New Star Soccer 4 Review (PC)
Amongst the major worldwide professional sports, soccer is unique for staging competitions like the FA Cup, which give lower-league teams an opportunity to compete against and occasionally defeat their wealthier brethren. These events are popular because they prove that matches are not always decided by who has the most money or by who is the most well known, but by who has the bigger drive, commitment and determination on that one day.
Accordingly, it only seems appropriate that today I offer for review, New Star Soccer 4, a 3-D soccer indie game that is the latest PC/Mac-based release by Simon Read and New Star Games. Based out of Oxford, UK, Si (as Read is known by in the NSG community) and Co. are also the developers of other indie titles, such as Sensational Soccer and the previous three iterations of the NSS series.
And yes, you did read that right earlier, NSS4 is an indie game. However, do not let that tag fool you, because like the best lower-league clubs that manage to compete with their higher-leagued competitors, NSS4 does the same with the likes of FIFA and PES. And as you will see, it even manages to defeat them in some areas.
Glory, Glory, Men United?
Bar none, the most impressive feature of NSS4 is the beastly amount of clubs available. With 30,000 players and 3,000 clubs from 90 different countries, NSS4 manages to top every other soccer game out there.
Of course, like many great things, there is also a catch. The downside here is that there is no official license for the teams, players and leagues. So you will not get any "real" names in NSS4. Nevertheless, that does not mean that everything is entirely fictional; it just means that there are some changes made to every name. The good thing is that these changes are subtle and not too drastic. For example, Manchester United is now Menchester United. Men U plays in Old Trefford, and is led by Roo Firdinand, Weyne Ruoney and Ryen Goggs.
Another strong point is that every player is equipped with authentic attributes and personal details, like nationality, place/date of birth, height and weight. Also, each team possesses all the relevant information, and the kits look close enough to the real thing. It all amounts to an overall database on par with the likes of Football Manager, which is no small feat when you consider the size of the NSS4 development team.
Also, I loved the name changes; it did not detract from my experience. In fact, I looked forward to seeing how each change was made. So the official licenses are not missed -- plus the game plays well regardless, especially on the field of play.
NSS4 offers an outstanding database of 30,000 players from 3,000 clubs representing 90 different countries
On the Pitch
Do not expect the extravagance of FIFA or PES, but the gameplay of NSS4 is solid and refreshingly simplistic. I do not mean that as a knock against NSS4 because it is easily reminiscent of the excellent gameplay found in games such as NHL 94 and Sensible Soccer.
NSS4 possesses a strong CPU A.I. that will challenge you and put up a fight on both offense and defense. I was especially impressed by how well your teammates acted and reacted to your actions in Career mode. For example, if you put yourself in good position, they would seek you out and pass it to you -- even if you did not call for the ball. However, if you continually acted like a ball hog, your teammates would sometimes ignore you and not pass the ball at all. It was a level of A.I. that I did not expect, and it ended up being a strong element of the game.
Another unexpected feature is the presence of weather. During the course of a season, depending on where you are playing, you can run into everything from snow blizzards to rainy showers. It is done realistically and adds atmosphere to the gameplay.
There are a variety of methods to controlling the game since you can play with a keyboard, a mouse, a combination of both or a USB controller. The keyboard and mouse combination is usable, but personally, the majority of my time with NSS4 was spent using an Xbox 360 controller, which I preferred.
Another nice aspect of NSS4 is that, unlike some current console sports games, you do not have a ton of buttons to worry about. In NSS4, you only have five buttons to concern yourself with. Those five buttons handle shooting, passing, crossing, sprinting or "turbo" and a button that changes between calling for the ball and switching players, depending on what mode you are playing in. At times that button also acts as a "hurry-up" button that allows you to skip all the slow moments in a match, such as setting up for a corner or a free kick. The button is useful and it quickens the pace of a match.
Also, all the controls are customizable, so you can position the buttons as you wish. Additionally, there is a range of control-aid options, for those who want extra help passing, shooting or dribbling.
Another high point is the nicely designed HUD that provides all the relevant info, all the while remaining unobtrusive. Also, the in-game camera is customizable, so everyone should find a suitable angle.
