Gremlin's Actua Soccer was the first 3D football game to challenge EA Sport's Fifa Soccer. Not only did it look great, but it played - well, okay... better than Fifa anyway. It wasn't Sensible Soccer, but you kept going back to it because it looked so good. People who wouldn't normally play football games in the office clamored for a place in our daily league. Money was won and lost on penalty shoot-outs. Joysticks (and egos) shattered under the pressure. Actua Soccer changed everybody's expectations completely. It was quick (on a modest Pentium), the commentary from Barry Davies was great (for a while), and even though it was far from perfect, it was great fun. And then came Euro 96.
Essentially, it was the same game repackaged. Fair enough, if EA Sports can do it year in, year out... but it just wasn't enough. Just like Actua Soccer, Euro 96 suffered from the same little problems that really should have been addressed second time round. Actua Soccer Club Edition suffered from similar neglect. Our hopes for Actua Soccer 2, the true sequel, were understandably mixed. Would the keepers still roll the ball out to the opposition? Would the players still fall over all the time and run through each other? Would the auto-player select be any better? Would the teams be in alphabetical order? Would the tactics/formation screen actually correspond to what happened on the pitch? In short, would Gremlin be able to fix the problems that plagued the first game(s) and come up with a result?
A game of two halves
It was never going to be easy. All the die-hard footie game fans had been playing Sensi Soccer 2000 the previous month as retro fever swept over the office, uniting Chester City and Chelsea fans alike. Sensi 2000 itself (although 3D), had prompted a bit of a 3D backlash. And then Actua Soccer 2 arrived.
There's little doubt that graphically Actua Soccer 2 is very impressive and a massive step up from the original game. The attention to detail in the players and stadiums is amazing, as are the weather effects. Similarly, the player animation is excellent: they jig about as they wait for kick-off, leap for headers, pick the ball up and walk to the flag for corners (unless you tap a button) and generally act with a greater sense of purpose and realism. They also appear more solid and (gasp) rarely fall over. Obviously Michael Owen can stay on his feet for longer periods than Andy Sinton, who was called on to do the honors with the motion-capturing last time round. The fog may look a little odd if you haven't got a 3D accelerator card, but the snow, rain and shadowing really add to the atmosphere. As before, Barry Davies' commentary is both coherent and entertaining, while Trevor Brooking's ramblings are enough to make you pause on the ball and fall about laughing - for a while. But then all commentaries tend to become pretty tedious given time, and this will keep you smiling longer than most.
And as far as features go, it's options a go-go. Just about every national side is available and you can opt to play a league, cup matches, friendlies and even go for a kick about in the park, as well as select different weather conditions, referees, off-side and so on- just what you'd expect in fact. The squads appear to be pretty up to date, and though some players are out of position, once you've put things right and saved your formation and tactics, the team stays the way you left it (unlike last time).
Get, give, go
In an effort to keep things simple, Gremlin have kept the control system pretty basic. You've got four buttons (shoot, pass, speed burst/shove and cross/slide tackle) which can be used to execute all manner of shots, passes, headers, crosses and tackles. In practice it works well and is easily picked up, though you'll need a couple of daisy-chained Microsoft SideWinder gamepads to get the most from it, but that applies to just about every football game nowadays. Off the ball you can tap a button to give your player extra pace (though if you do this too much he becomes tired and his performance suffers), shove players off the ball (they've got rid of that pathetically lengthy motion-captured 'stick ya foot in' tackle) and execute some truly scything sliding tackles that can land you in hot water (literally) if you don't time them perfectly. With the ball at your feet you can pass to the nearest player, knock it ahead and run onto it, execute one-twos, through balls, crosses into the box, long passes into space, lobs and let off real pile drivers (the longer you hold the shoot button, the harder your player will strike the ball). Aftertouch is a simple affair and the amount of potential bend can be altered depending on what skill level you've opted for. On the face of it, you've got more control than ever before.
That said, it's pretty hard to score, especially from close range and this can get frustrating. Whereas previously the keepers were quite stupid, they're now very difficult to beat, coming off their line with cat-like anticipation and throwing themselves at the ball with almost laser-sighted precision. You can try and lob them by pressing shoot and pass at the same time, but this is very tricky to pull off and is rarely successful as the keepers seem to have elastic arms once on the ground. As a result of this, goal mouth scrambles that are one a penny in Sensi and indeed 'real' football rarely occur. You're much more likely to score by banging the ball in from outside the area with plenty of aftertouch. Admittedly, to score in this way does take skill, but it feels a bit hit and miss - and well, it ain't football, is it? The long and hard tactics also make it very hard to defend effectively. The auto-player select is pretty quick, but it's not foolproof and if you've got a two-on-one situation (two defenders against one forward) it's possible to zigzag your way between them while the auto-player select tries to keep up. It's not a massive problem, but it can be frustrating.
But is it better than Fifa?
Everybody in the office has played both games to death, and (surprise) there's been a lot of arguing going on. Actua Soccer 2 isn't perfect, but for me at least, the speed of play, the precision of the passing and the lush presentation make up for the minor shortcomings. It's difficult to compare it to Sensi Soccer 2000, so I won't even attempt to. It's not as glossy as Fifa (and it doesn't feature that Blur song) but it is a lot quicker and I've always preferred Barry Davies to John Motson. In all honesty, I found Fifa agonizingly slow and frustrating - it may look nice, but the players move like they're wearing Velcro-soled boots and playing on a fuzzy-felt pitch. If EA had made it quicker, it could be good.
In football cliche terms - it's a game of two halves - it depends on what you like. For me Actua 2 is like the Premier League: it might not be the prettiest football, but it's fast-paced, skillful and entertaining. On the other hand, Fifa is like Italian football: it's much slower, you get more time on the ball and it looks nice. At the final whistle, you make your choice. Give me the Premier League any day.
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