Written by: Rik

Date posted: July 16, 2017

Working hard in training.

Of the many attempts to put a fresh twist on the football game, playing as an individual player, rather than the full team, is one of the less well-trodden paths. At this point it is almost obligatory to mention Namco’s LiberoGrande, along with the observation that it wasn’t, by common consensus, altogether successful (although I’ve never played it myself). So, here goes: there was a game by Namco called LiberoGrande that was based around playing as one player, but it wasn’t altogether successful, although, I must admit, I’ve never played it myself. In more recent times, however, the single-player career mode has become a feature of the mainstream big boys, with recent instalments of FIFA even including a scripted storyline, with off-pitch decisions to be made via glossy, Mass Effect style cut-scenes.

The most obvious source of influence for New Star Soccer, by developer Simon Read’s own admission, is the 8-bit knockabout Footballer of The Year – a daft, simplistic recreation of the unglamorous 80s football scene, which nevertheless captured the imagination of many a football-loving youth back in the day. As we’re dealing with number 5 in the NSS series, some background is in order: the first two were largely text-based efforts, before the third offered the chance to play full matches in a style moderately reminiscent of Sensible Soccer, earning it a significant following that means someone will probably tell me that it was the version we should have covered (for the record, I did give it a try, but it kept crashing).

After a misguided attempt to go 3D, NSS5 was a return to 2D roots, adopting a polished, cartoony visual style that may remind the seven people who played it of Puma World Football ’98 (but viewed from above). Since then, New Star Games have largely been focused on the hugely successful mobile version of the game, which arguably has more in common with Footballer of The Year, basing the action on mini-games rather than playing out a full match. But to attempt the latter is more ambitious, and interesting, and much harder for a small studio to pull off successfully.

Let’s have the ball, fella.

So, NSS5 is a football RPG based around the life of one player. You pick a position and a club (although both can be subject to change) and start off as a callow 16 year-old looking to make his way in the game. Between matches, you build up your skills in training; manage relationships with your manager, team mates, fans and friends; and improve your lifestyle rating by acquiring flashy trinkets, vehicles and property. The former is important for professional success, but the latter affects your overall happiness which needs to be maintained also.

Training comes in the form of various on-pitch challenges, while relationships are improved through a matching pairs mini-game. All of these activities cost energy, and you will need to conserve some for the matches themselves. If you need a boost, there’s always the option of buying energy drinks, although this method will cause your player to be struck down by, ahem, stomach cramps at inopportune moments during the match. Other shortcuts include booze (temporarily improving your flair rating which governs your ability to curl the ball) and performance enhancers (ditto pace), both of which have similar negatives attached, as well as boots and shinpads, which don’t, but still cost money (until you’re famous enough to get them for free).

Out on the pitch, you’ll control your individual player for the full game, if you’re in the starting XI, or for whatever amount of time the boss allows you from the bench, if not. The control scheme is a step away from the one-button puritanism of Kick Off and Sensible Soccer (although there is a ‘simple’ control option along these lines) without getting into the multifaceted complexity of modern footy titles – in short, there are three buttons – shoot, pass and lob (with the ball), while without it you can call for a pass from a team mate or perform a sliding tackle (there’s no gentle tackle, although you can steal the ball occasionally by hounding an opposition player). While in possession, a tap of each button performs a quick pass or shot, but if you want more control over power and directions you can hold down and aim.

Measured praise from the England boss.

Your team-mates will respond to a call if your relationship with the team is good, and you don’t have a reputation for losing or hogging the ball. Similarly, the manager won’t be happy if you call for the ball in daft circumstances and the team loses possession. The boss is equally dissatisfied with misplaced passes and squandered chances, although he reserves his strongest rages for when you’re caught offside. The mood of the manager is relayed to you via comic-style speech bubbles from the touchline, and it’s hard not to find these bollockings rather amusing. Apart from playing well, you can also make an extra gesture of friendship with the manager by running to the bench after scoring a goal. If you need to repair your relationship with fans or teammates there are celebration options here too, or you can choose to prioritise your own fame with a knee-slide in front of the cameras.

Goals, passes and tackles all help your overall match rating, which determines how likely you are to be picked for the next match and your overall reputation as a player. As you might expect, your own stats are tracked relentlessly over the course of a season and career. You are effectively the only player that matters in your particular game, although there is an online table which confirms how much better at the game other people on the internet are.

Early matches accurately replicated my own dim and dusty memories of playing real-life team sport – slightly nervy, anxious not to do anything stupid, and (I’m sorry to say) much, much more worried about producing a good individual performance than the overall match result. And this is what NSS5 is all about – you and your career. There’s no need to take note of other teams and players – the only time you see these are when reviewing your own team’s pre-match formation, and the names are drawn from the online list of NSS players.

