Football videogames used to be ten-a-penny. Really. Back in the 16- and 32-bit days FIFA and Winning Eleven / Pro Evolution Soccer were on the scene, but so were a raft of competitors: Actua Soccer, Virtua Striker, Sensible World of Soccer, Kick Off 2, and real oddities like Libero Grande (where you play a match as one player on the team). As technology improved EA's FIFA and Konami's PES came to dominate and, while there was still the odd effort from leftfield, football game fans picked one of the two sides.
EA ultimately managed to turn FIFA into a critical as well as a commercial success and, unfortunately for the PES diehards like me, has over the last decade beaten Konami black-and-blue: The contemporary iteration of PES, eFootball, is in a sad state. In fact FIFA got so big EA decided it doesn't need FIFA, and this year is re-branding the series as EA Sports FC. With FIFA flailing abjectly, it seems the path to victory for EA is clear.
But wait. Ultimate Football League was announced several years ago, from the studio Strikerz Inc, and from the start has talked a good game, and shown off a clip here or there, without ever quite being ready to get into the nitty gritty of the action. Over the last few weeks it has and it looks much better than I ever expected: Good enough in fact that, while it won't be able to compete with EA Sports FC in terms of mainstream reach and sheer marketing heft, it could well be a viable alternative for football fans who don't quite gel with EA's series.
The latest in a series of videos goes over the core gameplay mechanics and, while this is more in-depth than a sizzle trailer, I like that for a sports sim. The game looks visually great, particularly the animations, and the ball zips between players and moves in a realistic looking fashion. Most of all when watching this thing, it looks like a game of football.
"In UFL we are creating everything to be exactly like it is in actual football," said lead designer Ilya Shimanskiy. "The more technical the pass is, the more challenging it is for player skills–in other words, it requires more raw gaming skill. We measure certain degrees and heights of the passes while creating them. We count every centimeter.”
This is a delicate line to tread. In a football game you want enough of the simulation that it feels like real football but, ultimately, that still has to result in a fun videogame. This felt like what tripped up eFootball: It had a complex and flexible dribbling system that looked wonderful in isolated clips but, in the hands, just didn't do much for me at all.
UFL hasn't officially announced a release date yet, but the official Twitter account recently said "The release date will depend on many factors, but our focus is on the end of this year." That would put it in a straight head-to-head with EA Sports FC and, while no-one would expect it to seriously compete in terms of sales or playerbase, here's hoping that we might have a game on our hands: After all, some of the most memorable footballing moments are when the underdog pulls off an unimaginable upset.