THE BEAUTIFUL GAME AND THE UGLY BUSINESS
World Cup Carnival 2 (Sensible Soccer 0)
For anyone over the age of 30 or so, three words more than any others are synonymous with cynicism, corruption, greed and shame in the videogames industry - more than Driv3r, more than Rise Of The Robots, more than ET, more than anything else you can think of. Those words are "World Cup Carnival". In that sorry episode exactly 20 years ago, a publisher failed to get a spanky new football game finished in time in order to cash in on that year's World Cup tournament, so an unpopular two-year-old one was hastily tweaked and passed off as a new product instead. A storm of protest swiftly blew up among both press and consumers, and the game's publisher US Gold responded with an extraordinarily frank and candid letter to a games magazine in which it blamed the developer and offered dissatisfied customers their next purchase from the company's catalogue at half price.
Of course, in the two decades since then, the videogames industry has grown up a lot, and is now a much more professional and respectable sort of a business, in which such a shady and cack-handed fiasco could never be repeated. Isn't it? Well, duh.
Spot the difference. (Answer: nobody gave World Cup Carnival 9/10)
Welcome, then, to Sensible Soccer 2006. Ever since its original release on the Amiga in 1992, Sensible Soccer has been one of the most-loved videogames of all time. Rapturously received by press and public alike (your own reporter penned the first-ever published review, awarding it a then-unprecedented 93% in Amiga Power - heck, I liked it so much I eventually went to work for the company), the game and its various updates and sequels would go on to dominate the charts for the next four years. However, the brand's history isn't an unbroken litany of acclaim and success, and the series' many devoted fans have been required to turn a forgiving blind eye on more than one occasion.
The colossally comprehensive action-game-plus-management-sim sequel Sensible World Of Soccer in 1994 was slightly tainted by a few (fairly minor) bugs eluding the playtesters, and publishers Renegade had to issue a free patch disk shortly after the game's release to tidy them up. Versions of the original for SNES and Mega Drive had been well executed and well reviewed, but the game's attempt to step up to the next generation with the Playstation and PC release Sensible Soccer 98 was a disaster, the transition to 3D bringing an atrocious, slow and near-unplayable game that bore almost no resemblance to its illustrious ancestors.
Sadly, Sensible Soccer 98 failed to take heed of its yellow-card warning.
And then there's the mysterious "Sensible Soccer 2000", an alleged release also for PC and Playstation of which only one review appears to exist, oddly dated August 2001 and full of lavish praise and two comically-bad screenshots. Searching Google, eBay and Amazon fails to turn up any mention of such a game (Sensible supremo Jon Hare appears to disavow its existence in this interview, naming SS98 as the most recent "full-size" iteration), and the glowing review seems extraordinarily at odds with the quality of the Sensible Soccer 98 engine on which you might imagine a 1999 sequel would have been heavily based. So what game was the reviewer (Steve "9/10" Hill, who gave it his trademark score apparently in the name of PC Zone) playing, and why can't the rest of us have a go? That's a question that's about to float eerily back into the Sensible Soccer-loving public's consciousness once again.
If you pop into a game shop to buy Sensible Soccer 2006, the much-heralded all-new Sensi for the 21st Century, you'll have a hard time avoiding promotional standers, posters, flyers and box stickers proclaiming it as "The best football action game", quoting a hyperbolically positive 9/10 review published six weeks before the game's release in popular UK-based gaming website Eurogamer. The EG review is somewhat out of step with most critical opinion (Gamerankings and Metacritic both show an average score around the 66% mark, with the second-highest after EG's 9/10 being a rather modest 74% in Gamesmaster), but more disturbing than either the score or the effusive praise is what the review doesn't say.
That's the church in the middle distance, seen from the outhouse of the old Gould place. (In-joke.)
