Ever since Sega Soccer Slam first appeared on the GameCube in the US much earlier this year, we've been following the progress of the game quite zealously. Ignoring the tried and trusted conventions of, well, rules, Soccer Slam sees two teams of four players (three 'characters' and an automated robot goalie) duking it out on various tiny footy arenas worldwide, winning the ball with no small amount of brutality and scoring with similar aplomb.
What Black Box Games have done is match the speed, excitement and feel of real football with an almost Speedball-esque air of relentless violence. The control system has the traditional shot (X), pass (A) and sprint (R) buttons, with the rest given over to protecting the ball (Y), stealing/slide tackling (B) and powering up (L). With the right timing, you can "deke" (Yank hockey-speak for shimmy) past opponents and charge up your shots, or you can slide or smack them silly on the defensive and regain possession.
Turnover is often frantic - venture further forward than the halfway line and you'll have to either pass or show your skills in keeping away from aggressive defenders, otherwise you'll find yourself on the ground in a heap, with frisky opposing forwards racing towards the goal. If you can keep the ball and fancy a shot, you can just tap X and watch the ball sail goalward, roughly in the direction you indicated with the analogue stick, or for a better chance of scoring you can charge a shot the whole way and your player will flick the ball up and perform some acrobatic insanity, volleying or heading the ball with significant pace. If you combine this technique with a power-up, you're almost guaranteed a goal.
Powering up is a good thing, because it speeds your player up (with requisite graphical effect) and allows you to score with greater ease, but building up your power-up bar right to the top is often a better idea than blowing it in small quantities. After smashing your way through the opposition, literally pummelling defenders and deking your way in and out of midfield, you'll find yourself with a full, beeping power bar and a cryptic message about "Killer Kicks". From here you can send an aerial pass zooming into the sky, and position an attacker below to batter-ram the ball home in slow motion. From most positions, a Killer Kick can be slammed past the keeper to add a goal to your tally.
It sounds unfair to have guaranteed scoring routes aplenty, doesn't it? Well, if you keep possession long enough, you'll even be able to bring about a Killer Kick scenario on your own as a spotlight appears in the centre of the pitch. A shot in the spotlight does much the same as a Killer Kick.
The thing is, Sega Soccer Slam isn't meant to be a balanced, often exciting but ultimately low-scoring game of football, wisely leaving that territory to sims such as Pro Evolution Soccer. It's an arcade hybrid - scores are high, tackles are fearsome, players are characters with amusing back stories and wacky goal celebrations, the commentator is a cockney impressionist with one-liners by the dozen and the graphics are halfway between cartoon and reality. Games are set in fantastical environments, from rooftop pitches to arenas built out of bamboo in the shadow of volcanoes, and the whole game drips of imagination and creativity. Football this is not, as Graham Taylor might put it.
But that doesn't mean it's not fun for fans of football - far from it. In fact, given a couple of real players on each side (eminently doable with the Xbox and Cube), you're in for a real treat. As you might expect, you can control the whole team (switching players by tapping A) or you can take direct control of individuals, and playing this way cooperatively is one of the most enjoyable experiences Sega has brought us in years. Perhaps even better than the recent Beach Spikers and Virtua Tennis.
Unlike Beach Spikers though, Soccer Slam is a great deal of fun even on your lonesome. You can of course take part in exhibition games, and there are some neat mini-games on offer too (Hot Potato has you trying to keep possession and 'banking' time on the ball by passing it about, and Brawl is quite simply a beat 'em up), but the meat of the game is in Quest mode. Here you take up one of the six starting teams (with three more to unlock) and take part in a worldwide season of football. At its most basic this mode is a league table of the six teams, and you'll fight each of the others at various international arenas on the way to beating Quest mode, but there's actually more to it than that.
See, winning games earns you money, as does taking part in the little scoring events which pepper the single player game. With this money, you can purchase upgrades for your players, like shark jaw shinpads, metallic arm augmentations and so on - each item affects one of your player's attributes, improving him or her for the next game. Each team can buy different upgrades, and you can actually see them in action. The fat Hawaiian bloke on the Tsunami team gets the toothy shin guards, and the bouncy-chested lass gets the bionic arms, for instance.
Admittedly, quest mode will probably take you only a handful of hours to complete, but beating it with each team (and thus unlocking new stadia, players and other perks) is quite a challenge. And you'll soon seize upon the opportunity to do so cooperatively with one or two other players - where Soccer Slam is absolutely at its best.
Short and to the point
Looking at it objectively, by and large the only problem with Soccer Slam is that you'll soon burn out. Since the game's American release, we've absolutely drained it in single and multiplayer modes, and it doesn't really get much of a look in these days. Though we love it dearly, there isn't a great deal of subtlety at the high end - you can up the speed and difficulty level, but this only makes it harder to do what you'd normally do - and although graphically very crisp and well defined, this betrays the way the ball sticks to the player's feet. A very FIFA-esque trait, and one that's unwelcome even in this arcade setting.
Still, you'll have a lot of fun with it when you first get your hands on it, and even those of you who just blew £40 on Pro Evolution Soccer 2 will find a home for its unique blend of footy and fighting. Better than Midway's RedCard, and more violent than the average ice hockey game, Sega Soccer Slam is pure arcade fun, albeit not very long-lived.