17 versions can't hide a less than beautiful game.
A lot has been said about Club Football. Mostly by Codemasters. But although the concept of 17 games individually tailored to a particular club's players, liveries and fixtures is an interesting one, it's the quality of the underlying football that we're interested in - and whether or not it can compete with Pro Evolution Soccer 3 or FIFA 2004 this Christmas. (And whether or not ELSPA will treat it as one game or 17 - the latter almost certainly keeping it away from the All Formats Top 40...)
Come On You Reds!
Picking up a preview version of the Xbox Liverpool FC Club Football, it's pretty clear how the branding is going to work. Upon loading, a big club crest gives way to a short CG movie in which a red-socked, red-shorted and red-shirted Liverpudlian hoofs a ball past a generic goalkeeper and into the back of the net. Skipping the intro, you're transported to a white and red, Liverpool-branded menu with a sequence of recognisable Reds performing ball tricks to one side. Sadly our PS2 copy of the Real Madrid version refused to, um, play ball, but we can imagine what we'd see.
The game proper is comprised of Domestic Season (that's an unlicensed Premiership, basically), Super League (curiously stocked with all the Club Football teams - there's a shock) and Quick Start options. You can also uncover an Exhibition mode and Custom Tournaments through the Custom Mode option, in keeping with virtually every footy title ever. So far so good. You can even create your own footballing avatar to slot alongside the greats of your chosen team, which is a nice touch for the devoted. But us? We're more interested in what happens on the pitch.
Heading out onto the turf, then, the presentation here is also geared towards our chosen club, from the advertising hoardings right down to the manager (in this case Houllier) gesturing wildly on the sidelines, and close-ups of player's faces - all looking like FIFA 2002's waxworks, somewhat worryingly. All the usual options and visual clutter makes it in - formation/tactics, different camera views, cardboard cutout crowds, radar mini-map, instant replays and Gary Lineker - and the control scheme owes more than a thing or two to Konami's effort, although no-one should complain about that. After several years tucking into Pro Evo on an almost daily basis, it would seem silly not to have A pass short, B pass long, X shoot, and Y play a through ball. Even the left and right triggers correspond to 'change player' and sprint, so playing Club Football should take very little getting used to.
However in true journo fashion, "it actually does". The ball feels strangely detached from the park, skiing between feet and wobbling through the air unconvincingly, and has this tendency to stick to the player's boot when he's not sending it off into the ether - something even FIFA overcame recently. Indeed, Club Football may be Codemasters' first football game for the Xbox and PS2, but like any version 1.0 product, we can expect several iterations (assuming Codies adopt the obligatory yearly update model) before it manages to compete in the gameplay stakes with either EA or Konami (or even Sony for that matter).
On the surface of it, it's not such a bad arcade football game. The ball zips around, goals fly in from all over the park, and individual players are capable of some jaw-dropping feats, but it's all a bit too old school FIFA for our liking. The game stores up button presses for the next player in cycle, while Pro Evo and FIFA seem to instinctively know what you actually want to happen. Even the slightest of kicks can send the ball an astonishing distance, and the chargeable bars for virtually everything rarely call your shot or pass to action at the precise moment you'd like. Animations may be pretty fluid, but they're disjointed - the goalkeeper running up to take a goal kick and ostensibly stopping before he moves onto his kicking animation, for example. Oh, and the commentary's awful - but then most football games (apart from FIFA, possibly) have rubbish commentary, so we're not particularly bothered on that front.
Not stopping there, the AI needs a lot of work, often giving the ball away needlessly (In one particularly silly session, the goalkeeper threw the ball to one of a pair of players on the edge of his box, who then miscontrolled it back towards him and past the post for a corner kick.) Tackles are too easily mistaken for fouls (What is the Pro Evo-style "pressing" option for if not pressing?), and the game seems to enjoy ducking out to a TV-style box out replay for even the most pedestrian of footballing events. Golly - he fell over my boot! Better get Andy Gray to draw some arrows on the screen!
Clubbed To Death
Of course we're being very harsh, but we're football fans! That's what we do. Even when our team wins we still grumble about how useless they are, arguing that a paraplegic monkey on a unicycle would do better in goal than our balding lunatic of a sticks man - and Club Football has launched itself into an insanely competitive division. It's very much an away fixture at this point, and we're not afraid to jeer from the touchline.
At the moment, Club Football lacks the style, sophistication and realism Pro Evo and, to a lesser extent, FIFA 2003. Players don't move intelligently off the ball (or even on the ball half the time), and there are none of the intricate little touches and flourishes of skill that have been worked into the latter day KCET titles - we can't flick the ball over our shoulders, pull 360 turns to outwit the defence, or even dive toward a ball running out of reach to salvage a throw in.
We'd love to be proved wrong when Club Football comes out next month, of course, because if there's something we'd very much like for Christmas it's another serious competitor in the football simulation stakes. But as it stands, this feels like an average game tacked onto a cunning, but ultimately cynical marketing ploy, and we'd rather walk alone.