Review: Academy of Champions Soccer (Nintendo Wii)

Academy of Champions Soccer
Developer: Ubisoft Vancouver
Publisher: Ubisoft
Genre: Arcade Sports
Release Date: 11/4/2009

Being born and bred in North America makes being a football fan no different for me than it is for anyone in a more traditional football market like… well, like everywhere else in the world except North America: I’m a bit of a football elitist. You can usually tell who the snobs are if you ask them if they watch Major League Soccer; a more casual fan probably does, whereas someone like me says something along the lines of “psh, Major League Soccer is the proverbial minor leagues. REAL fans import Setanta on DirecTV so they can watch Portsmouth and Wigan battle to a 0-0 draw in the Premier League!”. For those wondering, considering how much the Setanta package costs, that’s not only a bore draw, it’s a very expensive one at that. But at least I’m a “real” football fan! Right? … Right?

We’re like this with video games, too. It took people like me a long time to come around on the FIFA series, specifically because it’s not Pro Evolution; hell, Mohammad Al-Sadoon STILL hasn’t come around yet, specifically because it’s Pro Evolution. Imagine this mentality, then imagine being told “you’re being drafted into Academy of Champions Soccer because you’re the only North American that knows football”. I literally laughed out loud. Not only because I was getting a football game geared towards kids – me, an “elite” football fan! – but also one that was geared towards kids while proclaiming the name recognition of Mia Hamm and Pelé himself. This would be fine, if not for the fact that Mia Hamm hasn’t been a relevant football personality in almost six years, or the fact that Pelé hasn’t been a relevant footballer since before I was born – for the record, that’s 1980 – and is as known in more cynical circles for being willing to do almost anything for money at this point as he was for his football. Basing a game around kids on two people that most kids have likely barely heard of seemed like a reach for me.

Needless to say, I had low hopes going into my initial playing of Academy of Champions Soccer (henceforth known simply as AOC).

Would my initial fears be born true, or would I come around on AOC the way I came around and eventually started supporting MLS side Seattle Sounders?

Story/Modes

The main part of AOC is a single player story mode that casts you as a kid who’s hopeful to get into Brightfield Academy, a footballing academy that couldn’t look more like Hogwarts Academy if Harry Potter was riding around naked on a horse – wait, wrong Daniel Radcliffe show – and gets accepted by one of the two headmasters; if you choose to play a boy, your headmaster is Pelé, if you’re female it’s Mia Hamm. You show up at the school, only to find out that you had a forged document – because someone else has it out for you, because they’re EVIL~ – and are about to walk away, dejected, when they decide to show off for the headmaster with a variety of moves, eventually showing enough to get admitted on the spot and placed on a team called the Mighty Five. Eventually, this leads to a calender like setup, where you go through days in a term doing training minigames, talking to team-mates, recruiting them, and using gathered experience points to build up both your attributes and those of your team-mates.

Effectively, if someone made a Saturday morning cartoon about football and decided to give Pelé and Mia Hamm bit parts, it would be the story mode from AOC. Both the graphical design of everything you see and how the story is told – both with your teammates and how everything progresses – is told like a cartoon, especially with the EVIL~ bad teams who lie, cheat and steal their way to victory. Therefore, it’s not fair to judge the story as not being deep; this is a game being marketed to ten year olds, and on that front, the game passes that test beautifully. It’s kid-funny, if that makes sense; if I, at twenty-nine, can find a game’s story mode endearing, a ten year old should have no problems getting sucked in.

For those that want to do anything other than story mode, there are quick match modes, and minigame modes as well. The minigames are the same things you see in training during story mode, and are basically for practise. Quick games are just that; quick games you can throw together with any team in any stadium that you’ve unlocked. Fortunately, you earn tokens and experience in anything you do, which you can use for improving your player, improving your team, or buying items that will improve stats. There are also talent stars that are unlocked at checkpoints; be it earning a set number of experience points, spending a set amount of tokens, or performing well in matches, you earn talent stars that can purchase a player’s special talents which can be used during games. What I don’t like about this is that you have to do this in story mode; you can’t just pop into the shop from the main menu and spend money, or build your team up. You have to do it at a certain point during your single player mode, and you often have to choose between either trying to recruit new talent to the team, or trying to improve your team. It feels arbitrary, and I feel Ubisoft made a bad decision in terms of game development here.

Regardless, there’s enough for a kid to do in the long and involved story mode, and it’s entertaining enough to keep them interested. I’m pleasantly surprised.

