Like the sport of soccer itself, the Virtua Striker series is somewhat of an enigma. The series has received high praise in Japan for its detailed graphics and simple gameplay mechanics, but at the same time, it has been collectively rebuked or ignored by the North American gaming audience. When Virtua Striker first made its way to North America via the Dreamcast, the few who actually played it were surprised by the lack of extra modes and the inability to control player movement while on defense. Recognizing at least part of the series' weaknesses, Amusement Vision has added a surprisingly robust franchise mode to Virtua Striker 2002 for the GameCube, which seems to go a long way in adding some much needed depth to the strategic element of the game.
The franchise mode--or the "Road to the International Cup," as it's called in the game--lets you build any of one of the 64 international teams from the ground up. When you select a team, you'll be brought to its headquarters, where you can make adjustments to your on-field strategy, the roster, as well as position and formation settings. You can also designate which skill your players will learn when they enter training camp. For example, if you want one of your forwards to become an excellent striker, then you click on that player's name and select the striker icon. Some of the other skills that players can improve include speed, stamina, slide tackling, and passing, but obviously, you'll want to train players based on their position on the field--for example, the goalkeeper doesn't need to be as proficient in slide tackling as other players on the field.
For players to learn their designated skills, you have to schedule some training camp time via the schedule menu in the franchise mode. This screen gives you a week-by-week breakdown of the events that you have planned over the course of the four years leading up to the international cup. At the start of the mode, each week is empty, so it's up to you to fill it with training camps, exhibition matches in your home stadium, or overseas matches. Each of these three options costs a certain number of points, which depends upon the number of weeks you schedule for training or the quality of the opponent, but since you'll have around 2,000 points to start with, you won't have to worry too much about cost in the early stages of the game. However, if you schedule too many training camps or lose too many exhibition games, the number of points you have will rapidly dwindle down to zero, leaving you with very little chance of progressing on to the championship. There are advisors in the franchise mode who help explain some of the basics to you, but none of them seem to offer any insightful hints or at least information that would help in case you were in some dire need of extra points or if you needed to know which skill a particular player should train.
The heart of the road to the international cup is training. When you reach the week of a scheduled training, you'll take a trip in the team bus to the practice facility, where you'll have access to the same training menu screen found in the headquarters menu. This is where you'll be able to make any last-minute adjustments to your player's training before you enter the first week of camp. You can continually make adjustments to the training regimen until you reach the end of the four- or eight-week training camp, where you'll have a split-squad match against members of your own team. Before you start this match, you'll have the option to select from five to six different general game skills, like overall defense or learning to stretch the opposing team's defenses. The AI of the split-squad team is determined based on the option you choose, so for example, if you select defensive training, then the opposing team will constantly be on the offensive, trying to push the ball up the field as often as possible. After the match, you'll receive a few words of wisdom from your assistant coach, explaining some of the general problems you have in performing the general skill you selected. If you want to monitor your player progress, you can go back into the ground option in the headquarters screen and view individual player performance levels by pressing X on the GameCube controller.
You'll get to test your new skills in either an exhibition match in your home stadium or in an overseas match--either option will have an impact on your team. If you lose these matches, then your overall team confidence will drop, as will stadium attendance. Conversely, if you win these matches, then player motivation will remain high, stadium attendance will increase, and most importantly, you'll receive points based on the difficulty level of the opponent.
The gameplay in these types of matches is actually a little different from those in the nonfranchise mode because the skill level of your players is so much lower. In fact, you'll find that you'll have to change your strategy quite a bit to compensate for your team's weaknesses, especially when it comes to passing. Crosses and longer passes won't be nearly as accurate as they are in the other modes, so you'll have to rely more on straightforward offense made up mostly of short, quick passes to break through the defense and score a goal. In addition, in the first few matches, your players can and will tire incredibly fast because they haven't been trained enough, but you can help remedy this by substituting players in and out.
While the franchise mode certainly adds some depth to Virtua Striker, the core gameplay mechanics remain the same. You still don't have manual control over your players when they're on defense--the computer moves them around for you--but you're still responsible for timing slide tackles and other ball-stealing maneuvers. The offensive game in Virtua Striker takes a little more skill, but the game has been designed so that novices can jump right in and start playing without worrying about the finer points. Virtua Striker 2002 is scheduled for release on May 21.