Long before EA's FIFA was well known, developers in England had been churning out soccer titles for the European market. One of the venerable brands is Striker by Liverpool-based developer Rage. Started in 1992 by industry veteran Paul Finnegan, who had previously cofounded Ocean, Rage has grown from developing products for Electronic Arts and GT Interactive to self-publishing in Europe and striking distribution deals in the US. Soccer games have always been a passion for the group, and Finnegan is even trying to help purchase his own local Premiership team, Everton. That's sort of like Trip Hawkins trying to buy the Oakland Raiders.
Now Striker once again comes to the US shores, this time on the Dreamcast and published by Infogrames. The game carries the UEFA license and in fact was known as UEFA Striker in Europe. While FIFA is the worldwide organization that regulates soccer, UEFA is the European organization. This is pertinent, because rather than having all the teams from each country, the game features 46 club teams from around Europe in different competition structures such as super trophy, league, knockout, and classic match. Three additional competitions and one hidden one join these four competitions as you progress through the game.
Trevor Williams, the managing director at Rage's Birmingham, England office, who's responsible for Striker Pro 2000 (hereafter SP2K), expanded on this, "There is no league relegation or promotion," he says, "since this game is based on the UEFA competition structure model. Usually in most leagues around the world there are several levels, or divisions, where the top two are promoted at the end of the season and the bottom two are relegated. UEFA is not a typical league.... It is an organization that promotes competitions outside of each country's leagues."
The classic-match idea originally came from a rugby game Rage developed for English publisher Codemasters. "They proved to be extremely popular," says Williams "After the training mode, they help the player to get better at playing the game by putting in increasingly difficult real game scenarios. The classic matches are also interesting because they highlight memorable moments from recent history."
Striker has been around in various incarnations for many years. The 20-person team felt that the Striker 96 code base was out of date, and the only other compatible engine, which had been built for the rugby game, used prerendered sprites. With the decision to use polygonal players for the Dreamcast, the decision to build a new engine from scratch was relatively easy,--which is what the team has done over the past two years. The game is also planned for the PlayStation.
SP2K comes with four names attached, none of which is likely to be well known to US audiences unless you happen to watch the English Premiership on Fox Sports World each week. English soccer authority Jonathan Pearce provides the commentary along with sometime manager and all-around personality Ron Atkinson. Former Chelsea and Newcastle Utd manager Ruud Gullitt also provided input, as the title was originally envisioned as Ruud Gullitt Striker. By far the most interesting feature, however, is former player Glenn Roeder. Trevor comments, "Glenn was really helpful to work with on this project. We had a number of meetings with him, and he coached the team on real-life international tactics. He helped us to develop the rule sets that each player on the field uses. This is the fundamental core of the off-ball AI. We have also tried to make your teammates look for space. Whenever you have the ball, they will always try and give you three options - a back pass, a pass inside, and an attacking option. They will move to try and prevent the opposition from closing them down. This can lead to extremely realistic moments in the game."
There are a variety of different camera angles in the game. You can choose which best suits your style of play and can also adjust your view of the field by either zooming in or out.
Kit customization is now becoming standard in all soccer titles and is featured in Striker as well. You can fully adjust the kit, uniforms, shorts, socks, etc. for teams in SP2K. You can change the color and/or stripes on uniforms to create your own favorite color scheme. One curious decision is the lack of transfers and the ability to switch players from team to team. The only decisions involved are the on-field strategy and substitutions.
Williams also took the time to address one of the major complaints about all soccer games, the lack of intelligent drones. "One of the hardest parts was working out what the players should actually do and then make them work well together," he explains. "For instance, if the user runs one of his central defenders up the pitch and then loses the ball, the AI-controlled players will try and plug the gap. But they have to do it intelligently. They also have to work out which opposition players pose the biggest threat - there's no point man-marking a wide forward if there is a guy romping through the middle with the ball. This seems fairly basic for us, but it is pretty complex to code up." Such issues are one of the few complaints about the current FIFA game, so if Rage can address this the way it says it can, then soccer games will be taking an incremental leap in AI.
Fancy CG movies are now the order of the day, and Striker is no exception. There will be an opening CG-rendered movie, and there will also be special cinematics after big games are won. During gameplay, players on the field will also dance after making a goal.
Rage and Infogrames certainly have a tough road ahead. EA has set a very high bar with its FIFA series, and, rightly or wrongly, all soccer games are now judged against that. It is disappointing that the UEFA license apparently does not extend to the correct team names, and therefore teams are named after geographical locations rather than the real-life teams. The four British teams, for example, are Chelsea, Aston Villa, Highbury (the real team is Arsenal), and Manchester (the real team is Manchester Utd). With no FIFA game in sight for the Dreamcast, there is an opportunity to capture the market early, as Sega has for football with its NFK2K. Look for Striker to release in February 2000.