Story/Modes Rating: Above Average

Graphics

AOC has a unique graphical feel; it’s cartoony, with some interesting visuals on the actual pitches. Character designs are a bit strange; I understand they’re meant to be goofy, but some of the character designs are just awful. There is no sense of proportion – limbs are too skinny, heads are too big, and neither Mia Hamm nor Pelé look anything like themselves.

The pitches, on the other hand, are inventive. All of the stages are themed, and everything about each stage fits that theme. For example, in the first term, you play a team called the American Stars, who play in a stadium loaded with images of Americana, such as a baseball player, apple pie, and curiously, a lumberjack; maybe it was supposed to be the Can-Am Stars, who knows. The home goal is an American Bald Eagle, and the guest goal is a bear (again, no clue how that’s American). As goals are scored, more images pop up, including the Washington Monument, a huge muscle car, the New York skyline, etc. Most stages are themed in this way, so it’s awesome to see some personality within the different pitches you travel to, even if the rest of the stages are barren (no crowds), and the action on the pitch is often obscured due to a shoddy camera.

Overall, the game isn’t an aesthetic wonder – the graphics can be flat-out ugly at times, and character models are anywhere from humorous to atrocious – but gets a definite plus for personality.

On the other hand, I’ll never get the image of Mia Hamm sticking her butt out after a goal out of my head.

Graphics Rating: Below Average

Sound

I’m not really sure what to say here. On the one hand, the background music in most menus, and during the game, tend to be OK, and add some flavour to whatever it is you’re doing at that time. On the other hand, the characters communicate in a series of yelps and warbles that are extremely hard on the ears. Imagine if Navi from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was even more annoying than it was in the actual game; that’s what just about every player, in and out of games, sounds like when they’re trying to talk. I wish some effort had gone into at least voicing Mia and Pelé, if they’re going to be in the game.

Sound Rating: Poor

Control and Gameplay

Imagine the basic mechanics of Super Mario Strikers, put it on a behind-the-shoulder camera, and make the camera and controls worse; you have the basics behind Academy of Champions Soccer. With that said, this is a playable game of football that doesn’t play much like football.

A button passes, and B shoots; if you hold A down, you can pass a lob pass, and holding B button down increases the power of the shot. Movement is done via the nunchuck, which also can be used to aim shots, as indicated by a target on the goal. There’s a dodge move that can be done with the Z button on offence; on defence, A tackles, Z sprints, and C changes players. There’s a special bar for both teams that is filled by passing, scoring and doing other moves such as tackles or winning jostles. This special can be used for sprints, dodges, or special moves if the bar is full that can be initiated by waving the Wiimote; different players have different moves, and thankfully, they don’t break the balance of the game when they’re used. They’re effective, especially the defensive ones, but they’re not game-beaters. This is something Mario’s sports games need to learn.

Games in AOC are five on five instead of eleven on eleven. Considering the fact that pitches are fairly large, and you have the recipe for long runs and home run passes. Combine the fact that there’s no out of bounds – the ball bounces off the side as if it were an indoor soccer match – and the fact that there are no lead passes of any kind, and you have a game that plays much closer to hockey than it does to football. Getting passes across the goalmouth is the most effective way to score goals, but passing is a pain because players often don’t know where to go – I often see strikers back by my goal, and defenders way up – and also because there’s an annoying lag between when you tell your player to pass and when he or she actually decides to pass the ball. It’s hard to see who’s open and when, because while there are arrows pointing out from the player that has the ball determining where your team-mates are, there’s no radar or any other indicator of where they are on the pitch, or what’s around them; most passes are blind.

Defence is almost completely blind; you have no control of where your players are, so often-times, whoever has the ball for the other team will have the entire midfield to run without being accosted, unless you can get a really fast player to get behind them and make a tackle, but even then, tackling is hit or miss. Furthermore, your defender usually pops so far back by default that he can’t make any play on the ball unless your opponent more or less gifts him the ball; most of the time, the computer won’t do that, and if you’re playing a good opponent, it’s just a matter of a pass and shoot, and it’s a goal. There’s also the matter of the camera, which is meant for offence; on defence, the angles are awful in terms of getting players in position to make a play, and things are further hurt by the fact that switching players is so scattershot; you usually get the exact wrong player for the job, even when “cycling” through player choices, and leaving it on automatic player choosing usually makes things worse. In short, if you’re not outscoring your opponent, chances are good that you’re not going to win.

There are other problems, mostly with the computer AI. Most of the time, the AI was awful in terms of tackling, positioning and tackling, but the computer, when going for a loose ball, has a bad habit of sticking to the ball and therefore winning the battles to the ball; furthermore, trying to pass while being shadowed led way too often to the computer player automatically moving in front of the pass to deflect or outright steal it. The game’s difficulty curve, while steady, fell into the arcade trap of not really getting better, just getting cheaper.

