The Fourth Place
Pro Evolution Soccer is the finest football game ever produced, and has left its competition not so much breathing down its neck as staggering to keep up with its wake. Even Konami is bored of its artistry and dominance, and now plans to unsettle PES fans with the release of a definitive International Superstar Soccer game later on this year. By comparison, Sony's This Is Football franchise, well, isn't, and EA's FIFA series is apparently under the direction of ballet teachers, this year's effort notwithstanding. PES is gritty, it's real and it's instantly discernible as the beautiful game. Whether you agree with my point of view or not is pretty irrelevant, but if PES doesn't float your boat then there are certainly a number of choices to consider in your pursuit of a realistic football game. Footy videogames are a bit of Turing Test for developers these days, rarely living up to their distinctive roots and so often leaving us wondering, will they ever be more enjoyable than the real thing? Who knows, but Silicon Dreams are due some luck, having developed or at least had input into Sega's Worldwide Soccer series, the old Michael Owen World League Soccer games and now the coveted UEFA Champions League license videogames across a number of systems. If you want to save yourself a read, it's still hovering somewhere between FIFA, TIF and the legions of also-rans, so it's not the finest footy game out there - in fact it's not even top three - but it's still a solid effort, and just as FIFA '99 was a game that showed EA Sports' true promise, UEFA Champions League Seasons 2001/2002 is almost certainly the precursor to something good.
Prime Time Footy
UEFA the videogame is decked out with all the glitz and glamour of its television equivalent. You can pick from any of this season's 32 hopefuls and take them on a tour of Europe's finest venues, and in the process it's difficult not to admire Silicon Dreams' attention to detail. Flaunting authentic kit designs and sponsor logos, and an interface largely derived from the original ITV sets and flashy animations, it's a real experience for, well, Manchester United fans who tend to go through the ritual of watching Champions League games regularly. It's also nice to see a game with a flashy yet familiar interface for once instead of a bloated mess (FIFA), a Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen style disaster area (TIF) or a bad Goth-rock nightmare (PES). Beyond the basic competition (which, as you should be aware, consists of a hotly contested group stage followed by a series of knockout games) players can also choose to create their own team from scratch, picking from a number of attributes before taking on various real-life competition. This is a bit monotonous unless you really want to create your own Worms-esque Fighting Eleven, but it does give some of the more creatively minded the opportunity to run free. How about an Ocean's Eleven team? That's topical. I had to work hard to emulate Julia Roberts' smile, but hey. Another incentive to play the game is the impressive array of past teams. I'm always fond of footy games with 'classic' elevens, but there are some 46 past champions here, which is beyond anything I could have expected. How about forcing a Liverpool team of the past to play off against the Manchester United team of the present? Entertaining? Yep. Complementing the action is also some reasonable commentary from the likes of Gabby Logan and Guy Mowbray. Okay, so it's not John Motson, but at least you can avoid Big Ron…
Heading out onto the pitch, the first thing to strike you is the unfortunate appearance of the player models themselves. I'm not a big fan of any footy game's interpretation of the human form, as it were, but I'm particularly enamoured by the way PES breathes life into the models with superb animation and actual, differentiable characteristics which help the players to accurately mimic their real life counterparts. Beckham really does act like Beckham, and so on. The players in UEFA, frankly, do not live up to the authentic roots of the franchise. They aren't all that strikingly different to one another - for the most part they singularly fail to look anything like the characters they are based on - and ultimately, they stand out merely as products of Silicon Dreams' development, similar in terms of animation and appearance to the models seen in Sega Worldwide Soccer, Michael Owen's World League Soccer and of course last year's UEFA Champions League tie-in. This year's UEFA may give you a lot more freedom to express your footballing intentions, but it also shoots itself in the foot with some confounded errors, such as a power bar system, which, despite offering complete freedom over shots and passes, fails to take into account the deciding factor of 90% of the football you will ever watch; speed! Players cannot prod the ball with an outstretched leg to deflect it goalwards, nor play complex one-twos and wall passes, nor do anything else that requires swiftness of motion and quick thinking. Furthermore, UEFA's default system of dealing with the ball is ludicrous. You can exercise all the restraint in the world, watching the ball fly from Beckham's foot into the path of your leading scorer, only to hit the button at seemingly the right moment and watch your hero launch into an elaborate bicycle kick attempt, completely missing the ball. Animations can now be interrupted to an extent, but it's a surprisingly viscous interpretation of football at times, and a little frustrating as a result. Football should be smooth and graceful at this level, not scrappy.
If you're simply after an arcade footy title though, UEFA may have something for you. Silicon Dreams has once again overdone the aftertouch, meaning that bending the ball is as simple as hanging onto that D-pad or analogue stick, offering a good way to capitalise on dead ball situations since the AI-controlled players have difficulty with all but the simplest attempts on their defence. Speaking of the game's AI, it's a bit ropey in places, particularly amongst the goalkeepers. If it was just Barthez sticking to his line with the ball ten yards from it and racing like a lunatic past the ball as it looped into the box every other time, you might put it down to authenticity, but thanks to the close default camera angle (the others are largely unusable) and the keepers' insistence on loitering between the sticks at all times, exciting one-on-one situations are completely absent. In PES a one-on-one can be as exciting as the real thing, and Sony is promising a lot of changes in this area with its TIF revamp later this year, so it's a bit disappointing when you discover that UEFA is hinged almost entirely on through-balls, dead balls and long shots. Nevertheless, it's a momentarily entertaining romp, nowhere near as refined and clinically detailed as Pro Evolution Soccer, but still somewhat valid at times. If you want realism on the footy field, you need to own PES, and it will keep you happy until its successor arrives. UEFA Champions League Season 2001/2002 is, well, missing that final touch, but I'm sure it has an audience. Tune in next year to see whether Silicon Dreams can live up to the promise displayed here.
Will you support Eurogamer?