Version tested: Xbox 360
Pure Football has a theory. The theory goes that somewhere out there in the wild, gated communities of Esher there exists a sub-culture of professional football players who, rather than accepting defeat after matches, send each other text messages that say things like, "We wuz robbed. Rematch on Sunday. No referee."
It's hard to imagine that this sub-culture exists anyway (after all, most footballers are too busy with their other sub-cultures of golf, Ladbrokes and sexual violence), but Pure Football doesn't exactly sell it very well.
The introductory cut-scene, flown in from 2002, made me physically recoil in embarrassment despite an enjoyable cameo from Steven Gerrard's face (apparently on loan from a child's drawing of the Incredible Hulk, unless there's a subtext about overcoming the adversity of severe anaphylactic shock that I somehow missed). "Are you tough enough?" you're then asked.
The rest of the game's presentation does little to convince you that footballers are tough. The players are FIFA Street-style caricatures with a touch of The Tick about them, all bulging barrel-chests and spindly legs; they actually look quite cool, but they run and play football as though bipedalism is their second language.
The music is an amazing runaway train of brass, electro and a woman making ghost noises. It's the sort of thing you might hear if you were looking for an ammo box in a science-fiction shooter but hadn't walked over the invisible line that triggers the next wave of enemies yet: weird, looping and excitable whatever happens on-screen.
It also plays in the background constantly, and there's no commentary or - in keeping with the cashmere-sweaters-for-goalposts theme - spectators, so there is zero atmosphere to any of the matches. This means you have to listen to the players shouting generic footballisms like "Nice one keeper" and "Give it" over the music, but at least all the voice samples are in English and some use regional accents, so you get the impression Pelé is Scottish, for example.
The irritating thing about all this is that Pure Football doesn't have the sense to acknowledge how silly it all is. FIFA Street 3 was a bit achingly cool at times, but there was a degree of self-awareness about it: its approach to accommodating renowned stick insect Peter Crouch, for instance, was to make him taller.
Pure Football occasionally leans toward self-awareness - every goal or penalty miss is met with a cutaway to the player in question overlaid on a big footbally slogan, like "Bottled it" or "Early doors" - but upon closer inspection it looks more like someone's watched a Danny Dyer DVD and made notes. And the only video of Danny Dyer it's OK to watch is the one where he gets hit in the face several times by accident.
On the pitch it's five-a-side, a bit like FIFA Street, Mario Strikers and SEGA Soccer Slam, all of which it shares a lot of DNA with (there's a roasting joke in here somewhere, but I'm spent), and it's viewed from above and behind one of the goals.
Control isn't one of the game's strong points. You can pass the ball and slide-tackle and lob and shoot and do through balls in standard fashion, but input is severely lagged, and the antique ball physics and behaviour make for an awkward, exaggerated cartoon spectacle, albeit one that operates within parameters you figure out relatively quickly.
Defending is frustrating, however, even when you get the hang of it. You can "strafe" to line up for a "step-in tackle" according to the tutorial, and later you open the manual and discover you can do the standard PES or FIFA-style pressing with one or two players as well. In general I rely on a mixture of the latter and the slide-tackle, but it's never much of an art.
As with the more violent end of the non-simulation football game market, you can also massacre people from behind with vicious tackles, but Pure Football limits that with a foul meter that fills up once you put in more than a couple of two-footed reducers. Once full the other team gets a penalty, even if you fouled them in their own half, which does a good job of regulating your behaviour.
Things get more interesting in attack. When you're running down the flanks a little blue arrow appears under your player to indicate a team-mate is open for a cross, and if you hold the long-pass button until a power bar hits the green area (or preferably white - "Pure"), you'll play it straight to his head.
The action then zooms to that guy, and you reach for the shoot button and wrestle with the shooting power bar. Green or white guarantees a shot on target, and then it's up to the angle and skill of the goalkeeper as to whether it goes in.
Shots from distance are the same - you don't even need to be facing the goal, you just need a little bit of space to avoid a tackle - and by holding one of the bumpers you can make the target areas on the power bar smaller but increase the likelihood of a successful attempt. Positive footballing actions also power up a pure meter, which guarantees a pure shot the next time you have a crack at goal.
The AI is frustratingly predictable. Providing you can marshal your foul meter and learn a few tricks (move slowly into the opposition half on the touchline and defenders will back off and leave you to it), the game stops being anything like football and plays more like basketball: back and forth, back and forth, with the only margins for error largely out of your hands.
If you miss the green or white bits of the power bar, you know you're going to miss the goal, and getting closer doesn't have much impact on the likelihood of scoring. There are few-to-none of the "happy accidents" that make games like FIFA and PES so unpredictable and enjoyable. After four hours you really have seen it all, and where you can't guarantee the outcome you don't feel as though extra practice will make any difference.
The campaign is the closest thing the game has to a saving grace. You design your captain and give your team a name and then set about taking on challenges, and these aren't just "win a match". OK, most of them are about winning a match, but usually with conditions: win by two goals, do it in three minutes, golden goal from the kick-off, come from two down...
As you play you also earn "pure points", which can be spent upgrading your captain's stats, and before each match you're given a list of the opposing players and conditions that will unlock them for use in your team.
Some you unlock quite passively - to unlock David Beckham, for example, you need to finish the game with passing accuracy above 75 per cent - but others create little secondary objectives that you try to build into your play. Iker Casillas is only yours if you save a penalty - but that means you'll need to concede one. Ashley Cole is only yours if you hide his mobile phone. I mean score from a cross.
Amazingly, despite the lack of atmosphere, despite the silly visuals (and completely incomprehensible stadiums, by the way - why does London look like the Soviet Union rendered in Epic Mickey?), and despite the annoying controls and bad defending and unconvincing, scripted goalkeepers, the variation squeezed into the campaign by the objectives keeps you plugging away.
At least for a few hours. Then there's online, which starts you off from scratch in a mixture of ranked and friends matches, and moves you up "divisions" and throws "badges" at you every time you wrestle your way through the treacly mixture of controller and network lag that awaits should you survive the peer-to-peer connection process.
All in all, Pure Football was never going to threaten EA Sports and Konami's stranglehold on simulation football, but we knew that. We now know that it's not really good enough to threaten the half-dead FIFA Street series' stranglehold on "wacky" football either.
It has some redeeming features and won't be the most depressing footballing experience most of us endure in the next 30 days, but rather like most professional footballers, it would do better to focus more on its football than the surrounding pageantry - and on the pitch it can't even get the accents right.
3 / 10