During gameplay, the rote act of moving the ball and playing the game is broken up by one of two in-game minigames. The first happens when a pass arrives to a player who’s being shadowed by another player, so the three arrive at the same spot at the same time. This is a jostle minigame, which plays like a game of Simon Says; you’re given a direction to input, and if you input it in time, you raise the bar towards you; fail, and it goes away from you, best two out of three win the ball. The second minigame is when a lob pass is gone up for by two players at the same time, always around the goalmouth; in this, it’s simply a button-mashing minigame; mash on the A button enough to fill the bar, and you’ll win the header, which usually leads to a goal if you’re on offence. The games won’t win originality awards, but for what they need to accomplish – find a way to determine ball control in close circumstances, and add some variety to gameplay – they work splendidly.

There are tactics to the game, but they’re so bare-bones they’re barely worth mentioning. You can choose what five players – including your keeper – are out, but the line-up is always the same; two up front, someone in the middle, and someone on defence. Sure, you can choose to have a midfielder lined up at the defensive spot, or your biggest, slowest defensive player lined up up front, or even four strikers and a goalie, but the line-up will always be the same, no matter what, usually leading me going with two strikers, a midfielder and a faster fullback. Since there are five players on the pitch, speed is a premium; other skills are somewhat under-appreciated in the long run due to the importance of getting a good run in the open field.

Finally, there are alternative control schemes and gimmicks, but they’re ultimately worthless. There’s a “simple” control scheme that eschews the nunchuck, but no one will want to use it; it takes away tricks that can be used, and the D-pad is horrible for controlling gameplay of this nature due to how small it is. The game also supports WiiMotion Plus, but it’s just for directing height of shots; it’s ultimately worthless, and using the nunchuck is definitely advised. Finally, the box states that there’s support for the Balance Board, but that’s a misnomer because it’s just for one minigame. I was unable to try this minigame due to the fact that I do not own a Balance Board, but considering that it only supports one minigame, I believe we can safely consider that a wash.

With all the complaints I had, I was still able to cognitively play the game and have a good time at it. Don’t get me wrong; this is a very flawed game of “hocker” – soccer and hockey mixed together, like any arcade styled football game – and elitist players will not want anything to do with it. However, this isn’t aimed at elitist players like myself or Mohammad; it’s aimed at kids, and delivers on that front. Players who are familiar with Super Mario Strikers will have much less of a problem breaking into the game than someone who only plays FIFA or Pro Evolution on the 360 or PS2. If I were to play my twelve year old brother, I’m sure he’d find a way to kick my butt just like in every other Mario themed game he’s ever played; that’s the key when you’re aiming a game at kids.

AOC misses on just about every technical level possible when put under tight scrutiny, but plays at its best when put under absolutely no scrutiny; that’s what was intended, and in that sense, the game is good enough for its audience.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Poor

Replayability

The good news is that story mode is surprisingly long; it can go for a long time, and the final matches take a long time to win because of how hard/cheap they can be. On the other hand, once you’ve completed the game and/or gotten 100% completion, there’s really no reason to go back. The only thing you can do is erase your gamesave and either go through it again, or go through it as a different gender. I was able to rip through the game quickly, but again, I’m almost thirty years old. A ten year old is going to have a much longer show of this, and might even enjoy the game to want to play it over again and unlock everything.

In fact, that’s the main thing going for this game; there’s a tonne of stuff to unlock. Other teams, other stadiums, items in the shop, experience points to make all the players on the Mighty Five better, there’s a lot of ways to get the most out of this game. Once it’s all done, the game’s over, but it’ll take awhile for all but the most focused gamer.

Replayability Rating: Decent

Balance

For a game that can be so cheap on the pitch at the later levels, there is a remarkable attention paid to overall balance. For one, as mentioned, the special moves that are given to each player (or purchased) don’t break the game; in a game like Mario Strikers, it’s always a matter of who gets the most out of their special moves, and nothing else, but here, they’re an addition, not a necessity. That’s a very nice touch.

The biggest thing that impressed me, however, was what happens on roadblock days – every five days, you’re given a must-win match – if you DON’T win, the game is over, but it goes right back to where you were, where you’re given the choice of either replaying the match right away, or being able to go through each day of the previous week that led up to that match and redoing the training drills, redoing the matches, and redoing everything else with the intent of making your team better, at no penalty. This enabled players to go through the game at their pace, and since there’s no detriment – no “OK, you could start again, but you’ll never get 100% AAHHAHAHAHAHAHA” – it’s a great way to balance the game out for younger players who might not have the motor skills to beat the tougher opponents. Sure, it might get old doing the same week over and over to make your players better, but the option is there. I don’t punish game companies for giving players options, and they’re well done here.

