THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM - April 1998
|CTW's inevitable round-up of the games fighting
for a share of the World Cup 98 spoils.
I suppose the point is that the World Cup would be pretty dull if only Brazil and Germany entered it. There might be only half-a-dozen teams with a realistic chance of winning the trophy, but most of the excitement comes in what happens before the final - the upsets, the battles, the emergence of new talent, and of course the spectacular tonkings of minnows. And so it must be with the clutch of new football games everyone insists on bringing out every time there's a major event, despite the fact that everyone knows FIFA will stomp all over all the rest of them put together, even if EA get a lobotomised one-armed baboon from darkest Uruguay to write the game in his lunch break by randomly hitting the keyboard with a rock (as, of course, happened with FIFAs 96, 97 and 64).
But wait! This year, I confidently predict a major shock - the number one footy game of the summer will NOT be a FIFA title! But lest you become moderately interested for a moment, the only reason is that EA are loudly and aggressively avoiding any mention of world football's governing body on their latest release, opting instead for the simple title World Cup 98. The company are a little coy about the reasons for ditching (in name, at least) the biggest videogame franchise in the known universe, but cynical observers note that even EA might be asking a bit much in hoping punters to fork out for essentially the same game THREE times in the space of 12 months ("We don't talk about FIFA 99", said an EA spokesman when I rather insensitively brought the subject up). It seems a touch naive to hope that no-one will notice (since everyone will call it FIFA 98 anyway), but hey, who are we to tell them how to run their company?
But look! Already, I'm way ahead of myself. Momentarily, we'll be studying the individual form of the various contenders in neat little sections. But first, a small diversion. There are two possible retailing angles from which to view the coming barrage of footy titles. On one hand, you could figure that they'll all in a sense support each other, the various mammoth marketing spends coming together to ensure that everyone who comes through your door is going to be doing so purely in order to buy a football game, and that by stocking all of them you'll reduce their chances of leaving without one to practically nil (even if they actually only wanted to buy a parking card). Of course, stocking 8 or 9 different titles in order to sell one isn't very efficient use of space, since it's unlikely that many people are going to buy more than one football game.
On the other hand, you could be aware of the fact that there are millions of idiots out there who (it sounds ridiculous, but trust me on this one) \don't like football\, and hence will be desperate to get something, anything, on the screen of their TV that doesn't feature 22 men kicking a bag of wind around. In that eventuality, might it be better to just stock a truckload of World Cup 98, since it's going to trounce everything else anyway, use the rest of the space for something completely different, and clean up?
Answer? I've got no idea. If I knew that, I'd be an enormously rich marketing executive. But in case you should decide to employ a cunning amalgam of the two plans and only stock two or three footy games this summer, here's what you ought to know before you make any rash choices. And just for a bit of fun, and to needlessly stick my own head on the block and risk blowing any reputation I ever had for knowing anything about anything, I've had a go at predicting where everything will stand in the All-Formats full price chart on June 10, the day the plucky Brazilians face up to mighty Scotland in the tournament's opening match, by which time everyone's cards should be on the table. I choose this day for judgement, because I strongly suspect that by June 11 I'll have killed myself and it'll be too late to find out. Vengeance of God, thy name is probably Ronaldo.
WORLD CUP 98
Playstation/PC/N64, EA, May 22
There isn't, of course, any real doubt that EA's World Cup 98 will go straight to No.1. The most interesting thing, though, is that in all probability, the game it displaces at the top of the All-Formats full price listings will be its own prequel. The unexpectedly fine FIFA Road To The World Cup 98 (to give it its Sunday name) has been sitting pretty at the top of said pile since before Christmas, and though it will probably take a tickle from Resident Evil 2, don't be surprised to see enormous first-week sales for the latter causing a Tomb Raider 2-style drop-off, to let the evergreen footy game back up just in time for the arrival of its offspring. (If I was EA, which I'm palpably not, I'd resist the temptation to withdraw the earlier game, and just knock a few quid off the price instead, raising the terrifying spectre for everyone else of a thoroughly disheartening 1-2 at the top of the chart, and the effective ending of the UK videogames business as a competition. It's not terribly likely to happen, I wouldn't think, but the thought's been keeping me awake at nights and I don't see why everyone else shouldn't share the pain.)
