|Developed by:||Combo Breaker / Tower Studios|
|Format played:||PC (Steam)|
For many years now the videogame football landscape has been a simple binary choice; PES or FIFA. But us gamers of a rather older vintage remember a time when footie games were rife. They came in all shapes and sizes – top down, side on, club, player or manager licensed, indoor variants, management sims and many more besides. From Gazza to Graham Taylor, Manchester United to Leeds United, everyone wanted to get in on the act.
But as an Amiga owner there came a watershed moment. Whilst Kick Off would be the go to game for many fans, one game would come to dominate the 16-bit era of football games; the mighty, incomparable Sensible Soccer. Originally released in 1992 it immediately set a benchmark for all other football games to follow, eschewing graphical fidelity for a focus on speed, playability and downright fun. Through various iterations the game was fine tuned, culminating in Sensible World of Soccer, one of the finest games to have ever graced the medium and to this day, my favourite football game of all time.
Alas with the fall of the Amiga from relevance and the move to 3D, Sensible was left behind. An ill-fated reboot for PS2 in 2006 aside, the series would become all but forgotten save for those of us in the retrogaming community keen to preserve the memory.
But there was one man who had other ideas. Original Sensi developer and Sensible Software co-founder Jon Hare never lost faith in the concept of his game. And so 25 years later, despite a failed kickstarter, a console duopoly and against all the odds, the spirit of Sensi lives on. Welcome to Sociable Soccer.
For gamers not familiar with the original Sensi it is worth just establishing what it was that made it special, for those underlying concepts are key to this new game being successful. Sensi was more than just a football game, indeed it was one of the few football games that could appeal to non-football fans as well as terrace die-hards. The secret was in its joyous multiplayer mode, a frenetic, fast paced, pinball-esque approach to passing. As an Amiga game, Sensi was limited to a single fire button joystick and as would be Sensible’s trademark, control was intuitive, capturing that mindset of easy to learn but tough to master.
Fast forward 25 years and PES and FIFA offer an altogether different beast. Simulation is the name of the game, players able to pull off all manner of tricks, flicks, through balls, rabonas and goodness knows what else. They are magnificent games, offering a deep, immersive experience. And yet for all that, I find them overwhelming. The options, the depth, the controls, it is all too much for me. I feel routinely incompetent playing, the thought of going online scares the life out of me, rendering my play time a single, rather lonely experience.
Enter Sociable Soccer, shoulder barging it’s way into the market, promising a focus on less complex controls, fast paced action and encouraging both local and online multiplayer. A game that is simple, not simplistic.
Whilst it is only right to reference Sensi, this is not a remake or a clone and should therefore not judged on that basis. It must also be stressed that the game is in Early Access at the moment with a full rollout due in 2018 and so any issues I address here are likely to be fine tuned with further development time.
At this early stage you have a range of single match, cup and league options to choose from. There is also a ‘Boss’ mode where you take control of specific clubs to achieve set objectives, such as winning a cup competition or achieving a certain league placing. Completing each awards XP that allows you to progress to the next competition and so on. Which is all well and good but what you really want to know is how does it play. Well, there are two things that stand out in my mind.
The first is when you initially boot up. Within seconds it hits you – that music, that beautiful music, jumping out of your speakers, whisking you back to 1994, reminding you that yes, that’s right, I am a goal scoring superstar hero. It is a moment of joyous nostalgia and still stands up as a superb piece of game music all these years later.
Diving in to a match itself, things are a little strange. Action is viewed from the side on and whilst the pitch area is reasonably large it doesn’t quite feel right. In fact for you hardcore retrogamers, it reminds me of Wembley International Soccer (or it’s forebear, Emlyn Hughes). Not unpleasant, just not, you know, Sensi. You start to move around and players feel like they are on skates compared to PES, tearing around the screen like Sonic. Your first couple of passes drift hopelessly put of play, the stab of triangle for a through ball gives just a tame lob, a squeeze of the shoulder buttons to change player cycles through formation options instead as you wonder how to press, how to feint, and why your goalie never seems to pick the ball up. And then something unexpected, something magical happens; you press the options button to change the pitch from side on to top down and OMG it’s only bloody Sensi.
Whoop! as you string a passing move from defence to attack in less time than it takes to breath. Squeal! as you send a short pass out to your rampaging winger, a flick of the stick applying aftertouch to bend it oh so delicately out of the defender’s reach. Cheer! as you advance on goal, cutting in from the flank, channeling your inner Arjen Robben as you execute your patterned Sensi shot from the corner of the 18 yard box, applying a delicate hint of aftertouch to send the ball sailing past the hapless goalie’s despairing lunge. Hoot! as your lumbering centre back launches into a sliding tackle, careering halfway across the pitch. Holler! as the thought occurs to you, ‘I wonder if…’ before you tap it back to the goalie who embarks on a mazy dribble upfield.