Balance Rating: Great

Originality

In terms of how the game is played, there’s not much original here; arcade football games have been around since the early 80s, and there are two Mario Strikers games out that play the same kind of football, more or less, and do it better. In addition to that, the main crux of the story – the football academy with the fantasy setting – is a blatant ripoff of J.K. Rowling’s books. Furthermore, all of the unlockables, and the ways they’re acquired, have been done before.

But I have to admit that combining all of these into a football title is somewhat novel. Ubisoft intended to break kids into football with something cutesy, interactive and humorous, and to my surprise, they’ve pretty much pulled it off. Yes, they basically superglued other established norms to pull it off, but the end result is ultimately well done.

Originality Rating: Poor

Addictiveness

I could not believe how many times I would do just one more stage. Believe me when I said that I had very low expectations for this game going in, and as I tried quick mode a few times to get the feel for it, I did not want to continue playing. As I got better and got more into the story, I kept doing “one more day”, “one more game”, one more, one more, on– oh crap, I’m up at 4AM playing a game meant for ten year olds.

This is why I take the qualms with the gameplay with a grain of salt; the game is flawed, but ultimately, I didn’t care. No, it’s not the best game of all time, but it doesn’t have to be; while I wasn’t jumping into the game head first, I certainly was in no hurry to turn it off.

Addictiveness Rating: Enjoyable

Appeal Factor

Ubisoft is never a company known to be shy about advertising itself. Therefore, to add to the cross-genre appeal of the game, they put in some characters from some of their other games. Some of them – such as a cameo by Rayman – are gratuitous. Some of them – like Altair from Assassin’s Creed and Sam Fisher from the Splinter Cell games – are mind-boggling, considering the fact that they are both M rated games.

There is one character – or set of characters – that Ubisoft has that would fit this type of environment well and not seem like a stretch. Ubisoft recognised this, and didn’t just give them cameos; they made them integral to the experience.

That’s right: the Rabbids are prominent in AOC.

(Wait, what’s that sound? That sounds like Lucard rushing to the nearest Gamestop to pick this game up immediately. Let’s wait a few for him to get back)

The Rabbids are in a few tackling training minigames, as well as having their own unlockable team. One of them even unlocks the token shop. Their addition adds a lot to the game’s personality, and makes me forget that it’s a callous attempt at cross-advertising other Ubisoft franchises. In actuality, it’s the best job of cross-advertising I’ve seen since the Gradius minigame that was available during intermissions of Blades of Steel for the NES. It’s certainly better than their last dedicated game, that’s for sure.

Aside from that, we have a game that appeals to kids, but can entertain their parents within reason as well. I truly am surprised as to how well everything comes together here.

Appeal Factor Rating: Great

Miscellaneous

I can’t stress how much I was laughing when I got this game. I looked at other friends, other family members, and showed it to them, in some attempt to make the fact that I write about video games professionally sound tough. “Look at this! I have to play this and write about it! Yeah, that’s right, it’s not all rainbows and candy bars, this fast-paced job! Feel sorry for me!”. This is usually when most of them went “yeah, OK, uh, I’ll be over here looking at sales figures for my job, so that I can make a presentation in the morning. Try not to hurt yourself with that video game, Tiger”, but it made me feel better about myself.

Now, a few days later, I feel dumb. You would think I would have learned by now not to judge a game by its cover, but I’ve made myself look like a fool once again. While I don’t see myself playing this game much longer after this review goes up live, I’m dumbfounded as to how easily I was able to look past the game’s inherent flaws to have fun. Who cares if the game is closer to hockey than football? A ten year old won’t care, and to be honest, in my private moments where I forgot I review games professionally, I didn’t care, either.

The fact that the game is only $30 and provides a lot of gameplay for that little buck certainly isn’t going to make this a tough sell on parents, either.

Miscellaneous Rating: Very Good

The Scores
Story: Above Average
Graphics: Below Average
Sound: Poor
Control and Gameplay: Poor
Replayability: Decent
Balance: Great
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Enjoyable
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Very Good
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME!


Short Attention Span Summary
While it’s not tight enough to please everyone, Academy of Champions Soccer is a good enough game of football to please it’s target audience – children – and has enough going on elsewhere to keep them attracted for a long time. There are flaws, but not enough to keep anyone from having fun so long as they can take their heads away from the Premiership tables long enough to lighten up about football.

I can recommend Academy of Champions Soccer for all pre-teens with an interest in sports.

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