Because by any standards, Sensible Soccer 2006 is an unfinished, bug-riddled game that's clearly been released at least three months before it was ready, purely in order that it could be in the shops on the first day of the World Cup. (The release date, indeed, was June 9, the same day Germany kicked off the tournament against Costa Rica.) And the odd thing about the 3,000-word review isn't that it likes the game a lot more than anyone else seems to (there's nothing wrong with that, and if there was then this reviewer would be in a lot of trouble), but that it doesn't take so much as one sentence to passingly address any of even Sensible Soccer 2006's most glaringly obvious problems, omissions, bugs, errors and issues.
And hell, it's not like there's a shortage of them to spot. The most strikingly apparent is the moronic level of the computer opposition. ("The CPU AI is, for the most part, ideally pitched to caters [sic] for every skill level" - EG review). The CPU players are, in fact, absolutely catastrophically dim. Goalkeepers will hurl themselves 20 feet (well, actually, magically teleport themselves 20 feet, but more on that later) in order to turn a shot that's clearly going five yards wide back across their own goal and/or out of play for a corner, yet will stand dumbly and watch a ball sitting stationary on their six-yard line for 10 seconds while a forward runs half the length of the pitch to smash it past them into the net. Roughly eight out of ten CPU throw-ins will be lobbed straight to the feet of an opposing player. Players facing forward, with a clear pass to a team-mate ahead of them, will instead backheel the ball 20 yards over their own goal-line for a corner to the opposition.
Above and beyond such comedy howlers, the CPU opposition is simply incredibly bad. (There's only one difficulty setting in the game, though different teams have varying skill.) Your reporter - who's experienced but not actually all that good at Sensible Soccer - decided for the purposes of this review to play through a single league campaign. Picking a rather mediocre team, and adopting some unsophisticated Wimbledon-style hoof-and-chase tactics, the first 18 default five-minute games in the league saw my team scoring 202 goals (no, that's not a typo - I do mean two hundred and two) with precisely none conceded. And whatever you do, don't play as one of the better sides - you'll find yourself passing the ball out to the nearest defender from a goal-kick, then having him run the entire length of the pitch and slam it past the keeper into the top corner without so much as dodging a tackle.
Two hundred and one to go.
And that brings us to the teams themselves. One of the reasons a few bugs slipped past the testers in Sensible World Of Soccer was that the game had such a crushingly vast amount of data in it. With over 1,500 real worldwide teams and 26,000 accurately-detailed players (as well as all the comedy ones), SWOS was practically a world football encyclopaedia with a game attached. SS2006 has less than 20% of that to cope with (there are no club teams from outside Europe), yet is still littered with players playing in the wrong positions for clubs they left six months ago, teams located in the wrong federations (the USA national side has shifted continents, from North America to Central America), clubs playing in the wrong colours (Aberdeen/Liverpool get a bilious pink instead of the proper red) and a selection of international teams apparently made with a pin, an atlas, and a drunk monkey in a blindfold.
All 32 of this year's World Cup qualifiers are present - with the exception of South Korea, who embarrassingly get replaced with North Korea, which is a bit like accidentally putting Pakistan in instead of India - and a British game made by a British developer and a British publisher manages to find room and time to include Honduras, Kuwait, Guatemala, Bahrain, Zimbabwe, Jordan, Cuba, Congo, Oman, Indonesia, Egypt, Panama, Guinea, Chile, Qatar and Uzbekistan, but can't manage to squeeze in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland (or beloved near-neighbours Eire) to accompany the England team.
(At first your reporter thought this was a relatively trivial problem which could be fixed by manually adding all the missing teams using Sensible Soccer's famous data editor. Sadly, while previous versions let you customise and add to the game almost infinitely, here you can create just a single custom team - not the four promised on the box - which can play only in club competitions, not international matches. The custom team is the only one you can properly edit - you can edit the names of international teams and players, but not their characteristics or kits, so if you wanted to sacrifice, say, the Nigerian team in order to have Scotland in the game, it'd be a "Scotland" made up of black guys playing in a green strip.)
