Thursday, February 05, 2009

New Star Soccer 4 Review

New Star Soccer 4, developed and published by New Star Games.
The Good: Plentiful options for skills enhancement and personal relationship growth, very addictive
The Not So Good: Simulating multiple countries is very time consuming, can’t start as a mid-level prospect to be more competitive early in your career, maintaining relationships is uninteresting, limited number of things to buy, disorienting camera issues with third-person view
What say you? A robust combination of life management and sports simulation: 6/8

The most popular worldwide sport is something called soccer. Yeah, I had never heard of it either. Apparently, you can’t use your hands and you run around for ninety minutes kicking a ball. Weird, huh? This activity has given rise to plenty of computer games, giving the less athletically inclined an opportunity to “head” some “balls” on a “pitch.” Most of these games fall into two categories: the arcade game (like Pro Evolution Soccer) or the management game (like the appropriately-named Football Manager). The New Star Soccer series takes a slightly different approach, giving you control over one player and guiding them to super stardom. The series in now in its fourth iteration (where have I been?) feature new 3-D graphics and a more polished presentation, or at least that’s what I can gather from screenshots. Hey, fourth time’s the charm, right?

The big difference between New Star Soccer 3 and New Star Soccer 4 is the inclusion of 3-D graphics. They aren’t great, but they are certainly better than old 2-D effects. In a game like this, I would most certainly have the basic 3-D graphics of New Star Soccer 4 than having to wrestle with the old 2-D presentation. The game features very repetitive player models (with only differences in hair, eye, and skin color) and very repetitive stadiums (probably no more than 3-5 total), but it does offer the player view which I enjoy a lot. This third-person perspective makes it feel like you are really a part of the game instead of some disembodied head floating above the action; if fits the point of the game very well. The view isn’t perfect: the camera always follows the ball, which makes control difficult when the action is close to you. I would like to have some sort of compromise between following the ball and always above and behind your player. The user interface is well-done, with intuitive icons and large text for easy identification; almost everything is accessible directly from a menu along the bottom of the page, a must for a management game such as this. While the sound effects are nothing special (the crowd noises are effective, however), the music is actually pretty good and very European. It puts me in a soccer mood, and I never turned it off. While New Star Soccer 4 can’t obviously compete with more expensively-produced competitors, I welcome the inclusion of simple 3-D graphics that help the gameplay more than they hurt.

The first thing you’ll need to do in New Star Soccer 4 is create a new player. In order to get the registration code to work correctly, you’ll have to name him after yourself, so there is some egotistical limitation at work here. You are given a good number of customization options, from basic things like age and position to height and weight that actually affect performance on the field. Although there is only one player model available in New Star Soccer 4, you can change the hair color, which makes the players on the field slightly more varied in appearance. Starting attributes also need to be set: pace, strength, vision, flair, passing, heading, control, and tackling are just some examples. Unfortunately, you cannot make anything more than a starting prospect, which would be fine if New Star Soccer 4 clearly indicated which clubs are intended for young, inexperienced players such as yourself. When choosing a starting club, I had absolutely no idea of the relative strength of your choices, a decision made more difficult because New Star Soccer 4 misspells all of the cities and team names by one letter to avoid copyright infringement. The game should either limit you to only choosing developmental, under-21 leagues to begin with, indicate the league clubs are in, or let you start with better initial statistics. It’s no fun being completely outmatched by every single other player on the field, and it’s no fun to constantly sit on the bench, losing precious practice time to increase your stats. This is one aspect of the game in clear need of revision. The game does include a lot of clubs to choose from (ironically part of the problem when choosing an appropriate team) from pretty much every country, and you could simulate a European league if you choose. However, simulating all of the games across multiple countries takes an extremely long amount of time, even on fast computers, so it’s not recommended.