And what of the game itself? Well, as you might expect, EA have constructed your-arm's-length lists of additions and improvements for the benefit of writers of articles not unlike this one, and it'd be churlish to have them do it all for naught, so expect this: improved goalkeepers, handicapping, variable game speed (up to and beyond Actua Soccer 2 levels), faster reaction of players to button presses, opening ceremonies, accurate stadia and kits and all that jazz. Like it mattered.
Worthy of note, though, is the nicest addition to the game, the Classic World Cup mode. In this, winning the trophy in the normal game will get you access to 8 classic finals from 1930 to 1982, complete with period detail like baggy shorts, black-and-white pictures, different ball physics and commentary from Kenneth Bloody Wolstenholme ("Some people are on the pitch, they think it's all over - but it isn't, because NO-ONE'S GOING TO SHUT UP ABOUT IT FOR THE NEXT 40 BASTARD YEARS"). (Or until England beat Germany in a competitive international again, whichever comes sooner.) It's a thoughtful touch, but an unecessary one - EA will make as much money from WC98 as from everything else they release this year put together, and we all know it. So why fight?
WC98 EQUIVALENT: Brazil
IN A NUTSHELL: Der Kaiser
PREDICTED CHART POSITION ON JUNE 10: You jest.
STOCK IT? I should coco.
ADIDAS POWER SOCCER 98
Playstation/PC, Psygnosis, June 8
The first APS was fairly well-received by critics (despite a hideous piece of product-placement that all but ruined the gameplay - discover the unstoppable "Predator Kick" secret move and the contest was over), but the second snuck out apologetically and went nowhere fast, which was just as well as it was a shoddy piece of work indeed. (typified, attention-to-detail-wise, by having the Scotland team playing in pale-blue-and-white vertical stripes). The chances of this new version making a dramatic impact seem to be slim, given that it's coming out two weeks after EA's game (which for the sake of neatness and clarity will be referred to hereafter as FIFA anyway, and EA can moan all they like), but the company are plugging away gamely regardless.
"Timingwise it's very ambitious," says Psygnosis' Glen O'Connell, "but we're looking at it as a brand new game. We've been developing the brand for the past few years, and it's a very important one for us, across Europe especially. I think it's superior to any of the Playstation benchmark games - I don't think ISS is actually very good on PS. Admittedly we were left behind before, but now we've caught up. The development team are based in Paris, so they're very much into the whole feel of everything, and I think, in terms of content at least, we have a game that will enable us to be a strong second place to FIFA."
APS98's unique selling point is that, the firm claims, it's the only Playstation footy game using the console's high-res graphics mode. It's unlikely, though, that that's going to carry a great deal of weight even with the notoriously easily cosmetically-swayed punters in the street, when the official merchandise is already out there.
WC98 EQUIVALENT: Morocco (little fancied, could well screw up Scotland)
IN A NUTSHELL: Too little, too late
PREDICTED CHART POSITION: 19
STOCK IT? If you've got a lot of space to fill up
Playstation, BMG, end May
"Everyone here is just mental about footy", offered BMG's Gavin White before I'd even finished explaining what I was calling about. "We think that the games out there now aren't made by people who love football, and who just aren't passionate enough about it. Except for ISS64, what's out there just now doesn't deserve what it's got."
Certainly, Three Lions (the brainchild of some ex-EA programmers and Kick Off veteran Dino Dini) does things differently - for a start, the now-obligatory commentary has been done away with, in favour of much multi-lingual shouting from the players themselves ("Cross it!"; "Down the middle!" and suchlike), which brings the game a rather earthier, more serious atmosphere from the start.
The first impression Three Lions gives is a slightly disappointing one - instead of the singalong, customer-friendly Lightning Seeds anthem you might be expecting to pump out in your shop, the listener gets an unpleasant earful of Ocean Colour Scene. While it obviously makes no difference to the game itself, it puts out a slightly unsettling air of cheapness (apparently, licencing the proper song would have set BMG back £200,000) that isn't in keeping with the care the company have taken over the rest of the game's presentation (commendably, there will be different versions for sale in the rest of the UK and world, removing the England branding and changing the title to "Golden Goal"), and rather wastes the huge amount of goodwill baggage the name brings with it, though BMG maintain that the band's demographic opens up otherwise unavailable areas of publicity (the young fans granting them access to mags like Smash Hits). This schizophrenia extends into other areas too - BMG have employed World Soccer magazine to get even the smallest detail right (down to the brand of David Seaman's gloves, the cut of his moustache, and Ronaldo crossing himself before taking a penalty), but then give the game a parochial atmosphere entirely at odds with the international glamour of the tournament by surrounding the pitch with hoardings advertising such homely delights as Kiss FM, the programmers, and Ocean Colour Scene again. Gnuk.
