Over the years there have been some really enjoyable and innovative takes on the game of football (or soccer to our overseas chums) – Nintendo brought us the Mario Strikers series of course and Sega released the stereotype-laden but still enjoyable Sega Soccer Slam on Gamecube. Now Ubisoft are after a piece of the half-time meat pie with Academy of Champions Football, but does it play a blinder or should it be left on the bench?
First of all, in case it isn’t obvious from the screenshots, it’s worth saying this is not really a straightforward football game: there’s three players a side, the ball never goes out of play and you’ve got a whole range of special moves that would make David Beckham’s brain explode. Using the standard Remote and Nunchuk setup (with options for MotionPlus we’ll go over later) you press to pass, to shoot, switch players with and dodge or sprint with . By passing the ball well, intercepting balls and tackling opponents you build up a charge meter, which when full allows you to use each character’s unique “Talent”, ranging from super-strong banana shots to a whirlwind tackle that takes out any opponents in its path. As you’d expect these skills can often change the course of a game, but your opponents have access to them as well and there’s nothing more frustrating than an opposing defender mowing down all your players with a whirlwind move.
The camera system is also unconventional, following as it does the ball and player in possession rather than taking a zoomed-out, end-to-end approach as most football games do. With no view of the entire pitch or radar you’d think it’d be difficult to find your players to pass to, but at your player’s feet is a circle holding arrows pointing at each player that helpfully flash white when a player is in space and calling for the ball. A full pitch view would probably still have worked better, but the view as it stands isn’t that bad.
If you want to make use of your MotionPlus add-on, you can plug it in and make long passes and chipped shots by aiming the Remote up, or low passes and shots by pointing it down. It’s hardly a tremendous use of the accessory’s power, but then again, there’s little scope to use it in a football game. Similarly the game’s use of the Balance Board is extremely underwhelming – you stand on the board for a ball juggling minigame where leaning in different directions opens up various tricks, but it’s so unresponsive that by the time you’ve leaned far enough to activate a trick your character has decided he wants to fall over, and promptly does so. Thankfully the actual proper football controls work fine, although support for a Gamecube pad or Classic Controller wouldn’t have hurt.
The main meat and drink of the game is its Story mode, where you play a talented young player accepted into Pelé’s academy. Once there you learn about football, the importance of education and fair play, with a calendar for each term detailing whether you’ll play a match, training game or be able to scout for new talent, improve your players’ abilities or simply spend your dough in the Rabbid-run shop. There’s usually something different to do each day, which is both a blessing and a curse – you’re always doing something new, but very little of that is actually playing football; there’s dedicated periods for gossiping and chatting, where Pelé or your teammates reveal hitherto untold gems such as how to pass better and whether local rivals Scythemore are out to get you or not. The plot has a real Harry Potter feel to it, but it’s harmless enough and joins the days together reasonably well.
When you do get a match, it’s a frustratingly hit-and-miss affair. You’ll likely fly past most teams with hardly a bother, but some of the teams boasting star players (including the Prince of Persia and a very angry Rabbid) can provide a stern challenge. Every so often you’ll see a day on your calendar marked in red – these are “roadblock” matches that must be won to progress in the game. If you lose one, you can replay it immediately or choose to replay any of the week’s training matches to improve your skills, which is a nice way of giving you some ammunition against some of the stronger teams. Passing can be irritatingly unresponsive and inaccurate at times, with a noticeable pause between pushing and your player actually kicking the ball, and the one-touch passing is just as slow. With goal kicks, corners, throw-ins or even fouls, the intention was obviously on keeping the pace up, but sadly the sloppy passing results in a slower game than you would like.
Slowing the game down even further is the jostle system, essentially a Quick Time Event presented to you whenever a defender and attacker contest a ball. As you’ll know if you’ve ever seen a game of football, this happens a lot, and so do jostles. Cropping up too often completely spoils the game’s flow – you’ll be planning a match-winning shot when the play stops and your players dance about for thirty seconds before you shove your opponent away and automatically take a few steps forward, often straight into the path of another defender or goalkeeper. Unlike the slow-motion moments in Madden NFL 10, for example, they don’t add any drama or interest to the matches, only serving to stop you actually enjoying the football.
When you do get to take a shot, the aiming system is flawed too, sadly. When you get close to goal a set of crosshairs appear which you aim with the - yes, the same you’re using to control your character. This means by the time you’ve aimed your shot where you want it to go you’ve often led your character a merry dance all over the pitch, either resulting in you losing the angle or getting intercepted before you even get to shoot. Even if you do get a shot off, with huge goalkeepers guarding tiny goals and a button-mashing header system, it’s more down to luck than skill whether you hit the back of the net or have to wait until your next jostle to try again.
In fact, the game as a whole is a bit slapdash. The caricatured players are all limbs and banana grins, contrasting with the arenas surrounded by monster trucks, stone columns and gurning bulls. The Ubisoft characters are a welcome touch of class to the character designs, and although it’s undoubtedly odd to see Sam Fisher and Altair take to the football pitch it’s also undeniably satisfying. You can also buy various Rabbids toys in-game, including one dressed as Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, earning at least another star from this particular BG&E fan.
Academy of Champions Football is by no means a disaster, but it rarely rises above the adequate. Once you’ve played a few matches and recruited some better players it begins to take shape as a decent kickabout, but the overuse of the jostle system, inaccurate passing and sloppy shooting prevent it from being a worthy rival to Mario Strikers Charged Football. The MotionPlus and Balance Board segments feel as though they were conceived and coded in a quiet afternoon in the office, and the art style is similarly unappealing.
If you’re really after a quick knockabout and want to take up your only chance to play as Altair and Jade on Wii, you’ll find some enjoyment in Academy of Champions, but be prepared for plenty of frustration mixed in with your pie and Bovril.