Let’s be very clear, this is not Sensible Soccer and is not trying to be. It has been referred to in promotion material as Sensi’s spiritual successor and that feels about right. There are distinct similarities in approach and play style but this is very different. Whilst only in Early Access, and therefore without the benefit of all features, it is clear that this has no intention of trying to mirror the career mode of SWOS. Tactical elements remain in development but as the name implies, this is targeted at sociable gaming, be that online or by bringing back that staple of Saturday-night-with-your-mates-before-you-hit-the-town local multiplayer. Indeed if you are looking for the Sensi comparison, this is closer to the original 1992 Sensible Soccer than what would ultimately evolve into SWOS, the first game very much focused on single games or short term league and cup competitions, the depth of the later games the culmination of years of development.
And in this early release there are some clear issues to address. The AI is woeful. Having spent a good couple of hours with it I only conceded about 3 goals, one of which followed my aforementioned jaunt upfield with the goalie, another an inevitable result of playing as England. Indeed regardless of who I picked and who I played I routinely slotted 4 or 5 five into the onion bag, the ‘keepers offering little resistance. Comedy own goals, opposition throw ins that go straight to my team, passes to the middle of nowhere as players literally stand still whilst I run in and nick the ball – it’s clear there is work to be done here.
It is commendable that the game offers such a simplified experience versus the more bloated gameplay of console football. That said, a cross button would be nice given that I couldn’t seem to find any tangible difference between the shoot and hoof buttons. Without the reliance upon a through ball button, defense splitting passes are now down to your own skill and timing, the short, nimble passing style of the game really coming into its own. You can construct some absolutely devastating, lightening quick counter attacks whilst some of the goals you score are outrageous. Sociable Soccer captures that vibe that inspires you to leap out of your chair in satisfaction at a sweetly struck 25 yarder that arrows into the top corner. The game has a unique ebb and flow, almost basketball like. There is no ponderous midfield battle here, this is attack vs defence all match every match.
The lack of quality from the opposition goalie can serve to undermine this to some extent. How good was that shot really when this leaden foot clodhopper couldn’t catch the proverbial cold? The true test will be in multiplayer with two equally matched opponents. Also missing at this early stage is any real sense of difference between the players. SWOS excelled at giving players a scale of attributes so that you felt a tangible difference between a quick, skillful Premier League winger and a lumbering lower league centre half. Here it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s my inside forward or my left back unleashing a drive on goal, each feels the same and appears to have the same likelihood of success.
Aesthetically there are a couple of niggles too. Replays are shown from the side on view regardless of which option you play with, plus there is no option to skip them. There are no player licences, which is no problem per se, but playing as England I was struggling to place who my goalscorer from the left wing could possibly be as I couldn’t place his name, only to realise it came off the goalie last and so went down as an own goal, which 1) seemed harsh and, 2) would be nice if the scoreboard told me that. Some glitches are evident too, especially around the goalies, the ball warping from post to being under his control, a despairing lunge somehow keeping the ball out despite hitting the air just above him, rather than any body part. None of these need be game breakers, so long as they are addressed, and the developers have given every indication that they will be listening to players and making changes. Oh and sublime theme song aside, in-game sound is a tad one dimensional. This is very much a work in progress.
That all said. there is a joy here that you simply won’t find in PES or FIFA. It is lightening quick, seemingly more so in the top down mode than side on. It positively encourages outrageous play, from long range belters to mazy dribbles. So often in PES I want to take someone on but the sheer realism of the thing means that I lose out, unless I learn commands the equivalent of piloting a space shuttle. Sociable Soccer on the other hand wants you to do those simple, basic things and doesn’t try to over complicate it. There is a question over longevity but by its very nature, that is a question that cannot be answered here. All I know is that I spent a good couple of hours with it then took the first opportunity the next day to leap back in. And you’ll have to prise that song out of my head with a heavy duty crowbar and brute force.
Clearly though the single player experience is not what this game is about. The clue is in the title, folks. This is a game to play with mates and online and I have the feeling that this will absolutely come alive in that environment.
Those hoping for a straight up remake of Sensible Soccer may come away disappointed. This takes the essence of Sensi but is very much its own beast.
Clearly there are still some wrinkles to be ironed out and the proof of the pudding will be tucking into the multiplayer content, after which I will follow up with a more comprehensive review. But what is here is promising and I had terrific fun with it. Set your expectations appropriately and you are unlikely to come away disappointed. PES and FIFA are still very much top dog but this scrappy pup is ready for a fight.