North Korea are on course to win World Cup 2010. On my computer, at least. My lone striker is currently standing next to the goal, his tiny arms snapping out exuberantly as he punches the air. His joyous teammates dance round him like he’s a maypole. They’re celebrating the culmination of a series of geometric passes and an unstoppable, curving shot into the top corner. North Korea 3 – Brazil 2.
Sensational World Soccer is a top down arcade football sim in the style of New Star Games previous football efforts and the classic Sensible World of Soccer. However, this is no mere replica, and these respectable genes lead to a wonderfully refined experience.
By refined, I mean positively minimalist: the controls consist of direction keys and one action button. That’s it. There are two other buttons for pause and replay, but everything else is achieved with one button. On the keyboard, this is the space bar, and on a 360 controller it’s sensibly mapped to the A button. A green arrow pivots around your controlled player as he turns and will display the shot and pass power gauge when you press the action button. A light tap will result in a pass along the ground, and more power can produce lobs, clearances, and whipped crosses. An aftertouch effect can be applied to most shots and long passes to bend the ball left or right. It’s a subtler effect than in New Star Soccer or Sensi, but it’s still very useful to divert the ball away from a keeper or an intercepting player. Despite the simplicity of the control scheme, I was able to produce a wide array of shots and passes using a combination of the power gauge and aftertouch. The only thing I miss is a button to manually change which player is under my control, as the game doesn’t always select the right one when I’m defending.
There are two game modes: tournament, which challenges you to win this year’s World Cup, and quick match, which allows you to chose teams and face off for one game. Unfortunately, two player mode is offline, only available for quick match, and there is no co-op mode. The tournament has the correct line up of teams and groups. Each team is represented by a cute little flag and comes decked out in fairly accurate kits. I was glad to see that there’s the option to select home and away kits in case the colours match too closely. Aside from this, there’s little realistic detail. The players are nameless and all have the same abilities: there are no individual stats and the only thing separating the teams is their default formation and your perception of how they play. This is how I won the cup with North Korea.
The uniformity of the player skills took quite a while to get used to. There are no star players to skip past defences, and no useless fluffers to avoid giving the ball to. After a few matches, however, I was able to look at it in a different way, Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s way. I saw my players as faceless components of a greater whole, actors in my system. A less cynical interpretation could be that the uniformity leads to Total Football, with defenders bombing forward and strikers hanging back to secure the gap. In fact, one of the most impressive things about SWS is how many styles can be played within its simple match engine. You can go direct by booting the ball upfield for your strikers to fight for, or play a careful possession game, walking the ball into the net after a web of seductive passes.
The graphics and animations emphasise clarity over detail. The colours are bright and the players glide across the pitch. Zoomed replays reveal that the kicking animation is a jerky flick and the players are faceless, but you won’t notice that while playing. The players are slightly more proportional than the hydrocephalitic midgets found in Sensi, though they’re still in a characterful cartoony style. Goal celebrations in particular are charmingly exuberant, though they are limited in number and they can grate a bit in a game that often includes scores in the double digits. The soundtrack consists of some initially pleasing music tracks and surprisingly realistic crowd noise. Unfortunately, there isn’t that much variation there either, so I found myself turning off the sound if I was playing more than a couple matches. Bizarrely, players come with a wine-gum selection of boot colours, but are generally identical otherwise. Some variation in skin tones within teams—Spain in particular: there needs to be at least one pale guy I can pretend is Iniesta—and some comedy hairstyles would go a long way to making things look more interesting.These are minor flaws in a game that is really meant to be played in short bursts.
Larger criticisms can be levelled at the AI, however. Defenders have a tendency to drop back and defend deep—this is suicide in SWS, where shots from range can be deadly—and it is far too easy to force the CPU player into rash sliding tackles by changing direction quickly. Both of these problems are less evident when playing against a human opponent. The only bug I discovered was when the arrow would refuse to point in the right direction when lining up a free kick. Apart from that, it’s a remarkably steady game.
I played SWS on both my desktop and my 1.6ghz netbook. Apart from some initial jerkiness on the netbook, it ran smoothly on both. Keyboard control is significantly easier than with most football games owing to the single button control scheme, though I recommend you play it on a gamepad if you can. It’s so much snappier and feels natural with the analogue stick.
Sensational World Soccer is a lovely wee surprise. Its minimalism is a strength and it gets the most important things right: feel and fun. It’s both a nostalgic tribute to the arcade football games of yore and a great game in its own right. The game modes are limited, but they certainly provide more value than the asking price ($6.99 – about a fiver in real money) might imply. A pleasing, almost Zen, distillation of what I like about football: a haiku to the clunky epics of FIFA and Pro Evo. I know what I’ll be playing with my friends at half time this World Cup.