In critical terms, Three Lions' success depends largely on how well its main gameplay innovation is received (a new style of shooting which enables you to theoretically aim the ball exactly where you want it to go in the goal, rather than just hitting "shoot" and trusting to luck). BMG themselves suggest that it'll take players a couple of weeks to get to grips with it properly, and after playing the game for a few days, that seems like a pretty fair assessment - it's an initially very awkward system, compounded by a lack of support for analogue controllers. The problem is that reviewers don't tend to \have\ two weeks to spend with games, and for the first few days at least, it's so annoying that the game could well end up collecting some distinctly unimpressive reviews. On the whole, though, it's likely that the name and the official England badging will be enough to attract the 80% of punters who don't read specialist-press reviews anyway, but it's a shame that in rushing to get the game out in time for the tournament, BMG seem to have cut several corners that would have given it a better chance to compete.
WC98 EQUIVALENT: England, oddly enough (in with a chance, but likely to disappoint)
IN A NUTSHELL: Thirty years of hurt, and that's just trying to get a shot on target.
PREDICTED CHART POSITION: 4
STOCK IT: Unless you're some kind of Communist.
SENSIBLE WORLD CUP 98
Playstation/PC, GT Interactive, 15 May
So, you're bringing out a footy game for the World Cup as well, against the FIFA monster and the fiercest competition ever - are you mad?
"No, we're Sensible." (Drum roll, cymbal crash, hang up telephone.)
Cough. Sorry. But while it's odd that anyone thinks it's a good idea to go up against EA, it's especially weird to see Sensible entering into this particular little war, as most people (including GT) don't really see the veteran brand as part of the race. After three years in development, the game still looks largely the same in play as the old Amiga version, save for some fancy 3D replays, and the gameplay is much the same too, with a simple two-button system making few concessions to fashion. And yet, according to Matt Broughton at GT, "We reckon it's going to No.1 - we've held it back to make sure it's the most amazing thing ever, and we're putting a lot of our commercial faith into it. Whenever you read reviews of footy games, everyone still seems to long for the good old-fashioned pick-up-and-playability of Sensi - there are a lot of people who don't want to learn dozens of fancy moves or read a big fat manual, and we've always delivered that in the past. This is our stake to get back into the football market, and the big advantage is that there's going to be very little to compare this to. I think everyone might just be very surprised."
Much as I'd love to be wrong just this once, I think "surprised" wouldn't even begin to cover it. Game buyers have shown they are occasionally prepared to overlook aesthetics (see Worms and, well, very little else), and if anything's got the brand strength to carry it off, it's Sensible Soccer. Unfortunately, though, better judgement suggests that the days of being able to see all your players at once have given way to being able to see the colour of your player's individual nostril hairs, and in crude and ugly reality it's doubtful if any amount of zippy gameplay will distract punters from the visual delights offered by Sensible's competition.
WC98 EQUIVALENT: Holland (much-loved, but some years past their heyday)
IN A NUTSHELL: Too lovely for the real world.
PREDICTED CHART POSITION: 8
STOCK IT? For old times' sake.
WORLD LEAGUE SOCCER
Playstation/PC, Eidos, May
Uniquely in the summer's line-up, Eidos' effort has no hook to hang itself on at all. FIFA is the established name, ISS is the critic's favourite, Three Lions has the official England badge, Sensible has the impeccable pedigree (and the warm glow of nostalgia), and Adidas Power Soccer, er, is written by some French blokes. WLS, though, seems at first to have nothing going for it, so it's perhaps predictable that Eidos are attempting to focus on gameplay.
"We think it's the most playable football game so far without a shadow of a doubt," says the company's Steve Starvis. "I've played every other one and I'm not worried at all."
But surely the constant success of FIFA has shown that gameplay in itself just isn't enough to sell a footy game?
"Maybe, but I think it's different this year, because I don't think people will buy FIFA twice in the space of 6 months. There's definitely room for something else in there - there'll be more than one football game selling this summer, and I think we've got a good chance of being the number 2. People want a game that feels like football, rather than like an arcade football game, and that's what we've got."
Which is all well and good, and early versions of the game look smooth and pretty. But with the best will in the world, and even with all of Eidos' most aggressive marketing behind it, it's hard to see this as anything other than an also-ran. If Eidos can prove that assumption wrong, then their marketing department will truly have shown itself a force to be reckoned with.
