Thursday, 14 May 2015

Complete Onside Soccer

Onside (Complete Onside Soccer).jpg
System(s): PlayStation, PC

Genre: Simulation

Developer: Elite
Publisher: Telstar Electronic Studios

Release Date:
Europe -  June 1996
Japan -  January 1998



It's hard to believe in the current days of yearly FIFA and Football Manager releases dominating the football game market, but during the 16-bit era there were many rival football franchises. Most never made it beyond one or two games and few strove for anything approaching realism. Arcade-style fun and the ability to pick up and play was the order of the day. Aside from Kevin Keegan's Player Manager on the Super Nintendo and Premier Manager on the Mega Drive, football management sims were mainly for PC only. However, by 1996, the popularity of the PlayStation combined with 3D graphics changed this, and soon management sims started to appear on consoles.

Complete Onside Soccer was the first of these efforts. Even compared to the by then seriously outdated Kevin Keegan-endorsed SNES game and Premier Manager, this was never, "the most realistic management simulator ever", as the sound bite on the front cover says. It's hardly a fair comparison to make, most others by then still had the old league structure before the English Premiership had formed and were relegated (if you'll excuse the pun) to text only affairs. But this new game boasted up to date squads and 3D graphics! And it was on the Worlds Most Popular Console™ so it had to be a winner, right?

Wrong. Onside tries to woo us with the promise of flashy, cutting edge 3D graphics, but ends up being a blocky, ugly mess, like so many early 3D titles. To be fair, you can't really blame the developers for that one. The controls on the match engine are the equivalent of Sunday League 'hoofball.' It really isn't worth your time and effort. Mercifully, you can skip this stuff if you choose a management career right off the bat.

This is what the majority of the game is built around, and there are numerous options, like a 'Finance' screen to manage ticket prices, a 'Physio' screen to check up on injuries and fitness etc. Then there are Tactics, Transfers, Training and Matches. It seems like a fairly comprehensive list of options at first glance, backed up by some interesting, almost cartoonish static backgrounds. The best thing I can say about Onside is the ability to create a custom league from Italian, English, French and German top division teams from 1996-7.

The most unfortunate thing about Onside is it's difficulty. It's punishingly difficult, and in most management games unless you pick the best side in the league you'll rarely last a season or two before getting sacked. Particularly if you forgo the match engine in favour of skipping results, as you fear the ugliness of the graphics engine might actually one day make you blind. It reminds me of Sensible Soccer in the way groups of opposition players just swarm towards you, except the controls are much less refined. From the speed the players move at, to the way passes only work in a rectangle or otherwise miss their intended target, none of it feels like it should. Had it been more enjoyable in this respect, there would have been a reason to keep playing, but you'll likely get fed up of it quickly.

What makes this game seem so frustrating is threefold. Firstly, the transfer market is broken. I mean fundamentally does not behave like a transfer market should. I have witnessed this to lesser degrees in other management simulations (*cough* Premier Manager 64 *cough*), but the majority of players available at the beginning not only seem to be overwhelmingly Goalkeepers, but are the worst available in that league. Occasionally you will find better players crop up later on in the season, but by then poor performances mean gate receipts are down and even if you have the cash to spare, it will do little to arrest the slide anyway. 

It wouldn't be so annoying if the transfer market actually allowed you to sign foreign players, but it takes several weeks before they appear. Anyone playing as Derby County, for example, dreaming of getting to the point of signing players like Bergkamp, Cantona or Del Piero are better off playing a fantasy football game of the kind you used to get advertised in the back of magazines. There is little feeling of actually making solid improvement to your team.

Teams are massively shortened from their real life counterparts, with only 16 players allowed, which leads to some arbitrary exclusions. They couldn't even fit both Phil and Gary Neville into the Manchester United team because they only include surnames, not even the first initial is used. I'm still wondering to this day just who the mystery Neville in the starting line up is.

An odd thing I noticed is that Goalkeepers in general have a very low rating, always under 70, more often just under 60. This means that England's first choice goalkeeper David Seaman is considered less valuable to Arsenal than Ian Selly. Meanwhile the best strikers in the game barely make it over 80. It's a weird system that makes little sense. Not that the evaluation of outfield players is accurate either - I'd be hard pressed to say that John Scales, Mark Wright and Phil Babb are better overall than Jamie Redknapp Jason McAteer and Steve McManaman, but Onside seems to disagree.

The second thing making Onside so tough is the fact your players abilities deteriorate over time. You can deal with this by training them. The problem with this is that rather than something vaguely resembling football training, like passing drills or running around a track, this involves the aforementioned hideous match engine, in a tedious, boring 5-a-side game. Having to do this after every game will make you want to go outside and have a kick about instead, with jumpers for goalposts. At least it can be said this particular video game won't stop getting kids exercise.....

Lastly with regards to difficulty, the 'skip to final score' option just appears to be totally random and unrealistic. I've seen score lines of 8-0 after winning 4-1 the previous game. This uncertainty and high element of chance leaves you with no idea of how to gauge your teams progress and how your team selection, tactics or transfers impact on games. Player positions are basic, so there are no sweepers or fullbacks or wingers. It's purely Midfield, Defence etc. and the formations appear to be nothing but numbers on a screen you can change at the press of a button, at least as far as simulating the match goes.

The music is forgettable, so much so I'm surprised they even bothered having music at all. It's pretty difficult to notice it anyway with the obnoxious referee's whistle that chimes every time you click a button, even at the company logos at startup. Mimicking that feeling of getting sick of hearing the ref blow his whistle is about as realistic as Onside gets.

Although this game came out in 1996, it's very easy to compare it to other games of the genre on the  PS1, such as LMA Manager. Despite being released a couple of years later and only featuring English teams, LMA somehow feels a whole console generation more advanced due to it's graphical presentation and huge number of players. There are so many more features it would take half of this review to list them all, but Onside has none of those.

Peter Schmeichel famously vomited on the pitch after witnessing the tragic and painful career ending injury suffered by Dave Busst. It would be tempting to suggest appearing on the cover of Complete Onside Soccer might be the second lowest moment of his professional career, after the Busst incident. If he ever played this game then a similar reaction is certainly not unlikely. It says a lot about the lack of advanced features when the original Football Manager on the ZX Spectrum, a game written in BASIC and released in 1982, is more advanced a simulation than this. Playing Onside non stop is quite possibly the perfect ironic punishment for greedy overpaid footballers and agents when they suffer for an eternity in the fourth circle of hell.


Summary

+ Can play or manage in one of four top European leagues and customise your own

- Horrible sound effects and forgettable music
- Transfer market feels very limited
- Match engine is ugly to look at and boring to play
- Fails to do anything new and gameplay is very basic
- Far too challenging unless you are a glory hunter and always pick the best
- Skipping matches seems to almost always result in defeat and unrealistic scorelines
- No Spanish leagues

Overall Score

1/10