Seeing red?

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It’s unusual for me to start with an unequivocal and unconditional recommendation. Mind you, it’s unusual for me to recommend anything at any moment what with some of the absolute dogshit I’ve covered so far. Red Card however is one of those rare games that is both fun to play and fun to talk about… hopefully for me.

Before getting to the game itself, let’s study that cover. An obvious homage to THAT photo of Vinnie Jones committing testicular assault on Paul Gascoigne, transporting that image to a Sunday League setting with the perpretator looking like a dead spit for Martin Skrtel.

Note that this is only the boxart for the European release – the Americans got an action shot of Brian McBride in a Photoshopped landscape that makes it seem like he’s farting fire, which I will freely admit has its own strange charm and makes me think he ended up getting the same anal probe as Eric Cartman.

Even by my own “standards”, that was a strange tangent to go off on.

The point I suppose I was trying to make is that the cover is a perfect fit for the game – it shows that there is a strange beauty in indiscriminate violence.

Released for the PS2, GameCube and Xbox in 2002, Red Card was part of the Midway Sports series that also included the likes of NFL Blitz and NHL Hitz. What all of these had in common was a hyper-stylised approach to their respective sports – fast-flowing arcade action with simplified rules and an aggressive edge.

The intro is exactly what you’d expect – dramatic zooms into stadia, hyper-exaggerated skills and the kind of bone-crunching challenges that make the Battle of Santiago look like a pacifists’ convention. The key words I believe are “get”, “you” and “FUCKIN’ PUMPED!!!!!!!!!!!” Yes, this was developed in America (San Diego, to be precise) – however did you guess?

Into the main menu and you’ll notice the usual friendly, customise team, options yadda yadda yadda… the advanced mode may throw you a tad, though. It’s just a rather odd way of referring to its competitions: finals (initially locked out) and tournament are pretty straightforward, being analogues to World Cup and knockout respectively. World Conquest is the crux of the game, acting as a qualifier for the finals and allowing you to start unlocking extra stuff. I won’t spoil the unlockables for you – Google can do that and it also gives me a bit of wiggle room for a list article I’ve got in mind. You lucky people…

Actually getting to the meat of the game – I have to say that one of my few criticisms of this title are the graphics. I mean, the stadia look nice enough and the animation is OK (even if it does make the players look like they’re running on a cushion of air sometimes) – it’s the player models. Even for the officially licensed squads, likenesses are piss-poor and all the body proportions are off. I know they’ve gone for a certain look but it just seems like they’ve taken a Remington to a silverback and then put him in the body scanner.

Commentary comes from the unlikely combination of Simon Brotherton (who actually seems better known these days for being the BBC’s voice of cycling even though he still does Match of the Day and the like) and Chris Kamara. As you’d expect, Brotherton remains authoratitive and level-headed throughout the increasingly psychotic proceedings, whereas Kammy gets giddier more quickly than a 3-year-old on a merry-go-round.

Erm… gameplay?

The basics are your standard stuff and work reasonably well, although it’s appropriate to note that for a game of this nature that when you’re defending, three out of four of the face buttons perform some kind of challenge. By challenge of course, I mean GBH.

What really sets this apart are the variables opened up to you by judicious use of the shoulder buttons/triggers/bumpers/what have you. The right is for your turbo – each player has his own individual supply of this and unlike most run buttons in other football games, subtlety be damned! You can actually see yourself leaving a trench in your wake as you make Billy Whizz look like a tortoise on diazepam.

Left is the REALLY good shit – this is your boost, shared amongst the team and its effects are multiplied. The manual itself says “over the top” and who am I to disagree? Shots become full-on Matrix bullet-time acrobatics full of turns, flicks and kicks of the bicycle, scissor and rainbow varieties.

Tackles, which could already be aptly described as “robust”, “agricultural” or “murderous” turn into the kind of unhinged lunges, barges and stamps that defined the likes of Harald Schumacher or Benjamin Massing. It’s almost a shame that this came around too early to incorporate some kind of tribute to Zidane’s denouement that summer night in Berlin. Almost.

In summary, then: “TOTAL CARNAGE… I LOVE IT!”

Virtua insanity

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Virtua Pro Football is an odd one. Not like UEFA Dream Soccer “odd” but a curious case nonetheless. You’d think with Virtua in the name and it being by Sega, it’d be part of the Virtua Striker family. In fact, it’s a spiritual successor of sorts to the absolutely appalling 90 Minutes for the Dreamcast (the similarities are slightly more obvious if you play the Japanese version known as World Football Climax – the HUD is virtually identical and the graphics have a somewhat more vivid “Dreamcasty” saturation) but tries to fix that game’s myriad problems while adding many new exciting and interesting features of its own.

And you know what? It ALMOST succeeds. Emphasis very much on the almost there.

First of all:

What does it get right?

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The presentation is very nice – all brightly coloured geometric shapes and clean text. Everything is logically arranged and clearly labelled. No PES-style head scratching “where the hell do I find that” or “what the fuck does that mean” here.

Those sharp good looks don’t quite transfer on to the pitch however. It’s not an ugly game by any means – perfectly serviceable by PS2 standards, in fact. It’s just completely lacking any pizzazz. Player likenesses could not be used in a court of law, even though they are officially licensed and the more famous faces are certainly not made of stock parts. Gerrard’s tiny forehead, Giggs’ angular cheekbones, Adriano’s perfectly round head – they’re all here… vaguely. Overall though, the visuals just about get a pass.

