IGN Review of UEFA Champions League 2006-2007
In the waning years of the PlayStation 2, many developers are moving their A teams onto more expensive and next now current-generation systems while giving their B teams a chance to make passable former-gen games. For the most part, that's true for Electronic Arts. UEFA Champions League 2006-2007 for PS2 and PSP isn't EA's greatest effort to date, but it's not too shabby either. Though the big new features went to the Xbox 360 version of said game, the PS2 and PSP versions, which are nearly identical, are actually the more fun versions to play. Strange how things work out, but it's true. For me, the PS2 and PSP versions deliver a faster, better executed and more intense version of soccer than their more expensive brethren.
There are many differences to be sure, but first things first. UEFA Champions League 2006-2007, the premiere league for players in Europe, exemplifies EA's continued attempts to diversify from its flagship soccer title, FIFA soccer. UEFA isn't a reinvention of the game, but rather a European-specific league that's played once every year. The game features all of the premier clubs one would hope to find in such situation across a variety of leagues from Barcelona to AC Milan to Arsenal and more. To be sure, there are 268 teams, 17 leagues, 6,500 players, and dozens of stadia all told. It's filled with basic modes such as quick play, league, and online support, along with the ability to an export a season to the PSP version so you can play it on the go. (You can also export it back to the PS2 system.)
But unlike the Xbox 360 version, sporting a strategy-heavy card system that requires time and patience to set up, the Sony versions offer something different. The Treble mode gives players the chance to experience a club team's entire season from the off-season to the final game under a player-created coach with the goal to win it all in one season. For those not familiar, the Treble is the term for winning your country's top-tier league, its major domestic cup championship, and the Champions League Cup all in the same year. There is no real equivalent in US sports, and it's incredibly difficult to pull off, which is why only four teams have ever done it.
In the Treble you'll start off with simple goals such as winning a game, trading an unwanted striker and replacing him with a cheaper more skilled striker, or playing a particular sub for more than 70 minutes. Some games start in the 37th minute, while others demand a particular player score three or more goals. They start offer relatively easy and grow a little tougher as the season progresses. What you'll find, however, is how many goals there are all together -- more than 400. The Treble season is fun in a different kind of way because it's more or less objective-based soccer, where you're progressing through the season as if it were a story, and where you win points for achieving goals. The points go toward unlocking all sorts of stuff, special balls, jerseys, and stadia. They aren't crucial to keep playing soccer, but they just add another layer of interesting stuff in between games. They're fun -- one of the key tenants behind the more likeable PS2 and PSP versions.
The Treble is punctuated with blog updates that chronicle your progress while revealing new objectives. This is a solid new feature that's well worth spending time on, and again, compared to the sophisticated and impressive card system of the Xbox 360 version, it's a little easier to get into and enjoy. Plus, for those who want a taste for the flavor of a team's ups and downs through the year, this really delivers. EA added the nice touch of exporting your season to the PSP, which can be done at any time during your one year of glory.
Another solid mode, The Ultimate Challenge, enables players to re-create and replay some of the greatest and heart-breaking moments in Champions League history. You'll enter into a menu, pick a particular challenge and try to fulfill the goal, whether it be scoring a second goal in the waning minutes of the game, avoiding a defeat, or what have you. This style of mode has shown its head in other EA sports games and it's a smart addition here. If you didn't know much about the series, here's your chance to learn something new. And if you did, here's your opportunity to re-live a golden moment again. And last but not least, if you want to avenge a particular loss, like let's say your English team lost to the French, and you want to reverse that dark moment in team, you've got the chance.
The other, less sexy modes are still worth your while. The UEFA Champions League Tournament enables players to re-create or customize the groupings of the official UEFA Champions League tournament, and then gives you the chance to play out the tournament. You can jump online using EA's inconsistent servers and play against another avid soccer player, or join in four- or eight-player tourneys. On PSP, there is ad-hoc support for competition against another player. The online game works relatively well but aside from the normal and minor issues with online games (lag, lost games, etc.), you'll have to grapple with EA's servers. For instance, one third of our games were dropped in the middle of a session. Never bothered to get online? Grab some friends over instead, dust off your multi-tap or two, and play with as many as eight gamers altogether offline. It's a tad framey, but the fun is good and solid.
Actual gameplay is a different beast than Xbox 360's UEFA. The animations are short and the visual details are low res, even for a normal PS2 FIFA game, but the game moves quickly even when dropping the occasional frame. You'll find it almost feels like it's been sped up to a hyper level, it's so fast. Players zip across the screen with a hefty amount of steam and the controls complement the game's accelerated pace. Unlike the Xbox 360 controls, you're able to instantly pass, shoot, and dribble across the pitch with reliable precision. The game controls and moves with great fluidity.
The addition of "Quick Controls" also complements the new pace. Quick-thinking players can theoretically exercise quicker free kicks, throw-ins, goal kicks and corners than before. That's the theory anyway. In truth, the quick controls do provide a slightly faster option than normal, but time after time when I used quick controls to upset my opponent with quick goal kicks, they weren't all that fast. The camera sets up quickly, but the ability to kick the ball isn't as fast as the camera's set-up. The result is a nice idea that's just a fraction faster than the normal free kicks, corners, and throw-ins. On that note, EA has strayed away from the more rigid formations of free-throws and corner kicks, and this new version, which was seen in FIFA 2007 (to my recollection) is back, and it's realistic, functional and welcome.
Overall, the visuals in UEFA on both systems look a little dated. They're not terrible, but they're not EA's best on PS2 ever. From a distance the players show low-res textures, and when close up in cutscenes they vary from realistic, in some players faces for instance, to totally generic body models. Most players retain that perfect mold hair-do that seems like a last generation look, too. Everyone looks really blocky. Also, every single player has dark black eyes. Creepy. Are they all filled with tar or black ooze? Even creepier. The motion capture work and animations, however, are extremely good and you can see how good they are in the replays, with some of that natural motion coming showing off in perfect form. You'll also notice some good focus and nice lighting effects.
The game moves fast (as mentioned above) and generally fluid, but it also looks less than realistic, even a little cartoony. Not really an issue for me, since I'm not expecting a last-generation soccer game to blow me visually out of the water, but UEFA does have the feeling that somebody hit the hyper speed button. The changing weather adds a nice effect. For instance, some games start in cloudy weather and end up with rain. Other games show Europe's bitter snow, forcing players to wear gloves and breathe out warm steamy air into the freezing atmosphere.
Sonically, UEFA sports a set of world rock and light techno-variation tracks that aren't offensive in their blandness and that don't go overboard with barrelhouse craziness. To be honest, these tracks are enjoyable and listenable for a sports videogame and I never once got sick of them. That's a first. The sound effects aren't as jazzy, however. The lack of variety in the crowd reaction is kind of amazing for an EA game. It's as if the crowd only has two basic reactions, loud and soft manic cheers.
The game is unusually quiet except for the announcers, who generally call the action accurately and well. You'll hear the occasional repeated phrase and the occasionally erroneous call, but for the most part they do a good job. Also, they do say some funny things. One time I booted way high over the goal box. The announcer said, "You could have put another goal over the first and he still wouldn't have hit it." Now that was a good call.
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