Written by: Rik

Date posted: July 6, 2014

After 6 minutes, it's still 0-0 (full-time score not published for obvious reasons).

After 6 minutes, it’s still 0-0 (full-time score not published for obvious reasons).

I’m not quite sure how this one ended up in my GOG library. [Note: To be clear, the version sold on GOG is called VR Soccer ’96, but I’m going to assume that it and Actua Soccer are one and the same for the purposes of this review. As ever, happy to be corrected on this if anyone knows differently.] I already bought it once, for the full asking price, back in 1995. I didn’t like it much then, and there’s little in my experience that suggests old football games get better with age. Perhaps it came in a bundle or something, or maybe I was having one of my “this might be interesting to cover for FFG one day” moments.

Anyway, I guess we’ve already looked at Actua Soccer‘s main rival, FIFA ’96, and made a passing reference to the critical consensus being strongly in favour of Actua, to the extent that an advertising campaign ran in UK magazines specifically comparing review scores for the two games. My own memory is that FIFA was treated with suspicion as the product of a corporate behemoth, developed by clueless Canadians, which compared unfavourably with the efforts of plucky Sheffield developers Gremlin, who had even enlisted the services of ex-England internationals Chris Woods and Andy Sinton, as well as, er, the non-international squad player Graham Hyde, sourced from local club Sheffield Wednesday.

Even the name – Actua – was seen as a reaction to the widespread use of the word Virtual – or Virtua – at the time, specifically in EA’s sports games, which boasted loudly about their “Virtual Stadium” but still used sprites for players. The technology in Gremlin’s game was considered superior, and came without any loudmouth, gimmicky marketing. Meanwhile, although EA had bagged the BBC’s “voice of football” John Motson, there were murmurs that, in securing fellow Beeb mainstay Barry Davies, Gremlin had secured the “thinking man’s” preferred commentator.

As previously mentioned, I never went along with any of this at the time, even when the same narrative extended to Actua Soccer 2 and FIFA 98: Road to the World Cup. And though memories can be funny things, in the case of revisiting old football games, the experience often seems eerily familiar. And so it is with Actua Soccer, with the main difference between then and now being the fact that I could actually play the higher-resolution version, and didn’t have to constantly tinker with the graphics settings to get an acceptable frame rate, as I did on my old 486.

I blame the goalkeeper.

I blame the goalkeeper.

In all other respects, though, this is the same game that irritated me in the 90s. Irritation #1 is the camera. The default view is a zoomy, spinny-round affair that zips all over the place at will in the manner of the action being filmed via a tiny helicopter. As the perspective changes, so do the direction controls. It’s all a little disconcerting, and makes the action rather hard to follow. A number of other, more traditional fixed perspective views are available, but they all seem equally unsatisfactory, and in the end you’re likely to find yourself reverting – albeit reluctantly – to the original, after several hours of tinkering.

If my recent comments about the difficulty level in Sensible Soccer: ECE seemed of an immodest and boastful nature, then karmically I received what was coming to me while playing this one. In my first match, I lost 7-0. I’m not sure I’ve ever lost by such a score before, in any football game, at any stage, even during ill-advised late night sessions afflicted by significant levels of intoxication. It couldn’t really get worse from there, but it didn’t get much better either.

The controls, once you get used to the camera, are simple enough: there are two ‘action’ buttons – kick/shoot and pass. At various points, the icon beneath your player changes. When it flashes, you’re in shooting range; if it turns into a star, you can hit the ball first time; if it’s a square, you can cross the ball into the box. This system doesn’t work particularly well though. With the exception of your shots, you have little control over power and direction, while the ‘first time’ feature is a recipe for losing possession as your man gets into position and completes the relevant animation, while the opposition run away with the ball.

The same could be said of a passing game in general, and the safest tactic seems to be to either lump it upfield or run around in circles for a bit. There’s no radar anyway, to show where your teammates are, so it really is hit and hope. Getting the ball back when you lose it is also tricky: sliding tackles rarely result in fouls, but they can be difficult to line up, especially with the moveable perspective.

Heading to the corner of the six-yard box, no doubt.

Heading to the corner of the six-yard box, no doubt.

The nightmare scenario involves being stuck in your own half, struggling to clear the ball with opposition attackers swarming around you just waiting to grab possession and launch a shot goalwards. Or – worse – they’ll execute their favoured scoring strategy that involves dribbling to the edge of the six yard box and curling in an unlikely finish. If they miss, it doesn’t really matter, because all of the ‘keepers in the game are morons, particularly when it comes to distribution. With the ball in hand, they’ll roll or kick it out ineffectually (with no input from the player), if not directly to an opposition attacker, then via a deflection off your own defender’s head or back. For some keepers, just getting the ball over the halfway line is difficult, and although they may pull off the occasional unlikely reflex save, such feats do not make up for their doziness when, for example, they choose to receive a shot at their feet, and embark on an unnecessary dribble in their own box, or stand and watch as a long range effort travels past them into the goal.

There’s are sundry other annoyances and glitches, including throw-ins bouncing off the heads or backs of your own players (this seems to be a running theme) and goal kicks being delayed until your opponent’s defence has had a chance to retreat fully. It’s all very unsatisfactory, and it all adds to the feeling that Actua Soccer doesn’t have an awful lot going for it. Under different circumstances, it’s the type of game that one could easily line up for an angry rant of some description. But, I didn’t really find that it was possible to play for any length of time while retaining an expectation of success and/or enjoyment, and instead chose to experience Actua Soccer from a position of neutered disengagement, acknowledging the frequent heavy defeats with uncharacteristic good humour.

Off the field, options are rather thin on the ground. You can play a friendly, a cup, or a league, with international teams only (and no real names, either, although I thought Actua had them originally, and wonder if this is a VR Soccer anomaly). There’s also a choice between arcade and simulation modes, the difference between which is difficult to establish, beyond a vague feeling that the former is more forgiving in general, and on slide tackles in particular. Oh, and you also can skip to the next match in the league instead of having to cycle through the matches individually (which is a real pain in the arse, and the assumption that those who prefer a more realistic experience on the pitch also enjoy mindlessly clicking through the individual results of matches they haven’t been involved in is a strange one).

Running down the wing, more in hope than expectation.

Running down the wing, more in hope than expectation.

Presentation is generally OK. The graphics are perfectly acceptable for the time, although the players do vaguely resemble characters from Ecstatica, a game about which I know little else (other than the characters look a bit like the players from Actua Soccer). The commentary from Barry Davies is also pretty serviceable, although the same can’t be said for the menu music, an ill-advised combination of 90s dance-rock clichés and echoey statements from Bazza himself. It’s bum.

Other iterations of Actua were released in subsequent years: the last official international tournament tie-in not to be given to EA, Euro ’96, and Actua Soccer Club Edition, which added…well, you know. By this point even the professional reviewers were beginning to lose patience with the game’s recurrent bugs – PC Zone printed an apology and retraction with their review of the former, blaming unfinished code, only to deliver the same verdict on the final version the following month.

I haven’t played either game to any great extent, so I can’t – or shouldn’t – comment too much further (from what I can tell, there are improvements, but maybe not enough in either to justify – at the time – another £34.99 release). As far as this one goes, though, it’s pretty poor. It isn’t particularly hateful, and there certainly should be some acknowledgement of its technical achievements, but even allowing for the diminished expectations of a sympathetic retro reviewer, Actua Soccer fails to deliver anything that could be described as an enjoyable football experience. Avoid (even if it comes in a sale or bundle).