Urban Freestyle Soccer
Acclaim and Gusto Games take the Beautiful Game to the not-so-beautiful city streets. And Kikizo tags along for the ride.
By Kikizo Staff
Urban Freestyle Soccer is a study in style over substance. A blatant attempt to merge the popularity of soccer with 'hip', 'edgy' content; you know, "the stuff that appeals to kids these days." That marketing and so-called 'mature content' do not a good game make is a lesson Acclaim would have done well to learn after the abject failure of BMX XXX, yet amazingly, here we are. Urban Freestyle Soccer, for lack of a better description, is an arcade-oriented four-on-four soccer title that borrows liberally from EABig's 'Street' series of titles.
Not the worst template upon which to base your design, but Gusto Games' execution thereof is flawed in several respects. Like that series, combos and tricks must be performed in order to accrue points and fill up your 'Netbreaker' gauge; a variant of the Gamebreaker that results in a flashy, over-the-top strike on goal. Unlike the NBA Street titles, wherein the Gamebreaker is a vital, game-altering event, the Netbreaker is little more than a powered-up strike on goal that may or may not score -- though mostly, it does. Its irrelevance however, is underlined by the ease with which one can score without it.
Though one expects the goal count to be higher than that of a traditional sports game, scoring should still require a modicum of skill, something that UFS, sadly, does not. In effect, the keepers are merely glorified Pong paddles, bouncing the ball back into play regardless of the threat posed by opposing team members. Purportedly, this was done so as to keep the action fast-paced, though it does so at the expense of some laughably poor goals. One wonders whether a better solution could not have been devised. Keepers will at times see fit to hold onto the ball, but these displays of discretion are rare and often poorly timed.
Tricks and combos, though decidedly intricate, actually detract from the gameplay in that once activated, you're helpless to do anything until the move is completed. You're likely to get away with this during CPU competition, but a merciless human opponent will dispossess you time and time again. And because Netbreakers serve as little incentive to continue doing tricks, players will find themselves relying on simple one-twos, crosses and wall passes the majority of the time, thus making a significant portion of the gameplay all but moot.
In its defense, the game has moments when it can be moderately enjoyable, but even these are soured by the plethora of quirks that infest the gameplay. Shooting for example, is plagued by the needlessly desultory nature of the trick system; ordinarily, you press the shoot button, then quickly aim a small cursor within the goalmouth to direct the strike. Succinct. Effective. Other times, pressing the shoot button will see your player perform a canned and entirely random set of flicks and touches prior to shooting. This of course delays the shot and could possibly spoil a gilt-edged opportunity. As the press material emotes, "It's also just as important to look as cool as you can while trying to get the ball in the back of the net", only problem is that in trying to look cool, invariably the ball doesn't end up in the back of the net.
Perhaps the most irksome aspect of Urban Freestyle Soccer, at least for those of us not enamored with the underground culture it so shamelessly exploits, is the over-abundant 'attitude' that permeates much of the title. Turf Wars, the primary single-player mode, sees players competing against other teams in order to capture their 'turf.' This gangland theme carries over to the matches themselves, where, prior to kickoff, competitors from each team square off against one another in pre-scripted sequences that show them gesticulating, posturing and smack-talking amongst themselves. Similar sequences can be seen after scoring a goal, mercifully, these can be skipped. The goal of these scenes, to create rivalries and a sense of competition, is laudable but it all comes off as rather hokey. The teams too span the spectrum of racial and 'hip-hop' stereotypes, offering players a choice of football hooligans, skate punks, Hispanic, black and Asian players. All of whom congregate in teams with such juvenile names as the Skater Boys (what, no 'z'?), Lowriders, BMX Crew, Hardcore Honeys, Jah Warriors, Shakedown, Streetballers, Offensive Behaviour, Taggin Crew and Street Kai.
Having successfully invaded opposing teams' turf, players then unlock Home Turf, wherein each team takes a crack at you in your own backyard, so to speak. Rounding out the selection of modes are Freestyle, Street Challenge, Versus and Quick Select. The training mode is notable only for its utter lack of, well, actual training. 'Direction' is perhaps a more apt term in that information is provided only through slow on-screen text prompts, and by the time these appear, players are likely to have already discovered the various functions for themselves.
While detrimental to the gameplay, the myriad of tricks and animations that players are imbued with make for an intriguing spectacle. And in case you miss any of them, a rudimentary replay function allows players to view the moments leading up to the goal. Player models are functional, though as alluded to above, it is their animation that truly brings them to life. Even the detestable confrontations, it must be said, are technically well done. The urban sprawl in which these competitions take place proffers a sizeable collection of locales; diversity that is most welcome indeed. However, the looped animations that are intended to create an atmosphere around each of these playing fields are laughably poor. Though not an isolated experience, one such instance sees a character riding a yellow motorcycle drive past the field over and over again throughout the match.
The licensed soundtrack, as is usually the case in such situations, is by far and away the best aspect of the aural presentation. Featured on the playlist is an eclectic, yet apt selection that includes the likes of Method Man, TLC, Oxide and Neutrino, Feeder, Suburban, Buju Banton, Silvia, Kid Frost and Queen's of the Stone Age. These tracks aside, the bulk of what players will hear comes from the field itself. Each team is imbued with a handful of phrases that its members will dutifully spout when you perform the requisite actions. This, of course, means that you'll hear the same canned phrases whenever you tackle, shoot, score, miss or pass. In every game. It bares mentioning that this wears thin quickly.
Though many have tried, a truly worthwhile arcade soccer title has yet to see release on any current generation platform (Sega Soccer Slam stands out as the best to date, sadly). Urban Freestyle Soccer is yet another such title whose potential is vastly untapped. It's not entirely worthless, but a number of questionable design choices and Acclaim's unique stamp of approval ensure that UFS never achieves anything more than utter mediocrity.