Neatly enough, we're far more likely in the Eurogamer household to have a TIF over which is better, FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer, than we are to actually drag Sony's This Is Football series out as a neutral alternative. And, going into a room with Football, London Studio's PSP footy effort, we weren't expecting to be that excited by it. That was until we realised that a) it's a pleasantly enjoyable game of football in the first place, capable of making you look pretty damned good and rendering some fabulous goals, b) it's still got that brilliant "deliberate dive" function that so tickles us, and c) the "Challenge" mode transforms it into a football game with a high score system. Which, as it turns out, was just what this series needed to turn our heads.
(A quick aside here, though: The title issue had been bothering us, since "Football" was never going to wind up being the preferred solution. We asked about it, and, according to the amiable chaps sent up from the first floor to talk to us all about the game, the idea is that it will now be called "World Tour Soccer" so as to separate it from the This Is Football brand as it's doing different things. Okay, so, confusingly, World Tour Soccer is the name given to the series whenever it gets released in the USA, and it won't be any different over there that we know of, but that at least is the reasoning.)
World Tour Soccer, then, features all the modes you'd expect - Exhibition, a variety of global cup competitions (including Champions League, World Cup, European Championships, etc - all going under pseudonyms so as not to upset the rights-holders) - but in addition there's this Challenge mode thing. And most of the teams aren't available to start with; they're locked. What gives?
What apparently gives is a change of approach. When you start out, you can buy a particular team and by taking them to glory you start to amass tokens, which can be spent on opening up other teams. Then there's Challenge mode, which is clearly the lynchpin of this whole arcade-ish mentality; here the idea is to play through a series of toughening games with your eye on points rather than simply the scoreline. Pass cleanly, intercept without missing or fouling, score from further and further away from the goal, and generally dominate the match and you'll amass points, with each addition to your total popping up in green above the relevant player's head when he earns it. Play badly though, hack people down, get booked, concede goals and generally fail to stick to the script and you'll have points stripped away, complete with little red subtractions above players' heads. Damn them. The goal is simple: win the game and score as many points as possible to win medals.
We like this. We like it a lot. And not just because we were the best at it last week either. We like it because it makes you play differently. It makes you player a better game of football. And it has a very obvious risk/reward principle. It also means that when you manage to score a thirty-yard screamer just before the developer rips the disc out of the PSP debug drive and tells you to pay attention to the next presentation, you don't just feel like grinning; you feel like standing up and doing an aeroplane round the table to celebrate your first Goooooal-d medal.
The prospect of having so much to unlock, of sending challenges to other players via wireless channels, playing against them with or without your unlocked content, and generally just getting this UMD inside our PSPs as soon as possible, is really surprisingly exciting. There will be those who complain about the idea of having to unlock their favourite teams in order to start off with them, but on the whole we like this shift of approach; the way that London Studio has decided to revisit the sport with an arcade mentality in order to give us something more than a glorified Exhibition mode on a disc. With regard to its competition, FIFA and PES, the mantra seems to be "if you can't beat them, take them to school". Old school.