For those who want to show off, there is also a replay system in NSS4. And if a goal is nice enough, you can save your replay for review at a later time.
Overall, the gameplay is a strong point, and I am constantly amazed by how well the game flows. It never seems scripted or cheap. Instead, it comes off as organic and just plain fun. Best of all, NSS4 is easy to pick up and play, and a match should not take more than 10 minutes to play.
Although the gameplay is a great reason to play NSS4, the fun factor only increases when you consider the other modes available.
The gameplay in NSS4 is a great blend of fun and simplicity
Career Mode and Beyond
There are two modes in NSS4, a Quick Match mode and a Career mode.
The Quick Match mode allows you to match any two teams together. Sounds simple, but when you consider the fact that there are 3,000 clubs available to choose from, all with "real" rosters, there is no denying that there is a ton of potential depth. As I see it, the replay value is only limited by your imagination.
The Career mode is really the meat of the entire game. Similar to the Be a Pro or Be a Legend modes in the FIFA and PES series' respectively, the differences in NSS4 are the off-the-pitch features and issues that arise. And as the main crux of the game, the mode deserves some further explanation.
Creating Your Player
The creation process is unlike what is seen in most sports games.
For example, besides the normal options such as selecting your name or preferred position, you can also decide how old you will be when first entering the world of soccer. You are allowed to choose an age between 15 and 21 years old, and the older you decide to be, the more points you will get. Simple, yet it is still something new.
One other unique feature is that you will be asked three questions, and your answers will dictate your starting levels of ego, flamboyance and intelligence. Those areas represent different areas of your in-game personality, which can/will change throughout your career.
Overall, creating a player in NSS4 is a streamlined process with some unique features. Sure, it may not possess the facial reconstruction options of console games, but you can certainly create a nice variety of players.
The next step is selecting a team and making it big.
Cannot Knock the Hustle
Once you do land on a team, the objective is obvious: You must try to score goals, win games and advance your skill and reputation in the process. However, there are three different, yet interrelated issues that you will deal with on the road to stardom. And these issues separate NSS4 from similar modes in other games.
Your first concern is time and energy -- more exactly, the lack of it. There is a ton of stuff to do during a week and you only receive a finite amount of time and energy. So you must act wisely and proceed carefully. It may be frustrating, but like Sinatra once sang, "that’s life."
And like real life, there are ways to bend the rules. So if you feel really lucky (or stupid), you can spend money on "supplements" that will quickly raise your stats. But if you get caught with those in your system, well, be prepared to pay the price.
Your second concern is confidence and relationships. Unlike most other career modes, you have off-the-pitch relationships to deal with, whether it be your boss, your team, the fans, potential sponsors, the media, your family, your friends or potentially, your girlfriend/wife.
Strengthening and maintaining these relationships is important because it will dictate how successful you are on the pitch. As it goes, the stronger your relationships are, the higher your confidence will be. And if your confidence is high, your coach will give you more playing time. And if you are given more playing time, you will have more opportunities to train and impress.
All of these relationships are interconnected, and sometimes they can affect one another. For example, one unique feature in NSS4 is the occasional appearance of special events. These special events can affect your relationships, and they can help or hurt you. For instance, one special event may involve a family member asking you to take care of their pet. Saying yes will improve your relationship with your family. However, if you have a girlfriend at the time, this decision may upset her because she is allergic to the pet. This shows that even the most mundane decisions can potentially have an adverse effect on your relationships, so weigh your decisions carefully.
But if all that relationship stuff was not enough, a third aspect to contend with is your attributes.
Improving your attributes in NSS4 is similar to the leveling system in games like the Elder Scrolls series, whereby you improve by "doing." The more you pass, the better you will become at it. You can improve these stats during real games, free training or specialized training sessions. The specialized training options act like mini-games of sorts.
How you level certain attributes, though, brings to the surface one of my NSS4 criticisms. To begin, I must explain that I found that it was imperative to improve your fitness stats, like your pace and stamina, to have a decent chance at success. Unfortunately, increasing those stats can be a slow grind, because unlike other stats, you cannot improve fitness stats during a match or in training; you need to use "gym training" methods. Furthermore, the constant need to train these areas requires high levels of energy and time, which caused me to neglect other areas of concern. Quite frankly, this all made the beginning portions of the Career mode quite monotonous.
