No matter how many excitable developer quotes you hear, you can never fully judge a game's promise until you get unrestricted access to it. For over a year we've been (cautiously) eulogising about CyberSports' impending MMO Football Superstars, a symbiosis of the beautiful game and an open, massively multiplayer world in which you interact with like-minded players, improve your skills or succumb to the vanity of fame. Having spent the last two weeks immersed in Football Superstars' pre-beta world, we feel pretty confident we've got a handle on what's in store, and the verdict, for the most part, vindicates our early enthusiasm.
After signing up, you kick off your career by creating a player in your own image, or if you're carrying around a few extra pounds, the image of someone much fitter and better looking than you are. Sex, ethnicity, eyes, facial features and optional face fungus can all be defined from an exhaustive selection, after which you must pledge your allegiance to a club. Just minutes after signing up you're plopped into the centre of your team's clubhouse, which ostensibly acts as your base of operations.
If you've got half a brain, you'll head straight for the football tutorial area. This transports you to a pitch on which you're introduced to the basics of playing footie. The WASD keys direct your player, while the mouse rotates the camera for a full 360 degree view of the pitch. Combining player movement with awareness of what's happening around you takes some getting used to, but with the default camera sticking close to your player at all times, it's an essential skill to master.
Simplifying your life is the ability to tractor-beam your player towards the ball with the tab key, while an icon at the edge of the screen keeps you informed where the ball is relative to your position. Keyboard controls are finished off by the ability to sprint (shift) and pass (space bar). Shots and passes into space are executed with the left mouse button, while a central cursor allows you to toggle between a low or high pass. However, Football Superstars' main challenge isn't learning the controls, but mastering the lifelike movements of your player. You quickly learn that the key to success is the ability to read the game and position yourself accordingly.
Once we'd learned the basics, we headed back to the clubhouse. From here we could choose to play a three, five, seven or 11-a-side match against other players. (So long as there are enough players around to make up the numbers. This was a problem initially, but has become much easier in the last couple of weeks due to a huge influx of mad-for-it Russian beta testers). Remember, this is an MMO, meaning the only AI player is the goalkeeper.
If you're anything like us, you'll find that your first few games are a cause for embarrassment rather than celebration. Within minutes of taking to the pitch, we were pulling off unco-ordinated charges, miskicks, and displaying a lack of positional awareness usually reserved for an under-5s Sunday kickabout. With our player initially comparable to a MMO warrior who gets beaten up by a rat, it soon became apparent that our avatar lacked pace, precision, power and an eye for goal, as our more experienced opponents romped to victory. This is when it hit us. This isn't a game you can just casually dip in and out of, it's a MMO in the truest sense, one that places character development and skilful play high on the agenda.
With this in mind, things slowly started to change. Dispensing with ball chasing, we placed ourselves in central defence and concentrated on intercepting through balls, showing attackers the outside, launching into crunching tackles and unselfishly releasing our team mates with pinpoint passes. The game dealt intelligently with the conundrum of injuries. When we picked up a knock, our player writhed on the ground in agony for several seconds before resuming hostilities. It was striking just how much more entertaining the game became when we played like a real-life player. Granted, it was still more Macclesfield than Man Utd, but despite our lack of skill, it was apparent that Football Superstars' matches possess promise.
Of course, some concerns continue to linger. Visuals and ball physics were underwhelming, player tussling lacked the robustness of FIFA 09, and some sporadic lag hindered match fluidity. Goalkeepers were also hit and miss, either pulling off stunning point-blank saves, or loitering on their goal line while strikers ran up to them and tapped in a simple goal. What's more, we didn't see any evidence of a system to regulate or reward proper positional play, but CyberSports again assured us it's working on a solution.
When you've finished a match, you're transported back to the clubhouse and rewarded with experience points and Football Superstar Dollars (FSD) that you can spend at the gym to hone your skills (fitness, strength, speed, spatial awareness), or at a bar. The more time you spend knocking back shots of grandpa's cough medicine at an upmarket establishment, the more Fame Points you'll gain.
Fame points can also be earned by spending your FSDs on journalist exposure, though this currently feels rather underdeveloped, with virtually no interaction between you and the hack. Once you have enough Fame Points you can use them to access exclusive bars and clubs. If your superstardom rises high enough, you'll even be given rewards, such as natty football boots that enhance your on-field performance. The clubhouse is also the place where you can socialise with your team mates, find matches against rival sides, or get involved in friendly kickabouts.
In true MMO fashion, you must choose where you want to spend your time and focus your attention. There are scores of new skills (anticipation, ball control, diving header, kicking accuracy, one-two bonus, set piece and sprinting to name but a few) that your player can learn, but conversely there are also dozens of nightclubs in which to socialise as you bid to transform yourself from a Z-list celeb to an international superstar who advertises pens on TV. So the question you need to ask yourself is: do I want to be a speedy goal-poacher who spends his evenings pounding the treadmill, or a prima donna seduced by the flash of paparazzi bulbs? The choice is ultimately yours, but the game's impressive scope for specialisation ensures you can't have it both ways.
Just like the matches, the potential of the lifestyle features was clear, though plenty of work is still needed to flesh them out (CyberSports could do worse than taking inspiration from indie gem New Star Soccer 3). Compelling and deep lifestyle features are essential to Football Superstars' chances of success, especially now that FIFA 09 offers 10-versus-10 matches with far superior visuals. Monumental would also do well to tie in the lifestyle features more convincingly with on-pitch performance, because let's face it, who's ever heard of an A-list celebrity who plays for Kettering Town?
Football Superstars is certainly shaping up nicely. It still has some issues to resolve before release (CyberSports is aiming for early November, though before Christmas may be a more accurate estimate), but after two weeks of play, the potential is clear - and the more populated the game becomes, the more fun it will be. But don't just take our word for it, try it out for yourself. After all, you can never be fully sure of a game's potential until you get unrestricted access to it.