Without a doubt, soccer is the most popular sport in the world for people of all ages. The World Cup is one of the few sporting events where people stop working just to watch each game in the tournament. In America, though, the sport is definitely more popular with children than it is with adults, as evidenced by the many youth soccer teams and organizations around the country. Couple that information with the fact that those same young people are more likely to play video games on the Wii than any other console, and it begins to make sense why more youth-oriented soccer games are available on that system than any other console. After seeing both Nintendo and EA put out very accessible soccer games on the system, Ubisoft has decided to throw its hat in the ring with a soccer title of its own. While Academy of Champions: Soccer certainly does things much differently than the other soccer titles on the Wii, it is still a very fun and challenging game.
The premise is a bit similar to the beginning of a good fairy tale. Kids love the sport of soccer, and those kids who want to make soccer more than a hobby all dream of attending Brightfield Academy, where the headmaster is none other than the greatest soccer player alive, Pelé. You just happen to be one of those kids lucky enough to receive an invitation to the prestigious school. After showing him what turns out to be a fraudulent invitation made by the rival headmaster, you still manage to impress him enough that he decides you should stay. Your goal is to get it through the school year and take your team, the Mighty Five, to the championships against the rival school, Scythemore Academy.
There are a few game modes, but the most intriguing would be the Story mode. After choosing your character's gender and entering your name, you immediately get into your lessons. Your typical school day is split into three major time periods. The first period always consists of various mini-games split into type and difficulty level. The second time period has you either talking to your fellow teammates to get some tips or talking to other students to recruit them for your squad. The last period has you entering matches against other teams before starting your day anew.
Unlike traditional soccer games, matches here are played in a five-on-five format, with four players on the pitch and one playing goalkeeper. Once in a while, you'll engage in Quick Time Events (QTEs) involving jostling and heading the ball. Everything you do throughout the day gives you opportunities to earn experience for you and other members of your squad as well as earn tokens. With the exception of a few key matches, winning isn't necessary to progress through the game. The schedule can get a bit repetitive, but the constant rotation of team members you have at your disposal and the overall length of the mode make it a much better single-player experience than just going through tournaments.
One issue people would have, though, is with character creation, or lack thereof. At first, you can only choose the name of your character, and while you can change hairstyles later on, you can never change any features, like height or faces. The lack of real personalization hurts, especially if you're trying to get the player to feel that he's driving his own character through the story as opposed to a predetermined one.
The minigames not only provide a good distraction from the Story mode but also become a source of experience and tokens for your main character. The minigames are all unlocked through Story mode and test out various skills used in the game. The games are split into six major categories, and some have subsets of their own to deal with. Dribbling has you either going through a slalom or picking up icons in a snake-type pattern with the ball, and your foot must always be making contact. Shooting has you fine-tune your kicking skills against a goalkeeper, specific targets or a combination of both. Goalkeeping has you play the role of goalie, trying to block any and every shot coming your way. Tackling has you intercepting the ball from other players or, in a more interesting twist, playing a bit of tower defense as you keep players away from the tower in the center. Sprinting is also an interesting game, as you try to capture various colored panels or herd the infamous Rabbids into designated towers. The minigames are quite fun but aren't exactly new experiences since you've already played them in Story mode.
The lone exception to this would be Freestyle mode, where you have to balance the ball on various body parts. Another complaint for minigames would be that they cannot be played in multiplayer, something that would have made each available game even more fun to play.
Quick Play allows you to go head-to-head with another team that's controlled either by the CPU or another local player. All of the teams and venues unlocked in Story mode will be available here, and all of the rules can be customized. There is an option to customize your team, but unless one player picks the Mighty Five, you'll never get to use it. Aside from that, the game plays fine in this mode and shows just how good the simple soccer engine is.
Academy of Champions' controls are simple enough that everyone can easily pick up the game. The analog stick on the Nunchuk handles player movement, while the Z button activates turbo sprinting and dodging. The A button does passing on offense and player switching on defense. The B button shoots the ball on offense while initiating tackles on defense. Finally, shaking the Remote initiates a player's special move, which can be offensive or defensive, depending on who's being controlled. Again, the controls are easy to pick up, especially for those who have previously played other soccer games on the system.
For those who are looking for something a bit more traditional, the game also gives you the ability to play with only the Wii Remote, held sideways to give it a classic feel with the 1 and 2 buttons replicating actions from the B and A buttons, respectively. They work out fine for most of the game, but since none of the minigames accepts this method, it becomes the least-recommended scheme in the game.
Those who have invested in a few Nintendo accessories will find themselves digging out those additions depending on what they play and how they play. The Balance Board is only used for one activity, and that's the Freestyle minigame. The development team has certainly shown that it knows how to program for the accessory, as Balance Board control is excellent throughout this minigame. It's too bad that this isn't implemented anywhere else, so unless you love that particular minigame a lot, don't expect to power up the board more than a few times.
One accessory that has had more integration into the game is the Wii Motion Plus accessory. With this on, dodging is handled with swipes to the left and right, while elevating and lowering the remote can determine just how high or low a shot can go. Like the Balance Board, Wii Motion Plus controls are handled brilliantly, though the changes are enough that only those who are looking for a challenge should ever use the add-on.
The graphics bring with it an interesting style in just about every aspect. The character appearance alone will turn heads, as it feels a bit elongated in some areas and squished in others. It can be easily compared to the human characters seen in Rabbids Go Home, only with beefier limbs and longer faces. The oddball style also extends to the fields, where the field floats in the air, goals differ per environment, and the audience is comprised of a set of panels instead of a stadium full of people. The setup helps the colors pop out more and accentuates the fluid animations. The particle effects are nice and help to make everything shine in 480p widescreen.
One curious thing to note would be the camera. When playing solo, the camera is always behind the back of the player, which makes for an easier time shooting the ball but certainly isn't the most traditional viewpoint for the genre. Things get more traditional when playing a multiplayer quick game, and while it is appreciated, the camera does have a tendency to pull back a bit too much from time to time; this can make it hard to shoot or be too much of a tell as to where the ball is being passed.
The sound fits well and is a bit of a throwback to the games of old in some places. The music dominates all of the sound, and fortunately, it is light and bouncy. There is a slight hint of an orchestral score at times, especially during some of the scenes featuring Scythemore, but it never comes off as too epic for young players to comprehend. The effects are good all around and not as goofy as one would expect.
That silly nature does come through with the voices, though. Not since The Sims and Banjo-Kazooie have gamers dealt with gibberish coming out of the mouths of every character in the game. It's not a bad thing since the tones of each character clearly convey their emotions and personalities, but players who have been accustomed to expecting the voices of Mia Hamm and Pelé will surely be in for a surprise.
In the end, Academy of Champions: Soccer is a great arcade-style sports game. The easy-to-grasp control scheme, along with the loose rule set, ensure a fun multiplayer experience while the meaty single-player story mode gives solo players a reason to play when their friends aren't around. There are still a few things that can be improved, especially in terms of character customization, but what is already in the package makes for a very good start. For fans of arcade-style soccer games and those who may have grown tired of Mario Strikers Charged, pick up Academy of Champions: Soccer, as it is a very good alternative with a (hopefully) bright future.
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