WC98 EQUIVALENT: Nigeria (might play some nice stuff, but let's face it, no chance.)
IN A NUTSHELL: Even a secret team of Lara Crofts probably wouldn't be enough.
PREDICTED CHART POSITION: 17
STOCK IT? There seems little point.
ISS PRO 98/ISS 98
Konami have a slightly different problem to the other games featured here when it comes to ISS - in the eyes of most critics, the first game was all but perfect. Where, then, is the room for improvement needed to justify getting people to buy it all over again? A look at the firm's own list of improvements for the N64 version seems to bear out the difficulty of the situation - "Enhanced training mode"; "Stretcher-bearers brought on for injuries"; "Electronic number-board steward during substitutions"; "Players are different heights", and the real blockbuster; "Commentary from Tony Gubba".
To be fair, there are a few slightly more substantial gameplay enhancements too, but the words that keep springing to mind are "mild" and "tweaking". Which is just fine by me (ISS64 being, according to critical consensus, easily the finest football game in history), but it remains to be seen whether N64 owners in possession of the original (which is to say, most of them) will be entirely keen to fork out £50-£60 for some new goal celebrations and the ability to make the wall jump at free kicks.
On the other hand, the Playstation version of ISS has stood up rather less well to the test of time, and faces far stiffer competition. A real effort will have to be made in fine-tuning the basics of the gameplay, and evidence of this still remains to be seen. Konami have been keeping things close to their chests, which may give the cynical cause for alarm, but the good work previously done by this long-running brand should keep things sweet for now.
WC98 EQUIVALENT: N64 - Germany (elegant, disciplined, no weaknesses); PS - Spain (stylish, promising underachiever)
IN A NUTSHELL: The best, but not the biggest
PREDICTED CHART POSITION: 2
STOCK IT? On the N64. (If you can get THE to deliver any.)
SUPER MATCH SOCCER
Playstation/PC, Acclaim, mid-April
The only publisher attempting to pull a fast one and steal an early march on the competition is Acclaim, with the game that was going to be called Match Day 3 until someone from the BBC's legal department had a quiet word and suggested a rethink. Designed by Jon Ritman, author of the 2 classic 8-bit prequels, SMS offers a game that "Isn't about the football atmosphere, it's more about the mechanics". Huh? I asked the man responsible to explain himself.
"I always hated football as a kid, and I still do as an adult," he began, unpromisingly. "It's only as a computer game I like it. It wasn't until after Match Day 1 was finished that I realised what a clever game football was, with all the variations and permutations of tactics and play. That's what we tried to capture in Match Day 3. Er, Super Match Soccer. The others have tried to recreate TV football, which is about spectating rather than playing. We're going for the diehard fan, the kind of person who liked Sensible - the purist, to some extent. At the same time, though, it's going to be a game with a real learning curve - I want people who've played it for weeks to be miles better than someone just picking it up, which often isn't the case with the more arcadey titles. I think we've got something like 144 different kinds of kick, when you factor everything in. After 5 months, we're still learning new ways of playing it."
SMS does seem to be going very much against the grain of everything else, which will prove to be either its greatest strength or its most fatal weakness. It combines the viewpoint and pace of Sensible with the stick-to-feet ball physics and complex depth of control of the more modern style. Without the Match Day name firing the memories of the nostalgics, though, it might be struggling to reach enough people to have a chance of an impact. Getting out a month before them is probably SMS's only real hope.
WC98 EQUIVALENT: Denmark (highly ranked, but largely unknown)
IN A NUTSHELL: Quirky.
PREDICTED CHART POSITION: 15
STOCK IT? Until May, at least. What's to lose?
Which seems to leave us with a predicted hierarchy of success reading something like this: FIFA WC98, ISS 98, Three Lions, Sensible WC98, (big gap), Super Match Soccer, World League Soccer, Adidas Power Soccer 98. Which is nice in at least one sense, as it means the bottom three are the ones with the accursed word "soccer" in their names. (Ubi Soft's Kick Off 98, by the way, has been "indefinitely shelved", and may not even come out through Ubi Soft at all. "Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour," said the company, perhaps very wisely.) Attentive readers could probably have guessed the order several thousand words ago, but that's today's software business for you - people like what they know, and know what they like. Would that it were otherwise. (It'd be nice if Jamaica won the Cup, too, but that's not going to happen either.) Happy selling.