Football, it's a funny old game. Every once in a while, a developer takes this bizarre adage to heart, and produces a football game which ejects tradition and focuses on the fun bits. Unlike their hawckey and fwootbwall counterparts though, these loosely bound footy blitz games are often shunned by real football supporters. Thankfully, either Sega did no market research, or it just plain didn't care, because here I am with a copy of Sega Soccer Slam, developed by Visual Concepts in conjunction with Black Box Games, and it's really rather rocking.
Jam to Slam
Keep it quiet, right, but I'm a football fan. I won't vomit blood for eleven overpaid cockney retards, only to be eviscerated by opposing supporters for mentioning the score, but I'll happily follow 'our boys' to the World Cup, at least in spirit, and offer the opposition some of that trademark invective. And I will happily participate in any other shameless, churlish behaviour to glorify the insipid spectacle. Beer in hand.
Soccer Slam appeals to me because it's not really football. It's a bastardisation, in the same way that Brutal Sports Football on the Amiga bastardised the NFL, and it's for the same reasons that I like Soccer Slam. Set on a smaller version of the footy field in an enclosed arena, each team consists of four players; one in goal and three outfield. With the clock counting down the only objective is to rack up more goals than the opposition, and the only rules are those dictated by the control system. If some smartass is racing down the wing at you, you have to choose whether to race off and mark his mate, risk an easily avoidable slide tackle, or just wrongfoot the upstart with a right hook.
The controls are extremely elegant. You can pass the ball with the whopping A button (spooning the ball upwards if you hold it down for a second), take a chargeable shoot with the B button, punch with Y and tackle with X. A quick tug of the right trigger will have you dashing down the field, and the left trigger can be used to put your player in the proverbial zone. Depending on your team's specialty (so for Sub Zero that's ice, Tsunami it's water and so forth), your player will become anything from a walking fireball to a pillar of water, with enhanced running and gunning speed. That's not to say it's slow to begin with. This is the fastest sports game we've played, and we only had it on the Normal setting...
The teams are no bland, faceless drones, either. Tsunami, for example, consists of two big fat men (one barefoot in a Hawaiian shirt) and a bodacious young female with realistic breast physics. These chaps have different skills in different areas, and picking your team is as much down to that as anything. When you get them onto the field however, things get even more interesting.
Instead of merely increasing the power of your shot, charging your shot bar the whole way triggers a special shot. In most cases, the ball is teed up high in the air and then acrobatically thumped goalwards in slow motion. You can choose the direction of the shot using the analogue stick, assuming you managed to escape the flailing fists and studs of your opposition, but this slow motion gives the keeper time to react. Of course, playing in a two-player game, the visual indicator of where the shot will go is a dead giveaway, so all sorts of feints and shimmies will be employed. Psyching your best mate out on the couch and then rubbing his nose in it is tremendous fun, but the scoring rate is so high the game sheds any and all of the unpleasantness borne of furious last minute comebacks in Pro Evolution Soccer.
That's assuming you want to play against your friend. You can join up and take on the combined might of the game's tricky single player Quest mode, with ten league matches, play-offs and a cup final with skill-boosting post-game spending sprees in the Skill Shop. You can even take individual control of a particular player if the switching becomes a bit too difficult to keep up with. CPU colleagues respond to your request for the ball and even take their own shots now and then. It's all very endearing.
I mentioned a power bar earlier. It's a useful tool. If turning into a fireball or ice bucket doesn't take your fancy, you can always wait for it to charge up completely and blow the lot on a Killer Kick. Holding the right trigger and lofting the ball in the air, the whole game slows down and a loud heartbeat vibrates your sound system. Ignoring the muffled sounds of teammates, you must take control of a player and move him into the path of the lofted ball, indicated by green concentric circles on the pitch, and press the A button just in time to leap Matrix style twenty feet into the air and hammer the ball home. This is a high risk manoeuvre, but goals from these plays punctuate any game like an earthquake.
Apart from dodging the standard attentions of your opponents and playing a poker face for the goalkeeper, you have to get the power bar charged up in the first place. You can do this by connecting lots of passes, scoring a few goals, outwitting people with shimmies and beating the living daylights out of everybody else. Once charged, you can let rip with the Killer Kick, and witness the magnificent spectacle that accompanies it. Action replays are one thing, keeping track of the ball perfectly and giving you a chance to swoon over the spectacular visuals, but the goal celebrations are the best bit. Every character in the game has a unique style, from the French ponce Arsenault with his jeering and 'igh-class accent to the enormous, loud-mouthed cockney Half-Pint who bangs on about how that goal weren't nuffink as good as a Bernie Inn, which, I'm unreliably informed, was some sort of eatery in the mid-80s.
So what we have is a delicate blend of footballing elements with zany-but-loveable Saturday morning cartoon characters. And in some cases, bounteous bosom. The gameplay is extremely sharp and the game feels extremely solid. If the ball hits a player, it deflects. If the ball hits the side, it comes off at the right angle. If the keeper saves your shot and it hits the back of a defender's head and rebounds in, you get a funny animation of him lying on the ground sobbing and a pop goes the weasel style overture to torment him. Nice.
The graphics are perhaps the game's strongest asset so far. The characters are all beautifully animated, with staggering curves and intricate clothing designs and facial animation. It never occurred to me until I thought about it, but when they stand around boasting and mocking the opposition after a goal, they do so with perfect lip-sync, and the cartwheels and backflips involved all stand up suitably to closer inspection during the action replay. Add to this motley collection of characters some extraordinarily detailed stadiums (with many more to unlock) and real, live polygonal spectators (loads of 'em) and you have quite a solid achievement. And as if this were not enough, there's even an English - well, feasibly English - commentator with wacky lines for all the players. He hasn't got boring, either.
Although Sega Soccer Slam is not due out in Europe for quite some time, its success in the States suggests that it will appeal to just about anybody, and we fully expect to heap awards upon it when it eventually emerges. It's not really the killer sports application Cube fans were after, and we have yet to establish quite how well it stands up to repeated play, or whether there is much depth to it, but in a cast of also-rans, multi-platform ports and revamps, which is a pretty accurate portrayal of the Cube's line-up for this year, it leaves quite a significant impression. One to watch.