Soccer Slam Updated Preview
Sega puts a new twist on soccer for the GameCube.
Ever since NBA Jam hit the arcades back in the early '90s, developers have been on a tear to make sure that no sport has been spared similar interpretations. That is, except for soccer. Never a company to leave a stone unturned, Sega has decided to offer its own perception of the way the world's most popular sport should be with its three-on-three soccer brawler, Sega Soccer Slam. Built from the ground up for the GameCube hardware, Soccer Slam features a zany mix of characters that would be right at home in most wrestling and fighting games and out-of-this-world gameplay.
As is the case with most arcade sports games, Sega Soccer Slam is a bit thin where gameplay modes are concerned. You can jump straight to a quick match by holding both shoulder buttons at the main menu screen or show some patience and explore the game's remaining modes. The primary single-player mode is called quest. In the quest mode you choose from one of six elementally themed teams and make a run through 10 games. Teams are rated in five categories including passing, shooting, steals, speed, and punching. At the outset of the quest mode, you play minigames between each match to learn the nuances of playing the game. In the middle of the season an all-star game occurs, and one of the players from your chosen team gets a chance to play with some of the stars from the other squads. After the all-star break, your team hits the road for five straight games--culminating with a single-elimination tournament for the coveted continental cup. You are rewarded with money for winning each game or scoring goals in the minigames. This money can then be spent at the soccer shop to buy new costume pieces for your players, which will increase one of their five attributes. While the quest mode is far from a traditional franchise mode, statistics are still tracked in 24 categories to give you a good idea of how your team and players are doing when compared with the rest of the league. Aside from the quest mode there's also a tournament mode for party situations, a practice mode, and an exhibition mode for up to four players.
Soccer Slam's controls are easy to pick up but offer enough depth that veteran players will be able to demonstrate their superiority and get results at the same time. Like any sensible control scheme, the A button passes and the B button shoots. Beyond that lies a wealth of control options that is surprising considering the game's genre. The right trigger acts as the turbo, and because it runs out rather quickly, it's best to use it in short bursts. You may spin to protect the ball using the Y button or hop over slide tackles with the X button. On defense it's fairly simple. The A button switches defenders, the B button throws punches, the slide tackle is mapped to the X button, and the Y button lets you avoid being punched. On defense it's important to mix up your slide tackles and punches because for each defensive action there's an offensive move that will render it worthless.
As you deke, spin, steal, and take shots on net, your team's elemental power meter grows. The power can then be unleashed using the left trigger in combination with the pass, shoot, and punch buttons to perform special, high-powered moves. If you wait until your power meter reaches the top, you will be able to perform a killer kick by holding in the turbo and pass buttons for one second. Your player will then lob the ball, a cursor will appear, and you must get the pass recipient onto the cursor and press shoot before the ball touches the ground. If you do this properly, the game shifts into slow motion, and a moveable cursor appears inside the goal. Then you simply pick your spot with the analog stick, and the player automatically gives it a boot, Matrix-style toward the chosen spot. Once you gain enough experience, it's possible to take control of the goalie and create an exciting one-on-one matchup. If you manage to keep possession of the ball for around 10 seconds, a spotlight will appear and begin searching around the field. If you maneuver the ball carrier into the spotlight and press the shoot button, you'll be able to perform a killer kick from that spot.
Playing Soccer Slam on its normal speed setting is pure twitch gameplay, but when you crank up the speed to the fast setting, it becomes complete mayhem. Sometimes using the punch button is the better of the defensive options because it not only steals the ball, but it also sends the other player flying to the pitch. Down around the goal, using the punch in conjunction with the turbo button can even knock goalies down and make them drop the ball. The goalie AI is adequate, but as he faces shots his armor is slowly blasted away until it takes him longer to get off the turf and get ready for the next save. Another neat touch is that any extra items you purchase for characters are worn in the head-to-head modes as well, which allows for some slight customization of the game. Of course, you can always turn the attribute-enhancing items off if you want to make sure the teams are equal for multiplayer. In this preview build that we received, the stock teams were a bit unbalanced, and we sometimes found that games became blowouts rather quickly. However, in the games that managed to stay close, it was white-knuckle excitement until the last second ticked off the clock. Hopefully team balancing is something that is on Blackbox's list of last-minute tweaks.
As mentioned previously, Blackbox has built the engine for Sega Soccer Slam from the beginning to run on the GameCube, and it shows. The game is pushing a lot of polygons at once, and this is most apparent in the characters' faces. Each character has a variety of beautifully animated goal celebrations complete with fully animated faces and streaming dialogue. There are at least five different celebrations per character, and the longer you play the more you keep seeing new ones. Amazing instant replays are shown after each goal, but sadly there's no ability to manually control the replay in the current build we have. While the character models look great above the neck, their bodies aren't as well developed. Perhaps it's part of the art design for the game, but the players feature some angular limbs and torsos. There are nine different arenas in the game, and while they're supposed to be located in real cities like Tokyo and Las Vegas, calling them abstract would be putting it mildly. Three arenas are unlocked when the game first boots, and a new arena is unlocked every time you complete the quest mode with a new team.
The animation used for the game really sells the characters. With more than 1000 different kicks, punches, and stumbles included in the game, things never look unnatural. Half Pint, a punker from England, moshes down the field with his suspenders (or bracers as punks like to call them) flapping about. Rumiko, a female cyborg, runs like the tin man from The Wizard of Oz. Soccer Slam also includes small graphical details such as blades of grass being kicked up, awesome special effects for killer kicks, and lighting that changes depending on the chosen field. There are also a handful of different weather settings that change the visual aesthetics of each arena considerably. With six completely different yet wacky characters playing soccer on the same completely surreal field, Sega Soccer Slam manages to pin down its own unique art design and is a game that will certainly catch people's attention.
While sound is usually one of the last portions of a game to be implemented, the audio in Sega Soccer Slam seems complete. The fans react to every change of possession on the field and will sing team-specific songs. The voice acting in the game is strong, while the script writing can be both witty and lifeless. During each goal celebration a character-specific theme song plays, which helps to more clearly draw the parallels between Soccer Slam and wrestling games. The play-by-play commentary will elicit more than a chuckle because the announcer calls the game like a straight soccer match. It's funny to hear him say El Fuego and Half Pint in the same manner you might hear him say Baggio's name in a more traditional soccer game.
Sega Soccer Slam is an odd concept that looks as if it might work. The game is completely off the wall and truly shines as a multiplayer experience. If you like new ideas in video games, hunger for twitch-influenced gameplay, and can handle sports games that take a less serious approach, Soccer Slam should be closely watched. The gameplay is surprisingly deep, the graphics are already some of the best on the console, and the sound seems just right. Hopefully Blackbox can balance the teams a little better and slide in a replay mode before its release later this month. For more on the game, check out our
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