Judging by how many soccer games are currently available for the Xbox 360, you'd think that soccer was by far the most popular sport in North America. EA alone has already released two FIFA games and one World Cup game, and now there's one more to add to the list: UEFA Champions League 2006-2007. The core game isn't vastly different from any of EA's other soccer games, and the Champions League license will do little to excite most North American players, but the game does introduce the concept of collecting and trading player cards. This unique feature is so addictive that it alone is a good reason to check out UEFA Champions League, even if you do own other 360 soccer games.
There aren't many different game modes in UEFA, but what's here is fun and offers a good bit of depth. There's no traditional season or franchise mode, but you can pick a squad and try to qualify for and win the Champions League. You can also jump into the challenge mode and relive classic Champions League matches. You'll get more out of this if you're familiar with the league's history, but even if you think of Newcastle as a beer and not a soccer team, the mode is fun. The lounge mode from the FIFA series is included here, as well. In the lounge, you and seven friends can play each other and keep track of your history and statistics. Based on how well you play, you can unlock power-ups to swing the odds in your favor.
But all of these game modes are secondary to UEFA's best new feature, the ultimate team mode. Your goal is to put together the best possible squad and earn a "golden ticket," which lets your team compete in the Champions League. The catch is that you'll do all of your team building and management with virtual trading cards. After finishing nearly any kind of match, you're awarded credits based on your performance on the pitch. You get credits for winning, as well as scoring goals and doing other positive plays, and you lose points for losing the match, giving up goals, and committing fouls. These credits are used in ultimate team mode to buy packs of cards. There are three different types of packs: bronze, silver, and gold. You won't get the best cards in a bronze pack, but they're relatively cheap, and they're the only packs you'll have access to initially. Silver and gold packs are unlocked as your team levels up by winning games. In addition to players, packs contain cards for managers, trainers, coaches, stadiums, kits, boots, balls, attribute boosts, and more. You can even unlock cards that can be played midmatch to improve your team's performance or hinder the performance of the opposing team.
Putting together a squad is surprisingly easy, though it's quite difficult to put together a great team. You'll need to do more than just use the highest-rated players; you'll actually have to take player's nationalities, favorite formations, and natural position into account. Managers, trainers, and other staff will raise your players' attributes and even increase the effectiveness of other cards. For example, you might have a player with a low fitness level and use a +11 fitness card on him, which will raise his fitness level by 11. You can raise that number by at least 50 percent more if you've got a trainer on your staff. Since you lose them forever if their deals expire, it's important to keep a close eye on contracts for your players and staff and extend expiring deals with contract cards.
It might seem a bit confusing at first, and the instruction manual and in-game tutorial do nothing to alleviate the confusion, but it's generally quite easy to manage your cards. When you open a pack of cards, the game automatically keeps the cards you've got room for, and then you decide what cards to discard, keep, add to your collector's album, or trade online. Any card in the game can be put up for sale online with just a few button presses. You can have up to 10 cards for sale at once, and you determine a card's asking price (within certain parameters). When the card sells, you get credit. It's that easy. In addition to selling individual cards online, you'll spend a good amount of time purchasing them, especially when you need specific types of players or desperately need a contract extension card and don't want to buy multiple packs in an effort to find one.
Using trading cards to build the ultimate team is highly addictive, and for a first effort, the concept is executed well. There are a few things that could have made it even better, though. It can be a chore to try and match players based on nationality and favorite formation, but you've got to fight through it because it's essentially the only way to improve team chemistry. The developer didn't make use of the social aspect of trading cards in any way. You can't send cards to your friends, you can't trade one card for another card, and there's no way to show off your card collection online. It's also odd that you can earn credits for playing against a friend online but not when you play against each other in an exhibition match on the same system. You'll probably wish there were more types of cards and more to do with them. And finally, certain cards will increase certain player attributes while lowering others, but there's really no way to significantly improve players, so there's little reason to take a chance on lower-rated players.
It almost seems like an afterthought at this point, but you'll actually be playing games, too. UEFA's gameplay is good and, unsurprisingly, quite a bit like FIFA 07's, with a handful of minor, but noticeable, differences. The pace of play is slower than what FIFA fans are used to, and there's less scoring as a result. Goalies are quite sharp, too. They always seem to be at the proper angle, and they're ready to charge the ball at all times. The referees call a tight game (a bit too tight), but they're lenient with the cards and rather smart at letting the play continue if there's clear advantage. Crossing passes are less effective now, and this helps cut down on players who run down the sideline and cross into the penalty box over and over again. You'll need to work the ball around the field using precision passes to exploit any holes in the defense. This is made more difficult than it should be thanks to some erratic passes that often don't go anywhere near where you were aiming. Sometimes your players will pass to themselves or just kick the ball to empty space. There's a CPU passing-assist option that helps ensure the ball goes to a player, but it's not always the player you wanted. Thankfully, you can still send players on runs with a tap of the trigger, as well as quickly send a through pass by pressing Y. Player switching has been moved to the left trigger, and somehow this move made it tough to switch players. The CPU assist at the default level changes players for you so often that the game's almost unplayable. Turning the assistance level down helps solve this issue, but you'll frequently have to press the trigger multiple times to get to the player you want, or sometimes just to switch control at all. Once you've actually gotten control of a player, they control well, though there are some issues here, too. The increased emphasis on player momentum makes it tough to stop or change direction quickly, which as a result makes it tough to play defense. This isn't a huge problem when playing another human, as they've got the same issues to contend with, but it often feels like the CPU can dribble around your players with ease.
You can hop online and play matches with four live players on each team. You get a healthy credit bonus for taking your ultimate team online, too. It's a breeze to find a ranked or unranked match, and the gameplay is largely free of lag. There are leaderboards to track your career stats, but because there's no penalty for players who disconnect midmatch, these stats aren't necessarily indicative of a player's true skill. Only the most ardent achievement-point hounds will enjoy the game's absurdly difficult achievements, such as winning 60 matches in a row, averaging four goals a game for 50 games, or winning 300 total games.
If you've seen FIFA 07, you've seen UEFA Champions League. From the players to the pitch, it's an all-around great-looking game. Perhaps in a nod to the game's emphasis on team play rather than individual skill, the default camera angle is farther away. This makes it easy to monitor large parts of the field, but it doesn't show off the player models as well as a close camera would. There are a few zombie-faced players that look like they came from Dead Rising, but for the most part, they look quite good. There are some great-looking animations, particularly the ones that show off the more physical aspect of the game, like defenders nudging players off the ball. There are around 20 stadiums, each of which has a unique look and is filled with rowdy fans. Player cards look OK, but since they are such a big part of the game, it would have been nice if EA had done more with their presentation. The audio is also about what you'd expect from a FIFA game. The raucous crowds will sing their hearts out, and the music is an eclectic mix of artists from around the world. The commentary is adequate but can be a bit dull. There is a fair amount of Champions League-specific commentary, which is nice, particularly in the classic challenge mode.
In some ways, it's a shame that EA chose to implement player cards into UEFA Champions League rather than FIFA. It certainly makes UEFA a more attractive game than it would have normally been, but FIFA is the flagship franchise and played by many more people. But, the cards are in UEFA, and the game is better for it. While it might sound intimidating, buying, collecting, and selling cards is quite easy, even if you don't have experience with card-based games and don't possess a great deal of knowledge about individual players. If you're a soccer fan who's looking for something different, UEFA Champions League is a worthwhile purchase.