Features – the editing mode is very much akin to what you’d expect from the Pro Evo titles of the period. And by “very much akin”, I really should have put “completely and utterly stolen”. Making crests and flags from monochromatic clip-art pieces layered together, colouring kits piece by piece, choosing just the right font for the shirt numbers – it should all seem very familiar to those who are au fait with Konami’s oeuvre. It worked there, it works here.

Game modes are your standard friendlies, leagues and cups. Then there’s Career Mode.

Back in the mid-2000s, this wasn’t a common feature to find in football games. FIFA and PES didn’t incorporate their equivalents until a year or two after this. Although with its RPG-lite stylings and focus on building relationships over actually playing any matches, it’s far more analogous to the synonymous mode in ISS 2000 for the N64. So Konami did get there first… again.

The disappointing thing is that VPF’s Career mode doesn’t have the sense of humour of KCEO’s blurry, over-saturated, not-as-good-as-’98-but-still-pretty-damn-good effort. There are still some unusual and somewhat prescient touches here and there though – women only seem interested in you if you buy them expensive gifts and take them out to restaurants (gold diggers going after footballers – who’d have thunk it, eh?). Having a massive ego is seen as a good thing – seriously, if you let your ego meter get too low you get diagnosed with depression and have to spend twelve weeks away from the team! Of course, let’s not forget one of the easiest ways of giving your motivation a boost – buying yourself a shiny new sports car.

Media interviews are exactly as you’d expect as well – even though you’re new to the first team it appears that the media training you’ve received has already kicked in 110% at the end of the day. All answers you give are incredibly banal and contain less insight and basic human intellect than the letters page of the Daily Star.

Pretty neat all round – shame that there’s no coaches telling you that you must use your passion so that it may manifest itself AS A FIRE!!!!!!!!!!! or team-mates shunning you after one of them finds a porn mag under your duvet. You know – little things.

Mind you, they won’t be so little after a quick J. Arthur.

Hey, we might be on to a winner here with this one. Maybe not winner, really, more scraping into the Europa League on the last day but still, all seems well… so far.

What does it get shite?

Before we get to the big one, let’s talk about the audio for a bit. In-game “choons” are instantly forgettable, crowd noises are the usual library sounds and worst of all, commentary is by…

Alan Green.

Fuck.

It’s not like they’ve even given him much to say (then again, the less you hear from the miserable bastard, the better). It’s common to hear him spew out the same tired cliche twice or even thrice in a row. There’s also the weird manner in which he gives out how much time has elapsed in the match – obviously using the same script as Alan Parry did for 90 Minutes, only not quite sounding as much like he failed the audition to play K-9 though.

To pick through Career mode once more – your progression is completely off-kilter. In my first season at Stoke I ended up playing four entirely underwhelming matches, scoring once – and that was a tap-in after the ball came back off the keeper’s arse and he then proceeded to get a rush of blood. The Potters gained promotion but my part in it was negligible, save perhaps for that fortunate late winner against a nine-man Sheffield Wednesday.

I must have impressed someone however because at the end of the season, I get a text from my agent with details of interested clubs. Amongst the usual bunch of Championship stragglers and relegation fodder in the Dutch top flight, one name stands out – Roma.

From having Paul Gallagher as a strike partner to Francesco Totti? Dave Brammer as midfield general to Daniele de Rossi (Nothing against Dave, quite the opposite in fact as a Wrexham fan – I wish we had a player half as good as him at the Racecourse right now)?

And all with a 1,500% pay rise?

WHERE’S THAT FUCKING CONTRACT?

Yeah right, as if that would ever happen…

Now the elephant in the room – playability. First impressions are OK – players are responsive, passing is snappy and accurate (mostly… you will sometimes put one out for a throw-in when you swear you held the stick in the direction of a team-mate) and the gridiron-style plays for set pieces are genuinely innovative and well implemented.

But then it all goes to shit – play a slightly stray pass and a colleague will ignore it, letting it roll past him even if it’s less than a yard from his feet. Getting in an accurate cross is impossible… not that you have any hope in hell of ever winning a ball in the air anyway.

The second biggest issue is 1-on-1s. Another blatant nick from Konami here, this time from ISS 3 on the GameCube. The game will enter a third-person mode like you’re Lara bloody Croft or something. Then you’ll inevitably cease control of the ball as your temporary disorientation will cause you to lose focus. Every. Single. Time. Turn it off as soon as you can.

Finally… shooting. Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. It is far too sensitive – even the slightest tap of the square button will cause you to unleash a thunderbastard that would take off the goalkeeper’s arm if the shot was anything like on target. They hardly ever are though, even if you’re standing two yards from the goal. I hope the crowd are all wearing full face crash helmets, otherwise somebody’s going to be losing teeth.

That’s if you can carve out chances to shoot in the first place – to say your opponents take refuge in blanket defence is putting it lightly. Once you enter their third, you’ll see half a dozen of them swarming around the ball – your only hope here is to try and play through them with a series of one-twos and intricate passing. This is where the idea for tiki-taka came from, it must be. There’s no other rational explanation.

Even then, nine times out of ten the move will break down as one of your lot get flagged offside. Did anyone ever sing about dreaming of a team of Pippo Inzaghis?

No one will ever sing any arias about this game, that’s for sure.