Let's start with the good news for AFL fans: AFL Premiership 2006, Melbourne-based IR Gurus' latest attempt at turning Australian Rules Football into a video game, trumps its 2005 effort in several key areas. Heading the list of key additions is a fairly comprehensive multiseason mode, which lets you manage nearly all aspects of your chosen team, including modifying player skills, trading players at the end of each season, and going through the entire draft process. It's almost like a simulation, and it's a top addition for wannabe coaches. And now for the bad news: Many of the gameplay shortcomings found in last year's game are in AFL Premiership 2006. While the controls have been improved from previous editions, on-field players still move like they're running through treacle, look nothing like their real-life counterparts, and react sluggishly to controls. You'll find the lack of responsiveness and blocky graphics in AFL Premiership 2006 immediately frustrating, particularly if you've been weaned on the slickness of other big-name sports games. AFL fanatics who persevere will find the game passable--after spending a few hours getting used to AFL Premiership 2006's gameplay peculiarities, that is.
To be fair, AFL Premiership 2006 has made some noticeable improvements to its on-field gameplay from last year's effort. Tackles stick much better in 2006, and the on-field action generally flows more smoothly. The rest is still hit and miss, however. Overly sensitive directional controls make it fiendishly hard to direct kicks and hand passes--when aiming a kick or a pass, it's far too easy to turn your player completely around by slightly overpushing the PlayStation 2's left analog stick, meaning that a kick you intended to go on a slight angle may end up being hoisted in another direction completely. Your onscreen players also take too long to recover from missed tackles or even the slightest bumps. Missing a tackle usually results in your player getting up from the ground agonisingly slowly, while getting bumped by the opposition sends your player reeling for a second or so. It breaks the flow of the game and becomes frustrating, particularly at the hardest difficulty setting, thanks to some unforgiving artificial intelligence, which sees computer players seemingly able to shrug tackles at will while landing each and every one of their attempts.
Kicking for goal doesn't fare much better. As soon as a player is within kicking distance of a goal, a small indicator representing the sticks with a sliding meter appears. You need to stop the sliding meter when it's in the middle of the goal indicator to make the kick accurate. While this system works fine in most cases, having to wait for the sliding meter to move back to a scoring position results in some fairly ridiculous situations during a game. You will often find yourself in a great position to shoot for goal (such as being directly in front and a few metres away), only to be forced to wait for a second or so before the sliding meter reaches its best point.
Compounding the control issues is the game's AI, which is perplexing most times. While you have the ability to set tactics for different areas of the field (usually a neutral, aggressive, or defensive stance), none of these seem to make much of a difference during the course of a game. Players, both in your team and the opposition, will almost invariably run into space without a defender in sight, regardless of the tactics employed.
AFL Premiership 2006's saving grace lies in its excellent career mode, which is an AFL trainspotter's dream come true. The career mode lets you play multiple seasons (preseason, full season, and finals games) and lets you develop your chosen team in any way you see fit. Each of the 16 teams in the AFL and all of its listed players are available, which means all of the well-known superstars as well as first-year hopefuls. Each game you play earns you experience points, which you can then use to develop your players. All players are given a rating out of 100, which is derived from a list of 10 attributes like strength, speed, stamina, or skill. This means you can take a few rookies (or an entire team of average players) and build them up to become powerhouses over the course of a few games or seasons.
And the tinkering doesn't stop after the finals. The game's career mode also allows you to initiate player trades once the September action is over, as well as take part in the preseason draft. The draft itself is very detailed, with the new players broken down into player types (such as ruckmen, forwards, and so on) that let you easily choose players to complement your team. You can, of course, let the game do all of this automatically, although we'd suggest you don't, as the AI will often allow some insane trades.
Outside of the career mode, AFL Premiership 2006 has quick match, single match, and season mode, which plays through only one season. New to the franchise is a training mode, which is essentially a single match that occasionally pauses the game to dish out some play instructions. It's a nice feature, but it would have been nice to see a more dedicated training mode that let you practise the basic skills of the game, such as kicking and passing.
The major new game mode addition to 2006 is the mission mode. Missions dip into the recent real-life history of each of the 16 AFL teams and presents you with a scenario to emulate. For example, the Sydney Swans mission takes you back to the last quarter of the 2005 Grand Final and tasks you with repeating history by wining the game. Geelong fans get to relive the heartbreaking semifinal loss to the Swans last year, but this time they're required to win the last quarter instead of losing it in the dying seconds. The missions themselves are a fun addition, but since there is only one for each team, it's a relatively short-lived feature.
Those looking for graphical finesse will find little joy in AFL Premiership 2006. All of the players still sport the blocky features seen in last year's effort and bear little to no resemblance to their real-life counterparts. Jerky animations are the order of the day, with the players' movements unrealistic for the most part. Odd graphical bugs also pop up from time to time--it's not uncommon to see players running straight through each other, and the strange, disembodied boundary-line pom-poms from last year's game make a return appearance. Audio is similarly patchy. AFL Premiership 2006 does feature some nice commentary from the likes of Dennis Commeti, Dermott Brereton, and Christie Malthouse, but you will have heard the same phrases over and over again by the time you're a few games through.
Despite its many limitations, AFL Premiership 2006 plays much better than its predecessor and is an easier game to recommend for those who must have an AFL video game in their lives. Everyone else, particularly those used to the slick gameplay and presentation of other sports franchises, should probably stay away and cross their fingers in the hope that next year's AFL video game offering is a vast improvement.