It happens about halfway through our brief but eye-opening ten-minute go on Football Superstars: it's like a switch has flicked in our head. We carry on playing more or less as we were (badly), but our perception of the match, and our tactical approach to it, have changed completely. A minute ago, we were playing a videogame. Now, we're playing football.
The change occurs when we instinctively understand something we rationally knew already. We're running about on the pitch not with bunch of AIs, but with a bunch of other people; the developers sat around us in Monumental Games' Nottingham offices. Only the two goalies are handled by the game server. And we're not a team; we're only players.
We start thinking about marking opposition players, positioning ourselves to receive passes, swinging the camera around to track the ball and our team-mates as we make a (badly) coordinated run on goal. The difference between Football Superstars and PES or FIFA is as wide as the gulf between Call of Duty and Command and Conquer. Or - perhaps more accurately - World of Warcraft and Warcraft III.
Football Superstars is, simply put, a free-to-play football MMO, developed by Monumental and published by a new UK-based venture called Cybersports. In the game, you create a player and play your way from three-a-side up to eleven-a-side matches, levelling up attributes and gaining skills as you go, and specialising your playing position, in rough RPG style. Matches are always played entirely by human players (with the exception of those goalies), and you can choose between unranked casual games, ranked FS Club league matches organised by the game, and player-organised leagues of player-manager clubs.
The other half of this particular game is a "lifestyle" social game and front end, where your male or female footballer/avatar can train, shop, socialise, and play dress-up. The aim of this side of the game is to acquire fame (linked to performance on the field), which grants access to ever more exclusive haunts, content and items, which bestow more fame and so on in a heady spiral of strutting, flashy, tabloid-baiting excess.
It's match-play that matters first and foremost, naturally, and it's match-play that we had a chance to sample ourselves. It may only take five minutes to make the mental leap to playing as one part of a human team, but it will take a little longer to get accustomed to Football Superstars controls. This isn't to say they aren't simple and logical, but they are a stark shift from how you're used to handling virtual football.
Monumental likens them to PC FPS controls, and indeed you do use the mouse to look around, WASD to move your player relative to the camera, and the left mouse button to select players, shoot, pass and tackle, with a targeting graphic to tell you which. Abilities are scrolled through with the mouse wheel and activated with Q and E. Most useful of all, the tab key automatically runs your player toward the ball. When it comes to passing, aiming is semi-automatic: you select the player you want to pass to and the game aims your shot ahead so he should, by rights, run straight into it.
It makes perfect sense, but it feels foreign in this context, and you shouldn't expect the razor-sharp instant reactions of an FPS. The animation routines give your player a pronounced weight and sense of inertia, making him feel a little sticky and lethargic at first when turning, and your early attempts on the ball are clumsy to say the least.
Ultimately, however, this gives the game a thoroughly convincing and satisfying physicality, and means that thinking ahead and developing sound instincts will be as important as fast reflexes to success. There is definitely a learning curve here, but early indications are that climbing it will be fun in its own right. Naturally, so will honing your teamwork, especially if you can do so with a regular group of friends. The latter will be helped along by voice chat with full surround-sound positioning.
Although the game does include levelling up, specialisation and attributes (six physical attributes, improved in gyms, and 13 football attributes, improved on the pitch) - and although you can earn special abilities, and temporary and permanent passive buffs - it's weighted slightly more towards skill than number-crunching and time-investment. Given what the game wants to achieve, this is probably wise.
Football Superstars plays a good game of football for almost-full teams of players. That's something currently on offer nowhere else (except at rival sports MMO Empire of Sports, which will feature football, but has yet to show it). To an extent, it's all Football Superstars needs to do. But it's very far from being all that it's trying to do.
As well as being able to set up unranked matches with whatever parameters they like, all players will join one of fourteen fictitious clubs - seven in each of two towns - when they create their avatars. These teams take part in the FS Club system, which features four divisions, each with their own league table which is refreshed on a four-week seasonal cycle. Until you reach the highest echelons there are no fixtures as such, just drop-in-drop-out matchmaking - not unlike a player-versus-player battleground in a regular MMORPG, or for that matter any competitive FPS. You can advance your player and do your bit for your club competitively at any time without needing to socialise, although you can join matches as a group as well.
The player-manager side of the game is more involved. Player-manager clubs (PMCs) are effectively Football Superstars' guilds, and the PMC system is there partly to channel the energies of MMO power-gamers, and keep them from dominating FS Club play. Managers can appoint scouts, coaches and captains. Although the game will provide some ready-made PMC leagues, this side of the game is expected to be mostly player-controlled, with managers organising their own events and leagues. That is a very big ask for a nascent MMO community, and it would be a concern if it weren't for the appealing simplicity and accessibility of the FS Club leagues.
Quite aside from the game's sporting structure, there's town life. These "realistically utopian" town, with their bars, nightclubs, sportswear and fashion shops, gyms and sports centres, and characteristically English architecture, are intended to be the social focus of the game and the stage for avatar self-expression. They're also where you can spend fame won in match play on journalists, racking up interview minutes to increase your status in a Panini-style sticker-book system. Housing and cars are expected to be added after launch.
This is one of the most interesting, but also the most risky aspects of Football Superstars. The idea of a fame-building metagame is appealing - and on a more basic (not to say base) level, so is the gratuitous wish-fulfilment of living the footballer life. But central to Monumental's plans for this side of its game are the status-symbol bars and clubs, and a kind of organised, massively-multiplayer socialising that verges on role-play.
Very rare is the fantasy MMO whose taverns aren't completely deserted, while players do their socialising in chat channels and on the job. Monumental is going to have to come up with some compelling reasons for players to spend time hanging out in the towns, which means gameplay reasons. The developer does claim to have some mini-games in the works, which ought to help.
Another thing the towns risk exposing a little too harshly is Football Superstars' art. Monumental has aimed for both realism and low technical requirements, and the result, it has to be said, isn't very handsome. This doesn't matter too much on the pitch, where the animation is good and the functional highlights are of more importance anyway, but in town the avatars lack personality and their surroundings look bland. These are the reasons a cartoon style works so well in mass-market, avatar-based PC gaming, as Blizzard and DICE (with the forthcoming Battlefield Heroes) well understand.
Monumental and Cybersports' plans don't stop there. There's to be extensive web support, including downloadable replay videos of every competitive match - a scout's dream (or nightmare). And, of course, there's how you'll pay for it. The game will always be free to download and play, with no restrictions on how far you can progress in your football career, and it will be partly supported by sponsorship and advertising.
But there will also be two in-game currencies - dollars and bonds - one of which, bonds, you can buy with real money, and use to purchase special rights and items. On top of that, an optional premium subscription will pay out bonds, allow you to create a player-manager club, and more.
This payment model is spot-on for a game that's going straight for the mass market. With uninhibited free access to a solid, unique footballing experience, Football Superstars is giving itself every chance of success. But it's not until we see just how well the social side complements the match play, and whether or not Monumental can grant the game a bit of sex appeal to match its fancy footwork, that we can properly judge it. With a closed beta starting soon and release due towards the end of the year, we don't have too long to wait.