But if you can persevere, you will improve and eventually earn success -- and money, lots and lots of money.
Player training can be a grind at times, but the end results are spectacular
Fortunately, NSS4 also offers plenty of ways for you to splash that cash. For starters, you can divvy up your weekly haul amongst your lifestyle, family, friends, girlfriend or charity, or you can simply keep it all to yourself. In the long run, it does not pay to be greedy, as money spent will keep your relationships strong.
In NSS4, the area of lifestyle can be important. A high lifestyle meter will dictate whether or not you eventually earn sponsorships from non-soccer-related items like electronics and jewelry. The way to raise your lifestyle meter is to purchase assets that range from a skateboard or a mobile home, to tanks, jets, castles and private islands.
Most of those items are quite expensive, so if you are not satisfied earning bucks on the pitch, NSS4 has a few ways of expediting the process, namely, gambling! Yes, NSS4 features a casino area that allows you to play blackjack, roulette and the slots. If that is not exciting enough, how about a fully featured horse racing and betting simulator. Not only can you bet on your favorite filly, but if you are rich enough, you can also own a stable and buy yourself some horses to own and race.
Personally, I felt that the goals of the Career mode functioned similarly to an open-ended game like the Sims. In other words, the goals of the game are what you make of them. Do you want to become a winner on the world stage and become known for your football heroics, or do you want to live the extravagant high life and become a commercial success? It is really all up to you.
If you do need help getting started in a particular direction, NSS4 also offers a number of awards to acquire, which are similar to Xbox 360 Achievements or PS3 Trophies. These range from small things, like scoring your first goal or winning your first game, to long-term targets, like becoming a millionaire or achieving 100 international caps.
Overall, I feel that the Career mode in NSS4 is an amazingly solid experience that offers a great amount of depth and replay value. It should definitely take anyone a while to play through it all. That being said, there are also other areas of NSS4 to explore, and some of them come up a bit short.
For the impatient or ambitious, betting on horse racing is just one way to get really rich (or poor) in a hurry
Some Inconvenient Truths
I have mostly mentioned areas where NSS4 has excelled, but NSS4 is not perfect and there are areas where it fails to impress.
One area was the actual game performance. NSS4 can be a bit of a resource hog, and at times, the frame rate bogs down. Also, it can take a while to simulate the action between days. Normally, this would not be a problem, but since this game is played out via a day-to-day schedule, it becomes an annoyance. However, my computer is not powerful, so your own experiences may vary in this department.
NSS4 also does not excite me in the graphical and animation departments. The graphics and animations are not impressive, and I would understand if others are turned off by them. Personally, I do not mind these things since the gameplay is solid, but when you compare the graphics and animations to the rest of the package, they come up short.
I quite liked NSS4. The database is impressive, and the gameplay is solid. The Career mode can be a tough grind at first, but it is ultimately an excellent experience.
All in all, I hope more games follow NSS4’s lead. It is a game that provides good gameplay, intelligent A.I. and a ton of depth. Frankly, I prefer NSS4’s approach to games over those that possess nice graphics but are loaded with dumb A.I. and no depth.
In the end, I heartily recommend NSS4 to gamers, soccer fans, sports fans or anyone that wishes to have fun creating their own soccer legend. For $20, it is a nice bargain. At the very least, download the game and try it out; you will not be disappointed.
Gameplay: NSS4 lives by that 16-bit-era ethos of fun and simplicity mixed with current-generation depth and A.I.
Graphics: Not the high point of NSS4 and the frame rate can get bogged down at times.
Sound: Catchy menu music, decent enough in-game sound effects. Not a make or break issue
Entertainment Value: Great value here, with an astonishing amount of teams, leagues and players to play with -- plus the incredible Career mode should take anyone a while to play through.
Learning Curve: Career mode can be tough at times, but the gameplay is the very definition of pick up and play. Lots of tips and explanations available for those with only a modicum of soccer knowledge
Final Score 8.0 (Great)