UEFA Champions League 2006-2007 Review (Xbox360)

You can say what you like about EA as a developer, but you can’t fault their business acumen in the face of yet another licensing opportunity. Uefa Champions League 2006-2007 is the fourth iteration of EA’s footy series for the Xbox 360 in less than a 2-year spell at the reigns of the next-gen console. Judging from the series’ sales figures, they seem to know exactly what the general audience wants from a football title; flash presentational aspects, complete licensing, and the chart positions in the UK alone are testament to that fact. Depressing? Not necessarily.

EA’s usual cast of plasticized footballers are on show
Milan Vs Celtic? I know who my money is on

The problem with this approach previously had largely been due to the Fifa series simply losing its way. EA Canada seemed to be on a slippery slope of decreasing quality ever since the dreadful Fifa 2001, with subsequent versions simply expounding the problems brought about by the generational leap from Playstation 1 to Playstation 2, and the new engine that followed. Fifa reverted from being arcade-style, fast-paced and slick to a slow and clunky, graphically ugly, non-responsive and highly predictable game. It’s no coincidence that this was the time Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series rose to the fore, and without any decent competition, deservedly so.

With the advent of Fifa 07 however, the tables have at least semi-turned. The first rewrite of the core engine for the last 6 years has brought the Canadian developer plaudits for increased animation realism and ball physics, with a tangible difference to the Fifa formula for gameplay. Whilst most of the hardcore football fans will still choose Pro Evolution Soccer’s fluid and realistic match engine, competition can never be considered a bad thing, and given a few more revisions the Fifa engine could well catch up to provide us with a genuine dilemma. Uefa Champions League 2006-2007 however, is unfortunately short of the mark.

In terms of on-the-pitch mechanics, Uefa brings about only a couple of tweaks to the game plan laid down by Fifa 07. In fact the changes are so miniscule you’ll have a hard time spotting them unless you’ve played the previous version thoroughly. Even by EA’s standards it’s the absolute minimal amount of effort, and we can only hope that Fifa 08 brings substantial upgrades in that regard. The changes that have been made are beneficial however, as long as you know what you’re looking for.

Shooting, for example, has been slightly refined to further emphasise the difference between a player striking the ball with their preferred foot and at what part of the running stride the ball is released. When running with the ball, you have to make sure to release the sprint and shoot buttons at just the right time, as over-stretching will cause a tame shot that’ll trickle into the goalkeepers’ arms frequently. Finesse shots have also been toned down considerably, so no more curling the ball home from the edge of the box every time with your center back.

Tackling has also been upgraded, and the silly ‘bouncing’ animation as two players run towards the ball has almost been entirely eliminated. Sliding tackles no longer automatically result in a free kick, and can be very useful when timed correctly. Defending in general becomes more enjoyable as a result, although there is a bias towards referees being slightly too harsh. In terms of midfield play, jostling for a high ball is still woefully executed and light-years behind even the previous-generation versions at this point. Quite why both development teams cant crib from each other in this regard is beyond me, as the PS2 and PC versions seem to have refined player interaction to a very satisfying and fluid mechanic.

All the little annoying niggles still remain in this version also, with substituted players coming off the bench with already dirtied kit, and the top of the net being mysteriously sticky whenever the ball approaches at any sort of velocity. Over-reliance on wing play abounds due to the lack of ability to take the ball past players in the middle of the park, and tactical movement is still shoddy and too dependant on triggering runs manually. Poor player movement seems to be a long-standing feature of EA’s sports games in general.

Bizarrely for a Fifa title, the one area that the game deserves credit however is the rather innovative single-player structure. The ‘Ultimate Team’ mode revolves around an addiction that football fans the world over will have been a party to at some point, and comes in the form of collecting packs of player cards in order to build a dream team or fill up a sticker book. It’s a completionist’s dream, and the urge to buy just one more pack of cards to see who you get is a strong draw. Player cards come with stats that can be upgraded and in-game boosts that can be applied at any time to turn the tide of a match in your favour, and any of these can then be traded or sold online with other players.

It’s a nice community-minded addition to the somewhat stale formula that most football games utilise, and connects the single-player and multi-player sections of the game admirably. It may be a one-off for the Champions League format, but I hope it gets resurrected at some point in future iterations as it’s a world away from the usual generic season mode, and entirely engaging as a result.

Usage of the Champions league licence is generally excellent, as you would expect. In-game presentation takes on a suitably grand tone, with the ubiquitous theme music used throughout to conjure up the mid-week atmosphere that fans throughout Europe will look forward to. The challenge mode is a natural extension of this, tasking the player with completing various classic Champions League matches, featuring games that even those with only a passing interest in the competition will recognise. The only issue is that you’ll be playing with the current-day squads, so you’ll have to recreate ‘that’ Zidane volley with someone like Jose Reyes, or fight back as Manchester United in the Stadio Delle Alpi with Darren Fletcher instead of Roy Keane. Hopefully EA can extend the licence to classic players and kits in any future version.

Graphically and aurally the game is largely untouched outside of a few tweaks to the animation system, and the game generally looks decent, if a little plasticized at times. Player likenesses are the usual mixed bag, and for some reason EA seems intent on producing a semi-translucent aura around players with long hair, which just looks strange. Online play is again superbly reliable with extended support for up to 4 on 4 matches. Little to no lag occurs during the majority of games, and the swiftness of the player matchmaking service is something that other games could definitely learn from.

Free kick’s will be repeatedly scored by the computer AI
That’ll be a red card then

At the end of the day, the question of whether to buy this version will come down to just how much you enjoy the Champions League. If the ‘worlds premier club football competition’ is important to you, then Uefa Champions League 2006-2007 is undoubtedly worth a purchase as the fan service and unique single-player modes will keep you playing long into the summer. For everyone else however, there really is little to recommend in this title above and beyond Fifa 07. For those on the fence, it’d be wise to hold off until this Christmas when hopefully EA can address some of the more prominent issues with the engine, and produce the genuine challenger to the Pro Evolution Soccer crown that football fans the world over are yearning for.

Top Game Moment:
Buying your first gold pack of cards and seeing who you end up with.

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