Pure Football Review (Xbox 360)
Flying under the hype of Backbreaker is another newly released, budget-priced, arcade football game. Check that, not football, futbol. Ubisoft's Pure Futbol is one of the most surprising sports games I have played in a while. It is not exactly deep or full of strategy, but it is a fun and polished soccer experience.
The title of the game -- namely the "Pure" part -- is also a bit of a misnomer. Soccer at its core is a very tactical game that relies on all 11 players to be correctly positioned and in sync with one another. High-level soccer is almost like chess, demanding strategic intelligence and physical dominance.
So calling a five-on-five game with relaxed rules "pure" is like touting Wiffle Ball as pure baseball. Sure, the basic skills are the same, but it certainly is not capturing the true essence of the sport. Nevertheless, the developers of Pure Futbol set up their scenario of soccer with an opening video that explains that refs cost games via bad calls -- true when it comes to the US at the World Cup -- and these "back street" matches are where the real games go down. OK, I get it, but it all feels a little contrived.
But this aspect should also not distract you from what is here. This is a refreshing arcade version of soccer that does not forego everything that makes the real-life game fun to play. Like The Bigs 2, Pure Futbol does not strip away all aspects of the sport in order to make if "crazy" or over the top. I was surprised to see throw-ins and corners rather than an invisible wall that keeps the ball in play like in most arcade soccer games. Penalties for hard fouls also exist, but they are slightly tweaked. Positions (F, MF, DEF) are still an important part of the proceedings, and each player has a sub-type (playmaker, stopper, finisher, etc.)
Green Means Go
The key element here that makes Pure Futbol work is the gameplay. Things are set up to make that tactical side of the game easy to grasp. While the camera is slightly zoomed in on your player, arrows always indicate where your teammates are as well. Green means they are open for a pass, and blue indicates they are waiting for a cross. And with controls not entirely different from FIFA, executing these plays really felt intuitive.
But this is still an arcade game, so expect some additional trappings that tweak traditional soccer. First, crosses and shots are controlled by filling a radial meter then releasing at a key time. Stop it in the "green" zone, and your shot or cross is solidly delivered. Hold the button too long (into the red on the meter), and you usually over-shoot the goal or your man. And if you catch that small sliver of white on the meter, you are in the Pure Zone, which significantly increases the chances of something good happening.
"Pure" shots are usually, but not automatically, goals. This is fine by me because with proper timing it is possible to sink long-range shots with an offensive-minded defender. In addition, Pure shots make breakaways more about timing than trying to cheat the goal-keeper AI.
For crosses and corners, hitting the Pure Zone slows things down via a bullet-time effect. The receiving player then has time to execute a shot, which again fills a meter. Launching a Pure cross, then finishing with a Pure header is extremely satisfying. Again, what keeps this interesting is that not every Pure event is automatic.
Each Pure action also fills up an on-going meter on the top of the screen. When full, your next shot will automatically be Pure. Thankfully, I did not find this as game-changing as the Gamebreakers in the EA Street series of games, nor did I actively worry about it.
Penalties for slide tackles are also handled in an interesting manner. Each time you execute a hard tackle, a penalty meter at the top of the screen fills up a bit. The more flagrant the foul, the more the meter fills. Play hands-off for a while, and the meter "cools" off. However, if you fill it completely, then a penalty will be called against you. The other caveat is that, in Pure Futbol, every penalty results in a penalty shot. In other words, there is a large price to pay for reckless play. I really like that this system keeps the game from becoming an NBA Jam-like game where constant shoves carry little consequence.
All of this surprisingly fun gameplay is made relevant by an interesting, if pretty shallow, Campaign mode. In the mode, you create a player with limited skills but lots of potential. You will also create a team by using a few logo choices and a variety of uniform options. Your initial roster will be filled with below-average players who will quickly be replaced as you progress.
The campaign action takes place across multiple European cities. In each, you will be given multiple game types that range from winning a three-minute match to winning a single-elimination tournament. These game types are varied enough to keep things interesting but do not significantly alter thegameplay.
For each match, there are additional goals layered on top. First, doing well and/or winning a game earns you points that can be used to upgrade your player. Secondly, there are different challenges you can beat while playing against each team. In fact, there is one challenge per player that, if met, also allows you to steal that player. I met a lot of these challenges simply by playing well, but occasionally I tried to meet a specific goal to grab a certain player.
There is a definite risk/reward to the campaign because you only have 28 days (or matches) to prove your worth. While beating a team in a "first to 3" match may be easy, it carries with it less points than a Round Robin tournament (each takes up one day). You are also given a set of weekly statistical challenges that, if met, will allow you to play a "legendary" team -- yes, you can also steal the "legendary" players.
You can probably get through an in-game week in a little more than an hour, which makes the campaign a repeatable experience. This is especially true because you can sell your player online so others can use him for their created teams. There are additional unlockable logos and players, but they are not clearly explained and come as a surprise when earned.
Beyond selecting your players in each match and varying what positions you want on the field, there is little to do in terms of team management. Player skill categories are deep, but only your created characters are able to be upgraded, which makes for a pretty fluid squad. I wish I had more of a reason to keep players around, but I simply exchanged them for the best unlocked player after each game.
Graphically, this game looks pretty good, with a style reminiscent of Mirror's Edge. It is a little "comic book-y," and the atmosphere is minimal -- no commentary or crowds. The stadiums are not quite photo-realistic but are very imaginative, including a Hogwarts-ish German castle and an English aviary. In all, this game is a very slick and well-produced package.
The inherent problem with games like this is longevity. Arcade sports games can quickly become stale because the majority of them rely on a repeated formula. I am not sure revisiting the campaign will be that appealing to most, and playing online will rely on the number and quality of players. The store where I bought this game from only had one copy, so I hardly see this title becoming an online hit. Plus, with a lack of well-known US players, even the basic gameplay can become stale. There are also no modes beyond Campaign, Online and Exhibition.
Some users may also have issues with the controls, which are a little dodgy at times, especially on defense. Basically, if you are accustomed to the smooth stylings of FIFA 10, then this game has a certain clunkiness about it.
In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by this game. It is not "Pure" by any stretch, but it does not go way over the top like Mario Super Strikers. Instead, think of it as a toned down Sega Soccer Slam. Obviously, this title will in no way replace FIFA or PES as your "go-to" soccer game, but it may make for a nice summer diversion.
On the Pitch: Interesting and satisfying meter-based gameplay with a few clunky controls. As soccer games go, it's probably below average. As arcade soccer games go, it's a lot of fun.
Graphics: Pretty stadiums and a quirky style make this a nice game to look at, just don't expect photo-realism.
Sound Design: No commentary is perhaps a blessing and a curse (we've heard terrible arcade commentary in the past). Generic on-field chatter abounds as well.
Entertainment Value: This game is retailing at $40, which is just about right. It's a fun game, but ultimately a little shallow if unlocking players and repeating the campaign are not your thing.
Learning Curve: A tutorial helps explain some things, but others (like goalie control during shootouts) need to be researched. The meter system is pretty intuitive.
Online: A basic market for selling your created players is interesting but not that useful. Online games are fun, but time will tell whether opponents will be in supply.
Score: 7 (Good)