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.