; both are like brand new games in themselves - the Sensible Soccer style view really is akin to a supercharged version of Renegade's smash, while the horizontal game is a dream come true for all those who enjoy left-to-right scrolling footy but can't stand the ball sticking to the toe of your boot! For some time now, the pundits have been crowing about Sensible Soccer's majestic rise to the top of the championship table, shunting Kick Off 2 into second place. I never agreed with that view; I play both games regularly, and have always felt that the coveted crown balances precariously between the two titles. Or at least, I did until Goal! came along. This is without doubt THE soccer game to own - it's got far more gameplay and features than anything else around today. It's definitely the new benchmark for the genre, and you can bet your life that, as you read this. Chris Yates and Jon Hare will be doing the same and wondering what they can do with Sensible Soccer 2 to stay in the arena in this battle of the computer footy Titans.
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