You will most likely spend an equal amount of time actually playing soccer as you will managing your life, and the off-the-field activities in New Star Soccer 4 make up a significant portion of the game. Your character is comprised of many different traits that affects his performance on the field, such as the character traits (ego, flamboyance, intelligence). Health is rated according to your energy level (depleted by practice or games) and free time (depleted by socializing) and other attributes like confidence (in direct relation to performance on the field), gambling, alcohol, and artificial enhancers; the last three attributes can build up over time and turn into addictions, which is a neat (and disturbingly realistic) feature. You can spend time training to increase your stats in specific areas (passing, shooting) by maneuvering around or shooting at cones or do full practice games either indoors or outdoors. Every time you perform a task (such as a shot or a tackle), your rating in that area increases. This RPG-like approach to character development is thought out well, although true progress does occur very, very slowly. You can also purchase gym equipment to increase strength or endurance capabilities. You must be careful training, as your energy decreases and you need it to be at a maximum in order to perform at your best on game day.

In addition to worrying about your stats, you will also have to maintain relationships with a variety of groups. You will have to balance your boss, the team, your fans, sponsors, media, family, friends, and your significant other and offspring. This sounds more interesting than it actually is: all you need to do is select one group per day and the game randomly decides whether your relationship improves or not. It would have been a lot better if New Star Soccer 4 would have included some mini-game (like it does for field training) instead of arbitrarily assigning a percentage increase with no skill involved whatsoever. Maybe for New Star Soccer 5. You will also manage your income, assigning a percentage of your funds to your family, friends, lifestyle, and charity. You can also purchase vehicles, property, and gym equipment, but that’s all: this part of the game could have certainly included more variety. Lastly, you can do some gambling on the side at the casino (complete with blackjack, roulette, and slot machines) or at the track with horses. Both of these are mildly interesting diversions from the base game, and you can earn (but most likely lose) a lot of money. Even with all of these options, though, the game still gets repetitive after a couple months of playing. There are only so many times you can jump rope or socialize with your team (a simple button press) before it gets boring. Since your character grows so slowly (albeit realistically), New Star Soccer 4 becomes somewhat of a grind and less interesting overall.

New Star Soccer 4 is a soccer game, too. The games seem to be realistic, at least from the perspective of someone who has a limited knowledge of soccer. I did discover that I really suck at playing soccer: controlling just one person is very different from an entire team. It helps if you are very familiar with soccer, as you really need to know what your role is in the game and where you should be on the field. Since stat increases are based on your performance, not knowing what you are doing will hurt your stats further because your AI teammates will eventually just not pass the ball your way because you suck. Controlling a goalkeeper is not very interesting because saves are automatic (you just need to be near the ball and your stat ratings do the rest), but a “regular” player delivers a more exciting experience. While the soccer matches are not as good at the Pro Evolution series of games, they do hold their own and the AI helps to create believable games. New Star Soccer 4 is pretty fun to play and just controlling one player delivers a different experience compared to more traditional soccer titles. There is certainly an addictive nature to the game, as you (very) slowly develop your character from bench-warmer to international superstar.

New Star Soccer 4 is a great template for a game, and it has some great features (as you would expect in a fourth iteration) but still falls short in some other areas. This is a common issue with independently-developed titles: the features are just not as well-rounded as products with a larger team behind it. Of course, with the fourth edition of any game we should expect more of a well-rounded experience. New Star Soccer 4 has robust options for creating and developing your character, from practice to training to relationships with others. This RPG-like mechanic produces an intimate connection with your character and you are intrinsically motivated to develop them further. It would help, then, if New Star Soccer 4 was more complete. First, the game lacks a clear indication of under-21 or developmental teams (if there are any at all), so you will spend your first years a crappy player among much better players, and I suspect a lot of people will get turned off by how horrible you are, comparatively speaking. An alternative solution would be to start out as a better player initially, but that option is not present. It also takes a long time to develop your character, a combination of slow developmental times and long load times as results from other leagues are simulated. If you invest in a game of New Star Soccer 4, realize that you are here for the long haul. While New Star Soccer 4 gives you a lot of things to do during your soccer career, maintaining relationships is just a button press and there isn’t much to use your funds on outside of cars and gambling. I am thankful that New Star Soccer 4 is presented in 3-D, but the third-person view needs some additional work to make it less disorienting. Despite the shortcomings that I have mentioned, New Star Soccer 4 is still a good game that offers a refreshing combination of sports game, management title, and RPG-like character development.