In Europe, Codemasters releases a series of "Club Football" games every year, each one geared toward supporters of a different major European team. One of those teams, predictably, is Manchester United--a club that enjoys such popularity around the world that its game has been judged the only one worth releasing in North America at this time, albeit under the new title of Manchester United Soccer 2005. The game boasts a few interesting features, but it also lacks a number of options that you'd take for granted if you were playing something like FIFA. Unfortunately, Manchester United Soccer 2005 is difficult to recommend even to fans of the team, because, unlike Alex Ferguson's world-class squad, the game doesn't play an attractive, realistic, or even challenging game of soccer.
The game's biggest selling point, at least as far as Codemasters' marketing department is concerned, is that it allows you to create a "career player" and add him to the Manchester United squad. The player-editor tool is quite comprehensive, and you should have no trouble creating a player who bears at least a passing resemblance to what you're aiming for. Unlike most soccer games, Manchester United Soccer 2005 doesn't allow you to create a "perfect" player. Rather, it forces you create one with 11 below-average attributes and then grants you skill points to spend on him according to his match performances. It can get a little frustrating having to field an abysmal player in place of a United regular, but there's definitely something satisfying about seeing yourself playing alongside and mingling with the Manchester United team, especially if you happen to be a fan of the club. Other soccer games feature player editors, of course, so this feature actually isn't anything new--the difference is that it's an integral part of the game here, even after you step out onto the pitch.
Manchester United Soccer 2005 essentially features two modes of play that you can switch between at will during any match. The "team" option plays much like any other soccer game, and will see you assuming control of whichever player on your team (you don't have to play as Manchester United--not in all the gameplay modes, anyway) is closest to the ball. The "player" option, on the other hand, will allow you to control just one player (it defaults to your career player if you've created one) for the entire match. The player mode is an intriguing idea, and if this were a better game, it would arguably offer the most realistic game of soccer around. Unfortunately, you'll find that calling for the ball (using the key that would otherwise be reserved for switching between players) often doesn't result in it being passed to you successfully. Also, no matter how good a soccer brain you have, you'll find it hard to resist the urge to chase the ball all over the park, because the intelligence and tactical knowledge of your teammates is questionable at best--especially at the back. Goalkeepers are often too slow to come off their lines and seem to go out of their way to get caught in no-man's-land (you can bring them out manually, though doing so is often ineffective), and rather than close down an incoming striker, your defenders will invariably back off and then turn their backs on the ball, almost as if they're deliberately testing their own keeper and want to see how he fares.
For better or worse, your opponents' AI is every bit as disappointing as your teammates', and if you're playing on anything but the toughest of the game's five difficulty settings (which still isn't particularly challenging), you'll often be able to steal the ball from your opponents' kickoff, walk it into the penalty area, and take a shot at goal. You won't necessarily be able to walk in a straight line, but if you avoid the temptation to run or pass the ball (or to play soccer, basically), and keep a reasonable distance from the static opposing players, you'll have no difficulty keeping the opposing keeper busy. That's assuming, of course, that you've mastered the game's controls, which are really no different from those in the FIFA and Winning Eleven games, but aren't as responsive.
If you're a fan of the Red Devils--and you'd have to be to even consider buying Manchester United Soccer 2005--you'll be pleased to hear that the game boasts a "club album" full of player profiles, photos, and videos (which include a tour of the Old Trafford stadium and replays of some of the team's most memorable goals). All the content in the club album needs to be purchased, though, using the points you'll accumulate as you progress through the game and enjoy success in league and cup competitions. You'll also be awarded points for successfully completing scenarios based on historical matches, although, inexplicably, the game boasts only six of these. The scenarios included in the game (you can also create your own using a "fantasy match" option) date back as far as the 1999 Champions' League semifinal against Juventus, but they're always played using this season's team rosters and uniforms. To illustrate just how little care has gone into making the scenarios authentic, when re-creating the extra time period in the 1999 FA Cup semifinal against Arsenal (after Roy Keane was sent off and Peter Schmeichel saved a Dennis Bergkamp penalty shot--unforgettable) the game challenges you to score the winning goal with only 10 men on the field, but when you start playing, you'll have a full team. It's also a little disappointing that you don't get awarded extra points for beating the scenarios on the harder difficulty settings, because once you've beaten them on the easy level, there's really no reason to ever return to them.
Unsurprisingly, everything Manchester United-related in the game is instantly recognizable--the players, the uniform, the stadium, and even the replica uniforms being worn by much of the cardboard-cutout crowd (who doesn't cheer goals and so presumably is actually made of cardboard). The same can be said for all the major teams that warrant their own versions of the game in Europe, but you'll notice that other teams in the game have a much more generic look, and actually all wear different-colored versions of the same uniform. We should also point out that, although the player-model faces are instantly recognizable, they're not as good looking as their FIFA counterparts, and their bodies don't animate nearly as well.
Manchester United Soccer 2005, then, is a difficult game to recommend. If you're not a fan of the club, it's a miracle that you even reached the end of this review, and if you are, you're probably well aware of the fact that you can play with your favorite team (and add yourself to its roster) in EA Sports' latest offering. Furthermore, FIFA Soccer 2005 will allow you to challenge online players all over the world, while Manchester United Soccer 2005 supports only four players on a single machine. The final analysis? Just because a game looks like and claims to be soccer, that doesn't mean it is.