As far as I can tell, a typical England fan. Except there's no "misspelt tattoos" option.
And that brings us neatly onto the subject of stuff that's missing. (Well, strictly we ought to pause for a moment and list all the stuff that's insanely, fundamentally, conceptually wrong with the custom-team "story" mode, but we'd seriously be here all day.) This is an update of the original Sensible Soccer, not SWOS, so all the management options are gone (fair enough in itself, since nobody ever said this was going to be a management game), as is the fantastically sophisticated tactics editor. Indeed, so little does SS2006 want you to muck around with your tactics that it resets your team and formation after every game, so if you want to play with anything other than your side's given default lineup, you have to manually re-implement your preferred selections and formation for every single match you play.
Also missing are a large number of video options. Firstly, the Xbox version (the one primarily played for this feature) will only run in PAL50 mode. If your Xbox is usually set to NTSC or PAL60 (which most will be), you'll have to dick around in the Dashboard every time you want to play SS2006, and then again afterwards to play all your other games. There's also no widescreen option, which is a bit of a shame when one of Sensible's big unique selling points was that it showed you more of the pitch than other football games.
Relatedly, although there's code in the game for a variety of camera heights (including a higher one that's more like the original Sensi than the new version's more zoomed-in default) there's no way of actually accessing it through the menus. The only way to get at the new camera settings is to have a PC or chipped Xbox and manually edit one of the game's config files after installing it to the hard drive. This also applies to altering the camera's sensitivity in order to reduce the motion sickness which its constant violent movements can induce, and to the radar scanner which was pictured (along with the higher camera) in some of the pre- release screenshots. The code for both the gentler camera and the radar is in there, but can only be accessed and utilised by hacking the config files. And this game isn't unfinished?
Finally, and perhaps most dismally of all for a game with such terrible CPU opposition, SS2006 has absolutely no online functions. Multiplayer play is by far the most fun you'll have with this game (and it does commendably let up to four players play at once), but it seems criminally cheap and lazy and stupid not to bother implementing even the simplest of online head-to-heads. Heaven knows, this website is no champion of online gaming, but if there's one game that could have made the prospect appealing it's Sensible Soccer.
An early press-release screenshot. Note the radar scanner and higher viewpoint.
All this leads us neatly onto the technical implementation of what IS officially included in the game, and unfortunately things don't get any better there. It's very hard to imagine that Sensible Soccer 2006 has been anywhere near a playtester (or, perhaps more plausibly, that anyone's listened to what the playtesters had to say), because there's hardly a single element of it that isn't broken in some way or another.
Clutching around for something positive to report first, it's safe to say that the graphics fare best. The artists, at least, have really earned their money here - the giant-headed players are cute, animation is smooth and fluid (actually, it's gorgeous), and the replays and varied celebration cutscenes are a joy to watch, even the 200th time round. The only real visual screw-ups come with the goalkeepers, who have both alarmingly magnetic hands capable of drawing the ball to them from 10 feet away, and an unnerving ability to teleport across the goalmouth to dive and save a shot that they appeared to have no chance of reaching.
(This, you suspect, is a function of the game's attitude towards difficulty. The higher-ranked teams don't play any better, but their goalkeepers are vastly superior to those of the poorer sides, who'll fumble a shot in from almost anywhere. The good teams' keepers are close to unbeatable no matter where you shoot from, unless you have a top striker.)
Sound-wise things are rather grimmer. There's barely any sound in the game, just spot effects and a sort of constant low hubbub from the crowd which barely changes throughout the game (there's no commentary of any sort, and no music apart from the opening song). The brilliant context-sensitive crowd of the original Sensi is no more. Worse than that, though, is the fact that even with such a low workload to cope with the game can't manage to handle it. The spot effects disappear at random - thump the ball against an advertising hoarding one minute and it'll make a loud noise. Do it again 10 seconds later and it won't.
