Australian rules football is a passionately supported, fast-paced, and frenetic sport. It's disappointing, then, that while AFL Challenge has attempted to capture the look and feel of one of our national pastimes in game form, it misses the mark (both literally and figuratively) and lands face down in the dirt with a whimper. The game's simplified arcade-style gameplay makes it easy to pick up and play without the need for prior knowledge of the ins and outs of the sport. But unfortunately while its inviting no-barrier entry will appeal to those not in the know, regardless of your familiarity, the experience is nothing more than shallow and unrewarding gameplay, technical issues, and horrible difficulty scaling.
AFL Challenge and its sibling, Rugby League Challenge, share many of the same damning qualities. The game is split into two halves: quick matches and full season play. In quick matches, you'll pick your team and head straight to the field to run the ball. You'll be forced to pick your side blind because there are no ratings to indicate how teams perform or if they have a particularly strong element to their game. Season mode is no better when it comes to identifying team quality, but it does give you the option to become slightly more involved with your players. Here, you'll spend in-game money earned after each game on training to raise the skills of the players on your team. Player stats are split into eight categories: strength, speed, accuracy, stamina, kick, tackle, handball, and mark. There's no explanation of player positions or which attributes are beneficial, so you'll inevitably stack stats in the speed and stamina categories to get to the ball faster and run away from the other team for longer. There are no carry-over penalties, match form, or injuries to manage in Season mode, and as a result, you can hammer the opposition players with heavy tackles all afternoon without consequence.
Win, lose, or draw, once the season is complete, you'll need to start over because there's no option to continue developing your players, relive close matches, or replay the finals. Stats and figures are also oddly handled in AFL Challenge. While you'll be given a running tally of basics, such as your win-to-loss ratio and points for or against, there's no way to track the performance of individual players. There's no custom player creation, no fantasy teams, and no multiplayer support to be found here. The latter in particular is a glaring ommission for a sports title and seems a clearly wasted opportunity to let you battle it out with friends using the PSP's Wi-Fi and ad-hoc connectivity.
The game offers a paltry two playable venues. First, there's a suburban field with half-empty stands and houses in the background. Then, there's an advertising-plastered stadium, which appears to be modelled on AFL's spiritual home, the Melbourne Cricket Ground. While the latter is convincing enough, the former is hardly befitting of the national teams. Player animations also appear jerky and wooden. It's all too common to see a group of clumped characters jump in unison only for one player to warp upward and the ball to magically appear in his hand as he falls to earth.
Regardless of which of the game's three difficulty settings you play on, you'll be subjected to incompetent AI and the horrible mark system. Even if you're well placed and time your jump to perfection, your ability to successfully pluck the ball out of the air is somewhat kismet. Once you realise that running the ball is a more viable option than punting the ball downfield and rolling the dice on a catch, you'll do so. On the chance you decide to play the kicking game and do take a mark, play on is supported, though you'll have to wait for the marking defender to reset, which negates the point of trying to move the ball quickly. Passive marking on defence gives the illusion of placing pressure on the kicker, though the inability to move or jump to force errors or deflect the ball does nothing to help turn over possession. The game's kicking mechanics are just as ridiculous, and with very few exceptions, you'll snap the ball through the goalposts at crazy angles, knock it through dead straight from huge distances, and kick accurately while sprinting without breaking pace. There's no kicking direction marker to use as a guide to line up your shot, but you don't need one because the game automatically aims the ball for the goals and seldom misses. At the easiest difficulty, it's a cakewalk to keep the scoreboard ticking over with straight sprints and kicks from the 50-meter line with pinpoint accuracy, but get ready to be embarrassed if you crank it up to hard. Perfectly timing the power meter button presses from the bounce still sees the ball go to your opposition almost all of the time, AI players will dart away to snatch the ball at blistering pace, and scoring points is nigh on impossible on the back of early tackles resulting in turnovers.
AFL Challenge features full licences for all 16 clubs in the 2009 competition, including the names and images of major players. It's disappointing, then, that once you hit the field, all players rely on a single generic character model. There are no player numbers on the back of jerseys, and while the team uniform colours are present, the game's muddy visuals make it tough to differentiate your own players from the opposition at long distances. Regardless of whether you're playing a friendly match or contesting the grand final, you'll only ever receive the less than enthusiastic "Congratulations Match Won" or loss equivalent splash image at the conclusion of play. Current team logos and uniforms are here, but there are no prerendered cutscenes, no video of real players in action, and no team songs after clinching victory.
Audio is a particularly low point for AFL Challenge. Menus are accompanied by a single rock track looped incessantly, while matches remain eerily silent with the exception of a few phoned-in tackle thuds, whistle blows, and the disinterested murmur of the crowd. There's no commentary or background music during the match, so the grounds have as much atmosphere as a byway cemetery when you attempt the winning goal. Ultimately, AFL Challenge suffers from half-baked ideas and cutting corners on development. The poorly tuned difficulty and lousy gameplay make what should be fun an unrewarding bore. AFL fans are better off leaving this alone and spending the money on tickets to a live game.