It's rubbish being an England football supporter. Not only do we have to put up with the Neanderthal supporters that shame the nation wherever they go, something special and inexplicable always seems to happen to the football team just when it seems they're on the cusp of greatness.
The years of hurt trip off the tongue: the penalty blunders of Italia '90, Wembley '96 and Portugal '04. Sol Campbell's ruled out winning 'goals' in France 98 and Euro 2004. And now we can officially rue the curse of the broken metatarsal again. First Beckham in 2002, and now Rooney, just in time for this year's World Cup. England aren't exactly blessed with truly World Class players, but to lose a once-in-a-lifetime player like that at such a crucial time is another typical sob story that follows the England team like a crazed stalker with irritable bowel syndrome.
Only one thing can save our summer from this harrowing tale of underachievement and inevitable disappointment: the release of the first Sensible Soccer in eight years. Not only is it a game that recaptures the glorious instant, knockabout playability of the Amiga classic, but single handedly breathes new life into the genre.
Here Hare Here
Entrusted with a nearly-finished build of the game last weekend, we've been putting it through its paces and can confidently declare that Sensible veterans and newcomers will be absolutely thrilled with what Jon Hare and the Kuju Sheffield team has conjured. From the kick-off it's obvious that Sensible Soccer 2006 takes a vastly different approach to its big budget rivals by focusing on the kind of quick passing mechanic that made the original incarnations so irresistible.
Whereas recent FIFA efforts like World Cup seem bogged down with an almost glacial approach to knocking the ball between team mates, Sensible takes the opposite tact, with the ability to fizz fast, accurate balls straight to feet. Just as significantly, the standard touchline isometric view so beloved of PES and FIFA has been abandoned, twisted around to the old fashioned classic isometric top down view and zoomed-out so that you can properly gauge the positioning of your team-mates. It might sound trivial, but in practise it makes you question why the popular titles (PES included) persist in using a less helpful viewpoint.
And if you're sick to death of football games with vastly overcomplicated control systems that require the use of every button on the pad and encyclopaedic knowledge of obscure combo systems, then Sensible might be the game to get you back to playing liquid football again. With just two buttons and one stick taking care of almost every move in the game, the only other thing to focus on is judicious use of your limited reserves of sprint energy - dispensed with familiar ease using the right trigger. With the pass button doubling up as a ground shot button, and a context sensitive shot button also used for sliding tackles, headers, crosses and general all-purpose 'lunges' you find yourself fully in control right from the referee's whistle.
Power and the glory
If that sounds like an oversimplification, then the more advanced moves come about from mastering 360 degrees of aftertouch, allowing you to swing in dipping crosses and swerving, rising shots. Better still, a directional arrow points from each player, allowing you to properly judge the direction of your pass, cross or shot, while holding down the shot button increases the length of the arrow, giving you an instantly identifiable means of assessing the power behind your kick. Cunningly, the right stick allows you to take manual control of your keeper or position the free kick wall if you believe you can do a better job than the AI. It really is as if Hare and company took hold of the original Sensible, sprinkled in some good ideas from the present, came up with some great new ideas of their own and came up with something even better. The results are overwhelmingly positive, and a major surprise, to be fair.
Perhaps the reason for such surprise is the disappointing manner that Sensible Soccer left the scene back in '98. After five, solid years of 16bit, 2D sprite dominance, the terrible transition to 3D left many wondering whether the game could ever really work in three dimensions. Sensible Software sold up to Codemasters and disintegrated. The dream was over.
But with Hare back at the design helm, and the untested Kuju Sheffield team (no, not responsible for the Club Football titles, before you ask) doing the rest, Codemasters has been able to resurrect a cherished, lost classic - something not many thought possible.
Even the controversial visual style used for the game works a treat. A cursory glance at the slightly blurry screenshots might point to a self consciously wacky style that might seem faintly insulting, but they simply don't do it justice at all. For a start the animation is first class, and suits the slick, fast style of the gameplay with innumerable lovely little touches that you probably won't even pick up on when you first play it. Things like the pained expressions on players as they fall to the ground under a challenge won't even become apparent until the slow motion close up replay reveals it. Similarly, the tricks and flicks that players routinely show when they take possession aren't always apparent, nor the stunning saves that some of the keepers are capable of, or even the mumbled backchat to the ref behind his back after a booking. One thing you will appreciate is the goal celebrations, complete with their faux likenesses and exaggerated physical characteristics. Big heads on little bodies haven't worked this well since South Park.
As much as all of these are little touches, they make the game almost impossible to dislike - and even if you don't agree with the art direction, the game is built on the kind of gameplay foundations that make it hard to dismiss it merely for the way it looks. Thinking back, the old school Sensibles hardly won people over by virtue of their technical showboating, but you learned to love the little big headed block men anyway. This time, it's a more subjective and probably divisive thing, but it will matter just as little all the same.
Clearly the real, long-term appeal of Sensible is the multiplayer, and the tragic absence of any online support is a blow, but by no means the end of the world. If ever a game leant itself more to post pub, post school on-the-couch action, we've not played it. There's even a co-op mode if you can live with not being fully in control (we can't), but sadly online will have to wait for a future version, assuming this one does the business for Codies.
Needless to say, there's scope for all the international and club team match-ups (including Championship level, yay for Norwich) you could wish for, albeit with slightly bastardised team and player names to get around the dreaded licensing issues. Nevertheless, it's easy enough to edit the player names and change them all back if you've got time on your hands. For the curious, there is a wealth of friendly options, not to mention leagues and cups, so the scope is just as it was in the old SWOS days.
In terms of single player you can play it any which way, with a whole catalogue of unlockables to scalp if you manage to win each competition. None of them are exactly essential, but are never less than cool. Who could do without a mullet hairstyle, for example? We're also a big fan of muddy pitches and curious kits and balls, but that's just us.
For the really determined careerist, you can choose to create a custom team and climb the ranks from the depths of 300th place in the world to the top spot. The deal is to firstly choose the style of your team (normal, attacking, defensive, and more from a pool of eight) and blend a squad of 16 rookies (all of which you can edit and customise to your liking, both in terms of name and looks) to win the 40 trophies on offer (in any order you choose). These range from the rather worthless Scottish League Cup right up to the more glamorous star-studded affairs, but winning them gains you points with which to spend on upgrading the star ratings of each of your squad players. The more wins, the more points, the better your team and the more cool stuff you can unlock. Simple.
Fair enough, Sensible Soccer 2006 might lack the glitz and high budget glamour of the other footy titles around, but every football fan knows that the only thing that counts is the gameplay - and right now Sensible has oodles of the stuff. It's refreshing, straightforward and a fine return to first team action, and although it's clearly never going to replace PES in the simulation stakes, it instantly claims the throne of the best football action game by some distance.
If Rooney really has no chance of recovering in time for the World Cup, he needn't worry. This'll cheer the little scouser up, and a tearful nation into the bargain.
Sensible Soccer 2006 is due for release on June 9th on PS2, Xbox and PC via Codemasters.