Version tested: Xbox 360
Effectively, we've already reviewed UEFA Champions League 2006-2007. The latest model to roll off the blocks at EA's ruthlessly efficient football factory is, at its core, FIFA 07 re-skinned in celebration of the grand club football tournament. That game's sturdy, dependable engine hasn't been overhauled so much as given a quick service. Change the oil, clean the spark plugs, top up the de-icer, slap a new logo on and roll it out until it's time for next year's MOT.
It's like one of those tacky little French cars that used to come in a 'Special Edition' with an Olympics logo or a couple of palm trees decaled on the side, interest-free credit, and a bonus electric sunroof. Except there the analogy starts to crumble, because FIFA is far from cheaply made, and currently in pretty fine fettle. It's more of a Mondeo: a precision-tooled everyman's express, safe, competent, fully-loaded with features and slickly engineered, a product that tries to be all things to all men and pretty much succeeds.
It goes without saying that all this is true of UEFA Champions League 2006-2007 as well. As far as the game of football it offers is concerned, there's not much to add to Kristan's exhaustive review of FIFA 07 from late last year, and no course of action left but to summarise it, and leave you wondering whether it's EA cheating you of genuinely new content, or us.
As much as they remain vastly different games - and as much as you'll have enormous difficulty convincing a Pro Evolution Soccer fan to switch sides - in raw quality terms, EA Sports' series is now running Konami's a very close second. FIFA 07 was a big step forwards, with big improvements in ball physics and a much faster, more exciting, more flowing game, albeit one that's a little woolly and standoffish in tackling and defence, and that doesn't give you the same tactical flexibility as its rival. Add to that some beautifully fluid animation, the usual world-class presentation and licensing and a far superior online offering and you had a very convincing package indeed.
That's true of UEFA Champions League in every respect - except, of course, the 'big step' part. Gameplay-wise, this is more of an imperceptible shuffle, sort of forwards and to the right, a bit. Are we imagining it, or is shooting even more precise, predictable and thumpingly satisfying? Might it be a little easier to give the opposition AI the runaround with a straightforward charge? Maybe. But you'll need to do the equivalent of tilting your head and squinting to spot the differences.
If all you're interested in is the basics of a solid, thrilling game of football, then there's no reason to pick up UEFA Champions League if you already own FIFA 07, and no reason not to if you don't, apart perhaps from the more limited scope of its licence. But naturally, EA football games are about much more than playing football. They turn licensing into an art form, with a TV producer's eye for presentational flash and an anorak's eye for detail, and so on the surface, a Champions League game is always going to be a different proposition from bread-and-butter FIFA.
With fewer teams involved, the game needs to trade heavily on a sense of occasion - which it certainly does, even more so than FIFA, and we must pay particular tribute here to EA's sound team whose vivid big-stadium soundscapes get the heart racing before a match even starts (although they can't do much about the ridiculously ostentatious operatic trills of that godawful official anthem). It also needs to use its licence imaginatively to stretch the basic game out with new modes, and this is where the latest Champions League game scores an efficient double. (Remember our ill-advised car analogy from earlier? This bit is the electric sunroof.)
Standard quick-match and tournament modes, and FIFA's diverting Lounge, are now joined by Challenge and Ultimate Team. Challenge mode recreates 42 scenarios from classic Champions League matches, pitching you into the middle of a match with a set time and score line, and offering you a chance to rewrite history, or live up to it.
For those who get off on the heroism and drama of football at the top level and have an encyclopaedic memory of these things, it's a dream come true (provided they can overlook the inconsistency of playing these moments past with the team line-ups and stadia of today). If you're not a student of Champions League history, it's still a very satisfying, if occasionally frustrating, single-player mode that provides variety, and drives you to improve your skill with and understanding of EA's football system. This is what licensed videogames should be about: the stuff that fans care really about, in a form that still benefits those who couldn't care less.
Ultimate Team mode, the other major addition, is less relevant to the Champions League, and more specifically appealing to obsessives. Its cute conceit is that you can build your own dream-team of players, freed from such trivial real-world details as where they actually play, by collecting them in packs of cards. Points earned across the game's modes are used to buy more cards to shape your team, and there's endless, pernickety, stat-fiddling joy (if you like that sort of thing, and be honest, you do) to be had assembling a deck of players and managers and performance-boosting cards that both complement each other and live up to your own private fantasy. If only such stats seemed to have a more dramatic effect on your team's performance on the pitch, you'd feel rewarded and justified in the hours you spend putting together your Ultimate Team, rather than embarrassed, and faintly sad.
Where it really matters, though - in the thick of a match - UEFA Champions League is always the same, and always the same as FIFA 07. Which, as previously discussed, is far from a bad thing to be, if you're anything other than a Pro Evo diehard. It's a package that knows exactly why people want to buy it and lives up to their expectations; that it uses a little imagination along the way is a bonus. You'll either want it or have no use for it, so the number down there doesn't matter a great deal. If it had made a more serious attempt to fill the room for improvement left by FIFA 07 we'd have no hesitation in matching that game's 8, but for that, we'll probably have to wait until EA's next flagship football title rolls around.
7 / 10