Football is a funny old game. Which is a bit strange, really, because it shouldn't be. After all, it started out as a serious sport; a combative, highly charged encounter between 22 men with excellent limb control.
What made football change was probably increased media exposure and commercial success. Eager to cash in on the public's adoration of the game, newspapers and television channels realised that running stories about off-pitch matters - like the players' private lives and club politics - was the way to go. You only need to look back on the last few weeks of footy headlines to see this has been getting progressively worse; Rio Ferdinand's drug test, Alpay's finger-pushing and Ned Kelly's tell-tales all have little to do with the actual matches.
In a way, Codemasters' Club Football is the digital embodiment of all this. Because instead of focusing solely on the real football sides of things, it wanders off into the realm of fandom, hoping to cash in on people's devotion to their favourite clubs.
So does it work? No. No it doesn't.
An Exclusive Club
The line between football fan and gamer is truly blurred with Club Football, because instead of being a single title that all fans of the sport can enjoy, it is 17 games that only diehard supporters of individual clubs will buy. So unless you're a fan of [inhales deeply] Manchester United, Liverpool, Juventus, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Arsenal, Ajax, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Leeds, Glasgow Rangers, Celtic, Borussia Dortmund, Aston Villa or Hamburg [exhales] then why would you buy one of these?
The short answer is that you wouldn't. Because Club Football doesn't just limit the clubs you can choose from to one per title - it also plays like a dead dog. Regardless of which club you choose, the core gameplay of these titles remains the same. So in effect, labelling the games with different club crests has almost no effect on the overall experience. The only major change is that each club will have its own domestic league to play in. So, for example, Rangers are in the SPL while Hamburg are in the Bundesliga. All club titles also include the option to play in a 'Super League' against European clubs, though this isn't a representation of the Champions League.
You can never tell in football... who's who?
Unfortunately, the rest of the differences are purely aesthetic. The club's home ground is modelled accurately; jersey's are perfectly replicated; players are supposed to look like their real-life counterparts and so forth. Of course, this would have been very welcome if the graphics hadn't 'made like a Liverpool fan' and started living in the past. Really, what's the point of concentrating specifically on individual stadia only to end up with something that looks worse than a three-year old Fifa game? And it does.
On top of that, the players in our Man United version - in theory one of the most popular titles of the 17 - were only barely recognisable. Every one of them has an awful, angular face that makes them look like sickly vampires or the victims of a mad botox doctor. Then again, with Fergie's penchant for flying boots there might be some truth in that.
In fairness, a nice touch is the ability to unlock images from the club's history, along with videos of their better goals. These aren't of stunning quality (and the pictures are a bit boring) but fans won't complain. Nonetheless, you're only going to look at these once or twice, and you can get much better value by just buying a DVD. Though where you'd find a Hamburg DVD is beyond us. Maybe at McDonald's [grooooan -Ed].
If all of the above is Club Football's only selling point, then Codies might have made a mistake. There simply isn't enough here to warrant a purchase from even the most ardent of supporters. Believe me - because I'm one of them. United are of major importance to my life, plus I love games, yet their uncomfortable marriage here does absolutely nothing for me.
Pro Devolution Soccer
The real reason for this all comes back to that smelly dog mentioned earlier. Club Football is just a very poor football game. It can't hide behind 17 club colours. In other words, he might be wearing a United shirt, but he's still Diego Forlan.
Codies cleverly mapped the same controls to Club Football as are used in Pro Evolution, so fans of Konami's actual football game won't take long to bed in. Short pass is X, square is shoot, circle is long pass and triangle is through pass. When each of these buttons is combined with L1, they produce different moves, such a one-twos and chipped through balls. When you're on the defensive, X is a regular tackle, holding square gets an AI team-mate to press, and circle is slide-tackle. R1 is sprint and L1 is change player. So, all in all, it's eerily similar to Pro Evo. Needless to say, however, that's where the similarities end. In fact, we have no problem stating that this effort is worse than the very first ISS Pro Evo on the PSone.
The single most terrible aspect of gameplay is player reaction times. It's clear that in this vision of the beautiful game, the rules have changed. No longer are drugs banned - instead they must be requisite, because players can take about a second and a half to act after a command is given. You want to pass first time? Sorry, that's a little beyond Paul Scholes' skill level.
It's not that this is the case all the time. Sometimes players manage to release the ball promptly enough, but for the most part they end up losing it if they're anywhere near an opposing player. Dribbling won't help you here either, because the only real difference between players is running speed. It's true that Giggs turns a little sharper than Gary Neville, but both are sluggish by Pro Evo or FIFA's standards. It's nice to see that Codemasters didn't go down the 'superskill' route, where even the keeper can emulate Pele like in older FIFAs, but they executed the alternative so badly that it makes no difference.
Throwing the game
A perfect example of the sluggish, pinball effect that Club Football can dredge up is in the keeper's distribution of the ball. Almost every time we tried to throw the ball out to one of our defenders and move with it first time, instead of collecting the ball and dribbling, Rio Ferdinand gets hit in the back by it. Seriously. It hits his back and bounces off it.
As you can imagine, it's nigh impossible to get a free-flowing, decent game of football going when players are so sluggish and the ball physics are so terrible. It's fair to say, however, that when we did get the hang of things and managed to start scoring some goals (again, shots are very unlike the real thing) it was satisfying, but only because it was football and any football game still gives us that satisfaction. The effect soon wore off.
On the plus side, one feature of note is the ability to 'fine tune' set pieces by touching the right analog stick, allowing you to change the point of contact on the ball for swerve (much as FIFA offers in this year's iteration). It's no different to the swerve in other football games, but it is executed nicely.
One of Club Football's proclamations on the box is the ability to 'create yourself' and star for your favourite team. This is simply a standard editing option in the game that allows you to create stats and an appearance for a new player in your name. To this we give the same answer as we do to anyone wanting to purchase these games: just buy Pro Evo 3, edit in your club and there you go - customised footy. Or, alternatively, just buy FIFA 2004, which, aside from having all the real players already, also rather nicely labels all its menus with your club's colours once you choose to play as them.
Sticking the boot in
Club Football is everything it shouldn't have been. Because the only pitch that mattered in the making of this game was the marketing pitch. Cashing in on football's devoted fans is OK by us - so long as we get our money's worth. If Codemasters had spent more time making players actually play like their real selves, rather than just look vaguely like them, then more praise might be due. Specific crowd chants and pretty pictures are all very well, but we wouldn't ask anyone to pay for them.
The stark contrast between this and the ever-brilliant Pro Evo series sums it all up: both are aimed at 'real' football fans, but only one is made by them.