Get your clichés in order for the post-match interview.

Your team mates can, frankly, be idiots, and if your boss applied the same performance criteria to them as he did to you he’d be in a constant state of apoplectic fury. As you increase your own skill levels and improve your contributions, you realise more and more that this is not a game about eking out a career as a journeyman left back in the lower divisions (although this is perfectly possible) but about being Ronaldo or Messi, playing fantasy football, dragging your team forwards with you, hammering in goal after goal after goal. You’re judged by different standards – whatever your overall record, a poor game, a red card, an injury or a suspension negatively impacts the team’s fortunes. Anyone who’s ever had the feeling in real life of being the best player on a team and taking a match by the scruff of the neck (which I did, very fleetingly, and a long, long, time ago) will get that same feeling again here. The team’s fortunes are aligned with yours and you come to see them as one and the same.

One or two things aren’t quite right. On the standard difficulty level, it’s too easy. That spell as a nervy teenager doesn’t last long enough, and you soon morph into a megastar with maxed out skills. The off-field stuff is also a bit too forgiving – it’s easy enough to manage the various relationships without anyone being pissed off for too long, and there are few genuine dilemmas or bad consequences. Your friends are annoyed, so you meet them for a drink, relationship repaired. But what if you had a few too many and were spotted in the tabloids the next day? Or, worse, got injured in a nightclub altercation? That doesn’t happen, unfortunately.

There is some mileage in exploring the possibilities afforded to you by an easy off-field life – I was, for instance, tempted to take advantage of the various gambling options by spending time at the casino or the races, which kind of made me understand why so many pros seem to develop a habit during their careers (although I didn’t get into any kind of financial trouble). There is additional challenge in moving club or position, and without goals to rely on, the further back you play, the more challenging it tends to be. I was pretty nervous starting my first game in central midfield for Barcelona (having previously played as a striker) and fluffed a few passes and looked forward to the challenge of proving myself. But by the end of the season I’d won every trophy and scored a ludicrous 84 goals. Similarly, injuries can not only keep you off the pitch but reduce your abilities, forcing you to return to the training mini-games. But again, the balance is too easily redressed after the setback. Life is a bit more eventful and difficult on the hardest setting, and those seeking a challenge should probably start off with this selected.

You can’t tell, but this really was a cracking goal. Cracking.

There is much in NSS5 to admire. For one, the way the on-pitch action holds your attention for such a long time. Low-budget authenticity is a difficult thing to achieve in sports games, and NSS is very cunning in the way it presents things, so you don’t really notice the lack of real teams, players and licenses. Only someone who knows and cares about football – what fans are bothered about and what they aren’t – could pull it off. Despite the cartoony presentation, it still feels like football in the way that Championship/Football Manager, PES and SWOS all did. And the game is good, achieving what numerous remakes and updates of old footy games have tried and failed to do, in taking a classic formula and adding a little extra depth.

You have a bit of freedom with what you can do with the ball, but despite often being the best player on the pitch, you won’t be pirouetting up the field and winning games single-handed. You do need to pass it, and be in the right position to receive, to have success. There are one or two glitches: one method of scoring is a bit weak; heading is a bit hit and miss, as are long passes; and you find yourself accidentally calling for the ball at times. But otherwise, it’s a remarkably good footy game. Despite the pattern of success, you still feel pressure in big matches, or when things aren’t going for you or the team, and when you pull off a great long range shot or, better, finish off a great passing move, there’s a great fistpump *yes* feeling, and it’ll sustain you for a good many hours and seasons.

When you’re a megastar at 21/22 and have pretty much won everything, it is hard to want to continue. Where a team based career mode or management game would keep your interest by the need to refresh the squad and play the transfer market, you don’t really have that option here. The outstanding achievements tend to be financial or based on longevity, which aren’t enough to sustain you.

Rik Hard was known for putting his head where other players wouldn’t put their feet. The daft twat.

Also, it has to be said that NSS5 is based on a model which could be called (dun-duh) free-to-play, although it’s not quite as insidious as that name suggests – it is free to play 5 games per day, and for unlimited games you have to purchase a premium account which costs £12.99. I’m ok with that, it’s like the old days of registering your shareware, but the mobile game has gone down the road of microtransactions, and I’m always worried that they’ll either introduce them (or a similar ‘update’), or there’ll come a point when they simply turn the servers off and the game doesn’t work anymore.

But, overall, it’s the most fun I’ve had with a football game since the halcyon days of mid-00s PES. It provides hours of fun, an original twist and an independent spirit that genuinely evokes memories of a more innocent era of sports games. Oh, and the music is pretty good too. Highly recommended.