There’s something wonderful about trusting the controls in a football game. New Star Soccer 5, like the rest of this now venerable series, delivers exactly the kind of simple, crisp control that I want from it. When my player loses the ball or misses a shot, it isn’t due to the superfluous animations or strange ball physics one might find in FIFA. None of that realism nonsense. Simon Read has scrutinised the game of Association Football and pared it down to pure essence: 11 players, a ball, two goals, simple rules, and a field of green.
New Star harks back to simpler times, not only in the history of football gaming, but football itself. Players run pell-mell across the pitch with little consideration for position or tactics: no catenaccio or tiki-taka. Diving gear isn’t mandatory equipment. The emphasis is on constant attack, on scoring more goals than your opponent, on shooting from 40 metres and bending the ball into the top corner, on giving hapless defenders twisted blood with your slick skills. Football is the most popular game in the world because it’s easy to play and easy to understand.
Like last years’ fun-filled Sensational Soccer, New Star 5 can be controlled entirely with the joystick and one button, though there is an option for finer control. There’s something zen about producing different kinds of shots and passes just by changing direction and the duration of your presses. At no time did I miss the plethora of buttons I’ve become accustomed to in other football games.
Unlike Sensational Soccer, you only control your own player, and must rely on your AI teammates to provide assistance. Since I opted to play for Aberdeen FC, this can be a pretty big problem. My nameless colleagues lose the ball like Zidane lost hair, pass poorly, and offer noodle-limp challenges in defence. I start every game by bashing the “give me the ball you turd!” button until I get possession, then I don’t let go until there’s a goal. You can trust Aberdeen FC with the ball as much as you can trust the council with your money. While my teammates might frustrate me, the sensation of being a one man team is nothing new to the series. Seeing the Dons sitting pretty at the top of the table and knowing it was all my doing was extremely satisfying.
After every game, providing you’re connected, your match stats and rating will be sent to a database and attached to your account. Ratings are determined fantasy football style, with positives like goals, assists, tackles, and passes factored against negatives like yellow cards and injuries. A simplistic system that mostly suits how matches play out, though a few more elements, such as a points for intercepting passes, or a detraction for being tackled, would make things more reactive and interesting.
The online ranking database is shown after every match, so I’m able to see if I’ve overtaken Rodrigo from Mexico or see just how far behind the top 16 players in the world I am. The leaderboard adds an element of community and continuity to proceedings while giving you a benchmark of progress.
The online element is evident in the teamsheets that you see before games and during replays, too. Rather than having rosters of fake-named AI players like before, the teams are populated with user accounts in the positions their own players are in. For instance, I noticed that my friend, Philippe, had a player in my Aberdeen squad. It was a keen pleasure to see that he was valued at a meagre £15k in comparison to my princely £7m. I told Phil that my player owns cars worth more than his player. Nameless and seemingly randomised computer proxies make up the difference if there aren’t enough real people to populate a team, which was slightly disconcerting, but soon became familiar.
Supplementing the on-pitch excellence is the usual life-simulation aspect of the New Star games. Simon Read has done a good job of making the happiness of your player important to what occurs on the pitch. If he’s unhappy, he’ll miss-kick the ball frequently, which will lead to low ratings, his own supporters booing him, and Titus Bramble pitying him. Satisfying the metrics for happiness—meeting one’s friends, getting a girlfriend, and so on—can by achieved by playing an extremely simple memory game or, in the case of teammates and friends, going gambling.
I can’t help but feel there’s a lot of missed potential in this side of New Star. The memory game only requires you to match two cards, and while the gambling is a bit more involved, it still comes doesn’t have much in the way of fun. Keeping high percentages on the relationships screen felt like routine maintenance. Sort of “Oh, the girlfriend meter hasn’t been topped up in a few weeks, I’ll have to take her to an arbitrary activity that I don’t even see! That is, if I manage to unearth two of the same cards to succeed in the challenge”. The relationships are given very little in the way of flavour text and have no art to back them up. In short, they’re characterless and need a substantial overhaul to be anything more than a distraction between matches.
Despite the lacklustre off-pitch performance, I keep going back to New Star Soccer 5 for the sheer joy of its match engine. Adding the competitive online element to the already compelling player progression makes this another strong entry in the series, though I’d love to see more variation and character in the life simulation half of the game.