While the “real” version of football doesn’t excite quite as much stateside as it does elsewhere in the world, it’s still nice to see some well-meaning pop-soccer titles come down the pipeline on a regular basis. Today, the thoroughly European Ubisoft proffers their noble attempt: a cartoony, straightforward arcade-like sports game packed with a unique story mode, appealing presentation, and lots of Pelé.
It’s all in the window dressing
When I say straightforward, what I really mean is simple gameplay. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it all depends on what you’re after. Subjectively, for young soccer fans, this game could amount to a great Christmas gift (especially when you take into account its budget price tag of just $30). It isn’t at all difficult to pick up and play, but there’s enough supplemental content and window dressing to exalt itself above the quintessential kids’ sports game.
While we’re on the subject of presentation, that’s the first thing you’ll probably appreciate. The animated, deformed characters are bursting with personality—like just about everything else in the game. The story is no exception. You’re selected to attend the coveted Brightfield Academy to study and improve your soccer game—under instruction by none other than the world-famous Pelé (later on, we encounter Mia Hamm as well). Here, you’ll meet with other enthusiastic futból fanatics, four of whom you’ll join a team with (a rookie team of five total, that is—that’s how the game’s played). Together, you will seek a place in the sports spotlight, and along the way, you’ll foil the sinister plans of rival Scythemore Academy’s insidious leader, Von Trappe.
Story Mode’s hub is the locker room of the academy, where you’ll find a handy calendar detailing the next twenty days of events. Each day features three events—one in the morning, afternoon, and evening—and most of these are entirely optional (though if you’re looking to succeed, you’ll want to give it your all). The events range from mundane conversations with your teammates to skill-developing mini-games and, of course, full-blown soccer matches. Every fifth day’s event is mandatory.
Sometimes you’re given a choice between two different events, and often the choices differ in their levels of challenge. Red “risky” events offer greater rewards and opportunities, but they’re also much more difficult, for instance. If you really put up the points, however, and show that you’ve got what it takes to be a world-class soccer team, you’ll find that more talented recruits will come out of the woodwork and seek to join you.
But more on recruiting in a bit; first, let’s cover the basics of the actual soccer gameplay. Learning to play is pretty simple. On offense, you are in control of whichever player has possession of the ball. A passes, B shoots, and Z dodges (dodging requires talent energy—we’ll come back to that). Some degree of deeper control is available (such as holding A or B to produce high passes and stronger shots), though most of that is limited to Wii MotionPlus, which allows you to tilt your controller to specify the style of pass or shot (it generally works well, though it takes a bit of practice). Shooting is simple; a targeting reticule displayed inside of the goal moves along with presses of the analog stick—meaning that you are controlling both the player and the reticule as you approach the goal. You can choose where you wish to place the shot by simply jerking the stick in the relevant direction just before taking your shot.
Defense is even easier. Pressing C will automatically assume control of the closest player to the ball, after which you can tackle with A or sprint (again, using your talent energy) by pressing Z.
Providing slight complication are the special powers and associated talent energy. As you play, your talent meter will rise, providing you with the ability to dodge on offense or sprint on defense. Should this meter become full at any point, you can also shake your Wii Remote to execute a special maneuver unique to your character, such as a whirlwind attack or a high-powered shot. Finally, you’ll regularly encounter special sequences when you jostle for the ball with a defender or perform a targeted header shot. These events pop up a short series of buttons on the screen which you must quickly press to be successful. It’s fun, but rarely ever challenging at all.
And that’s really all there is to it. Nothing else complicates the basic gameplay, and whether or not that sits well with you goes a long way toward communicating whether or not this is the type of game you will enjoy. Suffice it to say that this is surely intended to be a kids’ game, and the sheer simplicity of the formula is evidence enough of that fact.
Behind the scenes
The work you’re doing off the soccer field is really, in some ways, more in-depth than the actual games themselves. Many of the events you’ll encounter cover the social and administrative aspects of your time at the academy, including gossiping with fellow players, taking short quizzes regarding the gameplay, purchasing accessories and collectibles to support your team, recruiting new players, and upgrading existing ones using the EXP you’ve earned.
Nearly everything you do (even simple non-interactive conversations) earns you EXP—the game truly subscribes to the philosophy of constant rewards to try and keep you motivated. As you recruit new players, you’ll find that their skills are rated in four different categories: Strike, Speed, Skill, and Power. The EXP you’ve earned can be used to “purchase” enhancements the abilities of your teammates in these categories. In addition to that, you’ll also earn money, which you can use to buy a number of different items (accessories, soccer balls, toys, banners, player gear, and talent stars), some of which actually can be equipped to boost your skills further. There isn’t a whole heck of a lot of planning that goes into the whole team management stuff, but if you perform well and have plenty of money and EXP to spend and good recruits to hire, you can obviously increase your chances of future success.
The various mini-games you’ll encounter are a fun diversion from what would otherwise become an overwhelming flow of homogenous soccer game sequences. These games are broken up into several different categories, each of which features a few different variations or difficulties to choose from:
Most of them are pretty fun, though basic in their own right. Personally, my favorite of them all were the shooting mini-games (of which there are three varieties: targets, goalkeeper, and both). In particular, aiming at moving targets inside the goal is fun, especially in conjunction with the combos system, which provides exponentially higher point rewards for quick-succession hits. The unique Freestyle mini-game is the only leg of the package to leverage the Wii Balance Board (as is advertised on the front of the package), and while it’s fun, it’s hardly worth rushing out and buying a balance board over, of course.
So it’s really the snazzy presentation, thick layer of personality, unique (though rather short-lived) Story Mode, and straightforwardness of the gameplay (accentuated further if you elect to turn your Wii remote 90 degrees sideways and play with the “casual” control scheme) that define Academy of Champions. Whether or not the game suits you personally, on the other hand, is a question that you’ll have to ask yourself. Chances are, if you’re reading our site, you’re considering the purchase more as a gift than a personal treasure.