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Retro Review: Sensible World of Soccer

12 Sep 2008  by
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Back in 1990 it looked as if Anco had the football game market sewn-up. Dino Dini’s Kick Off had been hugely successful, introducing exciting new features to the genre  – the ball was no longer superglued to feet, players moved according to tactics and referees were as unpredictable as their real-life counterparts. When Kick Off 2 arrived, adding the wonderful swerve feature and the ability to save replays it seemed as if Anco ruled the roost. However, by 1992 Dini had joined Virgin Games, following a dispute with Anco, and the sequel being developed by the latter bore little resemblance to its predecessors. Enter Sensible Soccer.

Sensible Software’s 1992 football debut took the majority of its cues from Kick Off 2. The pitch was displayed in a similar bird’s eye view, the ball was free from the player’s feet and almost ludicrous amounts of curl could be added to shots. However, Sensible was not just content to take the best bits of Kick Off and set about tweaking the formula. It made its game play a little slower than Anco’s and, in an inspired development move, added one-touch passing to the equation. The importance of this to Sensible Soccer’s success should not be underestimated. Where Kick Off 2 offered lightning fast gameplay that encouraged running with the ball and long shots, Sensible Soccer slowed things down and allowed the player to create stylish, intricate passing movements that opened up the game.

Sensible World of Soccer (SWOS) followed in 1994 and, wisely, the developer did not mess around with the gameplay. The key to Sensible Soccer is simplicity. There is only one fire button which deals with both passing, shooting, heading and tackling. Compared to the football sims of today, on the surface Sensi’s controls seem pretty inadequate. However, don’t be fooled by the basic controls as there is a surprising amount of depth in Sensi’s football. It’s not a game in which you can pick up the ball on the halfway line and walk it into the opposition’s goal. You need to look for players in space, know when to release the ball, get into an attacking position and choose the right kind of aftertouch for your shot. It’s a quick, tactical and engaging game of football.

SWOS doesn’t add anything to the Sensi core gameplay, but instead introduces some much-needed context. With over 1600 teams and 22000 players, SWOS gives the gamer access to a world of gameplay options. You can play a friendly game, compete in a preset tournament or even design your own. However, it is the Career mode which is the star of the show. In this mode, you take on the role of either manager (pick team and watch match) or player-manager (compete in match) and must guide a team towards success. The Career mode spans a staggering 20 years meaning that, if you’re up for a challenge, you can take control of a lower league team and push them all the way to the top divisions.

Anyone expecting the kind of content offered by dedicated management games like Championship Manager, however, will be disappointed. The Career mode in SWOS, like the gameplay, is simple but offers just enough depth to keep you hooked. You’ll deal with squad/tactics selection, injuries, and transfers and will have to perform well enough to keep the board happy. It’s all quite basic (there’s no trawling through column after column of player statistics for instance) but it’s difficult not to become heavily invested in the fortunes of your team. The career mode is full of nice little touches (such as being poached to manage another club or even the national side) that you’ll struggle to find in some of the football sims released 15 years later. 

However, SWOS is not without its faults, and most of these lie in the core gameplay. The eight direction movement feels a little dated as does the frustrating dribbling mechanic. If it was too easy to run with the ball in Kick Off 2, it’s probably a little too hard in SWOS and you’ll find yourself losing the ball with frustrating regularity. Whilst the game allows you to play a semi-realistic game in some areas (short passing movements), it’s highly unrealistic in others. Crossing, for instance is a nightmare as it’s very difficult to turn with the ball and the lofted pass will often fly high over the heads of your attackers in the box.

At its heart, Sensible World of Soccer is an arcade-style football game that is far deeper than it ought to be. By the time of its PC release, SWOS was competing with the likes of FIFA and Actua Soccer, with its TV-style viewpoint, motion-captured animations and commentary and in this context it doesn’t fare well. However, there’s an enduring charm about SWOS that stems from its simplicity – it’s easy to play, difficult to master – and it’s easy to see why it has recently cropped up on Xbox Live Arcade. It deserves to be talked about in the same breath as Kick Off 2 and undoubtedly holds an important place in football game history. 


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