"Sorry, ref, didn't hear your whistle over all that racket. Oh."
And as for the controls, someone really needs a slap. Perhaps one time in every three or four, you can be bearing down on goal, no defender anywhere near you, hit the shot button and absolutely nothing happens. You can hold it down, hammer it repeatedly, tap it lightly, bang it against your forehead or whatever you like - nothing will persuade your striker to actually let fly, and you end up helplessly running the ball straight into the goalie's arms. And even if it does decide to register your button press, there's only about a 90% chance that the ball will actually go in the general direction of your aiming arrow at any given moment, with strikers often inexplicably slicing the ball wide. So, um, good luck with that.
(Worse still, incidentally, is the fact that you can also run the ball into your own goalie's arms, on purpose, and have him pick it up without being penalised. You can also kick it back to him, if you use the shoot button rather than the pass button. Evidently nobody bothered explaining the backpass rule to the programmers, and if the game wasn't already easy enough, being able to defend a 1-0 lead forever just by rolling the ball out and then walking or knocking it back to the keeper certainly makes it a pushover. Indeed, the coders don't seem too au fait with the rules of football generally - extra time in some cup tournaments takes the form of a single 30-minute session rather than two 15-minute halves, for example.)
The nadir for Codemasters' QA department, though, are the crashes. They take various forms, depending on the platform the game's running on, but your reporter has personally experienced the game (on Xbox) locking up for no reason at all during cutscenes and having to be rebooted, and many PC owners have reported various fatal crashes (including slowing to an unplayable crawl after the first match) as a result of saving or editing team data. There are plenty of other glitches - the replay function gets totally broken by penalties, showing the foul again rather than the goal (or miss) after the kick is taken, and the manual replays are an incomprehensible, wrongly-labelled chore - but the need to constantly save your game in case your (not very) hard work is undone at a random moment by the game falling over and dying is undoubtedly the top dog in a whole pack of sloppy foul-ups.
Foul-ups result in free-kick-ups. (Get out. - Ed)
So in summary: the game's a half-arsed, bug-strewn mess rushed out unfinished as a cynical money-grabbing cash-in. So far so World Cup Carnival, then, but there's even more to it than that. Perhaps understandably, both Codemasters' own website and Eurogamer have spent much of the time since the game's release five days ago censoring and deleting a flood of critical opinion from their forums and comments threads, as angry consumers demanded answers as to (respectively) why the game was released in such a tatty condition and why the review so spectacularly failed to notice any of its litany of faults. (No answers, you'll be surprised to hear, have been forthcoming from either at time of writing. And Codemasters definitely haven't offered anyone any half-price games as compensation.) One such post, swiftly removed by Eurogamer's moderators, made the following claim:
Unfortunately, the majority of bugs are as a result of this game using the Club Football engine but turning the camera 90 degrees! Most of the bugs listed by people playing the game were apparent in CF and never got fixed, making that a dreadful attempt at footy too.
Intrigued - not least because the Eurogamer interview with Jon Hare had promised that the game would be "all-new", and a preview on the same site had previously explicitly claimed that the Kuju Sheffield coders creating SS2006 were "not responsible for the Club Football titles, before you ask" - your reporter decided to investigate.
Club Football was the generic name of a series of games released by Codemasters in 2003 (with a later 2005 edition), each one dedicated to a single club. The 2005 release came in 39 "flavours", featuring a range of top European club teams including Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea, AC Milan, Real Madrid and (surely some mistake) Birmingham City. Both iterations were flops, failing to trouble the chart compilers, and your correspondent had little difficulty, on venturing out to Bath's clutch of game stores, in locating a copy of the 2003 version (in its Leeds United variety) in the Choices video store's bargain bin for £2.99.
