All by itself, soccer doesn't elicit a lot of interest stateside. Even the World Cup seems to be drawing yawns, considering that the United States' unlikely advance to the quarterfinals has met with a blasé reception. But that might be about to change with the arrival of Hooligans: Storm Over Europe, one of the most controversial games to hit the PC since Postal.
The Darxabre Games real-time strategy title, which sold in record numbers when released in Europe last winter, could be the soccer game with a difference because it isn't directly about the sport. It actually deals with gangs of soccer hooligans, the toughs who seem to be rampaging through one world capital or another every few months. You take on the leadership of one such gang, or "firm," as they prefer to call themselves, and go through various scenarios that involve a whole lot of lawbreaking. If a crime is on the books, chances are that you'll be committing it at some point while playing Hooligans.
Hooligans plays a bit like a larger-scale version of the tactical strategy game Commandos. You begin each scenario in the single-player campaign with a leader or two and a small selection of firm members. These initial followers form the hard-core element of your firm and can be directly controlled. Once a pub is in your control, you boost overall morale by buying the house a round or two and pay to sign up fresh troops. There are six types of hooligans in the game. Leaders, the only units who cannot be replaced, are invaluable for their ability to form groups of hard-core members and whip up the crowd with a chant. Bulches and bikers come next, due to their strength and fighting ability. Rats, ravers, and hooligans form the rest of your firm, serving as frontline soldiers. All are rated in terms of attack and defense capabilities, and eight categories--health, consciousness, fear, anger, drugged, drunk, loyalty, and stamina--track their current mood and fighting ability.
Each type of unit has a special ability that the others cannot perform, much like the specified roles granted to the soldiers in Commandos. The grossly fat bulch unit is the only one strong enough to move barricades and smash down fences. If you need to drive a vehicle, you'll have to enlist the services of a biker. Rats are experts at quick break-and-enter jobs, while ravers and hooligans are quick, reasonably talented brawlers. Some units have skills with a particular weapon or other device. Ravers are handy with pipes, bikers know what to do with a length of chain, hooligans like to play with Molotov cocktails, and leaders can use pistols. All player-controlled units gain experience as the game goes on, advancing through three levels that make them progressively better at fighting and defending.
Other units are either beyond the player's control completely or can be purchased for limited periods of time. Cops and riot squad soldiers are your primary enemies, with the ability to arrest your firm members, incapacitate them with tear gas, or simply shoot them dead. Supporters follow you around and will sometimes fight on your behalf if the mood strikes them. Chicks can be paid to seduce units belonging to enemy firms, and suits can be hired for specific nefarious deeds. And finally there are the innocents, harmless civilians there to be beaten up or killed if your lads are feeling out of sorts.
Scenarios in the single-player campaign take place in various European capitals. Objectives typically involve breaking the law in creative ways and breaking as many heads as possible in the process. Every scenario is preceded by video clips from a bogus news documentary following the exploits of your firm. These take the form of brief interviews, with your hard-core hooligans reminiscing about the events you're about to take part in, and they are very convincing (not to mention a bit scary). Like the clips, the scenarios appear to get more and more outlandish as the game progresses. You start by simply having to get past the riot squad and an enemy firm to enter a stadium by match time and proceed to destroying the drug lab of a rival, going on a vandalism spree after a blowout, and even robbing a bank to get enough money to buy match tickets on the black market.
Again, like Commandos, these scenarios seem to be constructed like puzzles. You generally have to start off by exploring the map in search of such things as stores, which can be looted for ready cash, pubs, weapon shops, brothels, and drug dens, and then determine what you have to do to complete the set objectives. Carnage is a big part of the game, though you can't just bludgeon everyone in sight. For example, you might think it a good idea to loot the weapon shop where you just bought supplies, but the shotgun-equipped owner is not an easy mark. Same with the pimp who owns each brothel. You often have to determine a particular route to follow and use vehicles to reach certain areas, and you will occasionally be surprised by enemy forces that end up being a lot tougher than they first appeared. If what we've seen is any indication, this will be a very challenging game to play.
All of this violence is balanced by a presentation that leans toward the darkly comic. Audio will be a big part of the game; for instance, the game's Cockney-accented narrator uses a lot of hooligan slang. Units themselves tend to sing a lot, and there are quite a few funny one-liners. A chorus of drunks even keeps you entertained when a scenario is loading. Here's one example, sung to the tune of Queen's "We Are the Champions": "We are still loading, you are still waiting, no time for playing 'cause we are still loading." The graphics are understated 2D depictions of urban centers, spiced up with city-specific features. When you're trashing Rome, for example, you'll do so in the shadow of the ruins of the ancient Forum.
Multiplayer "riot" mode will be a big part of Hooligans when it ships. Darxabre is including four game types. In "last man standing," you have to kill every rival unit on the map, while "hold the cup" is a variant on capture the flag. Strategic battle awards points for every significant action, such as looting a store, killing a cop, trashing an object, and so on. And finally, "drink it!" is a novelty mode of play in which you cram your hard-core units into a pub and try to outdrink your rivals.
Look for a full review of Hooligans: Storm Over Europe after it ships to stores at the end of June.