On booting up the game, you certainly notice an immediate similarity in the front end and menu interface, and the camera options reveal an "end-on" viewpoint which displays the game in a perspective remarkably close to that of SS2006. Starting a match renders the evidence all but conclusive, with too many unmistakeable similarities to list here, but the most giveaway clue being the highly distinctive "cardboard cut-out" depiction of the crowd. Your reviewer hasn't disassembled the code or anything, but on the basis of this, and other information obtained in confidence from several sources, is happy to go on record with the assertion that Sensible Soccer 2006 is, beyond any reasonable doubt, substantially based on the Club Football engine - just like World Cup Carnival was built on another old, failed football game all those years ago, just in time to cash in on another World Cup.
Eurogamer, incidentally, gave Club Football 3/10.
Blimey, that goalkeeper's almost as fat as Ronaldo.
Now, that last comment's a bit of a cheap shot (though that's appropriate enough, given the ease of bulging the onion bag in the new Sensi). Club Football is a considerably worse game than Sensible Soccer 2006, which somewhere deep in its heart is the same fast-moving, accessible, fun footy game it always was. But it's that very fact which makes the abysmally incomplete state the game's been forced out onto the streets in such a contemptible crime. Because make no mistake about it - if this game had been given the time it needed to be finished properly, it actually could have been the game the EG review claims it is.
And anyone wondering how it managed to get that review might also still be wondering about that other time a terrible Sensible Soccer game got an inexplicable 9/10 score, so it's lucky that WoS is here to investigate. It turns out, according to a Sensible insider of the time who contacted your reporter, that "Sensible Soccer 2000" was actually the early name of SS98, and that the review date given on the C&VG website is wrong (it should be sometime in early 1998). The hyperbolic Steve Hill write-up and its wildly implausible score were due to the magazine in question doing a dodgy deal to get the first exclusive. But it's rather worse even than that - according to my source, "the ‘review’ version [Steve Hill] played was missing such vital things as goalies and any opposition AI whatsoever. The review playtesting mainly consisted of some fun 2 player games in the Sensi office along with some nice curry dinners in Saffron Walden." Shame on you, Steve Hill.
Your reporter draws no conclusions or parallels between this and the fact that Eurogamer was the first publication to review Sensible Soccer 2006. And first by quite some distance, at that - in fact, the review was published early enough that, should it happen to produce a favourable score and/or some good quotes, there'd be just enough time to get them included on box stickers, promotional materials and adverts. That this very thing then went on to happen is, your reporter feels sure, merely a coincidence and in no way suspicious.
If you're wondering, Steve, this is how Sensible Soccer 98 looks with the goalkeepers in.
Even in the chewed-up dog's breakfast the released version represents, enough of the timeless Sensi gameplay still shines through to have some misguided fools bravely defending the game (and, of course, NOT having their posts deleted) on the forums. If you pick a really bad team, and are a bit cack-handed with a joypad, and can put up with the occasional crash, and aren't Scottish or Irish or South Korean, it's just about possible to find some entertainment and challenge in the game even as it stands. And in two-player mode, where the rules and the bugs and the problems are the same for everyone, many of the complaints levelled at the solo game melt into something nearly akin to irrelevance.
Had it had the content, options and quality control of even just the very first Sensible Soccer, allied to the lovely new graphics, analogue control and sparingly-enhanced gameplay (the sole addition to the 16-bit console versions is a sprint button with a limited "energy bar", which works well and gives the game a modest but effective new dimension), this could so easily have been - so nearly was - a wonderful game which would have carved itself a very viable niche in between the twin behemoths of "serious" football simulation, PES and FIFA.
As it is, preliminary reports and your correspondent's own enquiries suggest that a steady flow of disgruntled customers angrily returning their new purchase to hapless retailers may be enough to finally tarnish the name (and economic viability) of Sensible Soccer once and for all. That would be one of the greatest tragedies of videogaming history. But if it happens, Codemasters' greedy money-men will have absolutely nobody but themselves to blame.