It's not Rocket League Science- association football games have been popular since the dawn of time. Well, perhaps not that long, as I don't think dinosaurs had consoles- T-Rexes would've definitely struggled to hold the controllers. Still, they've been around a while; from the golden oldie Sensible Soccer to EA's annual money-grabber FIFA. More recently, Rocket League has grown in popularity; replacing the standard human players who flop around calling "foul" any time a gust of wind hits them with heavily armoured, rocket-propelled vehicles who will kill you should you get in their way.
Now Render System Games joins the fun with Robot Soccer Challenge, which may be slightly less explosive than Rocket League, but as a long time Robot Wars fan, which involved its own soccer tournament, my prayers have finally been answered for such a game to exist. The question is: is it actually any good?
Robot Soccer Challenge is available on Steam in Early Access stage, presently for £5.59.
The premise of the game is as simple as it sounds. Robot Soccer Challenge consists wholly of football matches; there are no romantic sub-plots or epic quests to find long-lost parents or siblings. You're given a robot, a la Robot Wars or Battlebots, and have to drive it towards the ball, and stick it in the other team's net, while avoiding the reverse-simple. At least, in theory. Littering the arena are obstacles including tires, cars and makeshift ramps, all of which can agonisingly impede what could have been a spectacular goal from range.
The robots in the game are all identical, barring the colour scheme; blue for one team, red for the other. This is, admittedly, a little disappointing; having the "players" (for wont of a better term) all identical makes the gameplay a little more mundane; different designs, with varying levels of effectiveness, would keep things more interesting, and on top of this, having the ability to design your own robot would only add to the longevity of the game, as players look to create a design that can control the ball well.
Each robot has two options for shooting; a strong, straight shot, and a less powerful lob shot, which can be used to sail the ball over obstacles or other bots. Approaching the ball head on tends to snap it to you, but if an opponent comes near you lose grip and it gets knocked away. This happens a lot, meaning goals can sometimes be few and far between, the more bots there are and the faster the gameplay.
The controls are simple; buttons for movement, and two for shooting. They are entirely remappable to anything connected, from keyboard to Xbox controller to steering wheels, if you really wanted to use one of those. I mean, they do cost a lot, so why not? The only problem is that you can only alter such commands prior to starting the game, from Steam, and changes don't seem to be saved for next time. This is only really an issue if you're trying to play with multiple people on different devices, as the default combination of WASD and the mouse buttons is pretty intuitive as it is; if you're not a mouse fan, E and R also work- they're also right next to W, so you barely have to move. Yay for laziness.
Over the years, the AI in sports games have become much better at reacting to gameplay; the same is true of Robot Soccer Challenge. They don't simply charge recklessly at anything they see or drive into walls repeatedly, and often they will demonstrate a remarkable amount of teamwork. Although the robots do tend to gravitate towards the ball, it's not simply a case of them following it- the computer will attempt to cut the ball off, and if the ball heads into danger territory one will peel off and defend the net if you aren't already. In many scenarios, I ended up being the worst team player, running (driving?) around like a headless chicken.
At the moment there are four main game modes to enjoy (or if you're like me, get extremely frustrated at and throw a hissy fit because you can't score a goal to save your life):
This acts as the game's tutorial; you're instructed on how to move and shoot (literally the only controls present), before being asked to score goals against an increasing number of opponents with increasing difficulty. Once complete, you're given a friendly Steam achievement and sent off into the big, bad world of Robot Soccer Challenge, to stand on your own two feet (or…drive on your own two tracks?) with no further mollycoddling.
This is the simplest way to play against the AI; you simply choose how many robots will compete (1v1, 2v2 or 3v3), how long the match will last (from 2 to 15 minutes), the speed of the game (slow, medium or fast – this acts as the game's difficulty setting), and finally which arena you want to play in; at present, there are a choice of six, but more may be added later.
This is where the meat and bones of Robot Soccer Challenge currently lie, at least against the AI; you choose a nationality, which does little more than alter the stereotypical names given to your teammates and opponents, and are then placed in one of two groups of eight teams to compete in a seven-match round robin; the top half of each group after these seven matches progresses to a knockout round, where an overall winner will be decided, winning little more than a chufty badge.
The matches feature the same customisation as the friendly mode, with the exception of choosing an arena; these are either randomly selected, or based on which teams are playing, like many sports events. I can't say for certain, as although I played Russia in a snow-covered scrapyard, I also played Finland in what appeared to be a tropical beach.
However, this is also the area in which my biggest criticisms can be found. There is no way of saving your progress, which means that the entire tournament must be played in one sitting, without closing the game. This is especially problematic if you decide to pick 15-minute matches; you'll likely get bored after two or three at the most, and there's no way to alter the settings of the championship once started- if you decide that it's too long, or too easy, you have to quit and restart a new one. It turns its standout and potentially incredibly enjoyable feature into a downright frustrating one.
Multiplayer is almost irrefutably where the most fun in this game lies. You can choose to play a one-off match or a Championship with or against a friend in the same room (or a complete stranger who you've enticed into your house in a Sims fashion and decided to play video games with). Up to four can play at once, which is pretty standard for sports games in this era, but definitely adds to the fun and appeal of the game no end. At present, there's no inclusion of an online multiplayer, but I'm sure that if and when that comes, I'll be quick to jump online and get cursed at by an eight-year-old for shepherding the ball in the wrong direction.
Graphics and Audio
The audio, on the other hand, is something I can complain about. Robot Soccer Challenge features a grand total of one piece of music, heard exclusively in the menu screens. It has sort of an electronica vibe, which seems to be a common element amongst games like this, with the occasional chorus of "hey!" thrown in providing you wait long enough (perhaps the freezing menu screens are a ruse to make you listen to as much of it as possible). You either get used to it or annoyed by it after a while. When you get into the matches, the pretty stereotypical deep-voiced "3-2-1-Go" heard on every game from Unreal Tournament to Crash Bash kicks the mayhem off, quickly submitting to an anachronistic track of banal crowd noise.
It's an attempt to appear atmospheric, but it's illogical; evidently there would be people there, in order to control the robots, but the chanting and cheering seem to come from nowhere; there are no seats, viewing platforms or any signs of life whatsoever- there are more people in Silent Hill than are present at the matches. Unless it's the trees making the noise, I can't explain it. Perhaps this is the pernickety part of me shining through, but it's a common feature in any and all games based on robotic sport, and it makes no sense.
Robot Soccer Challenge is far from perfect; it's still in Early Access stage, though, so I'm sure many of the subjects of my complaint and other irksome elements will be ironed out by the time it comes to full release. In the meantime, capitalise on its lower price tag, as it's just as enjoyable in its current state, and it can only get more so as features are added and tweaked.
Robotic soccer games have been lacking until now, and I guess the trouble with having a game that's right up your alley, as this was for me, is you can be heavily disappointed by it; for instance, as a fan of Star Wars Battlefront on the PS2 or Fallout 3, I was highly excited for their sequels, and also highly disappointed on both accounts. Those are two games I bet you didn't expect to see mentioned in this review.
Unlike those lacklustre AAA titles, however, Robot Soccer Challenge shows promise, and it can only improve upon its already good start. The AI functions well, which was a definite necessity; if the computer controlled bots had no comprehension of how to play football (much like my mother), the game simply wouldn't have worked, as that is its bread and butter- the game's title is sort of a giveaway. Render System Games has nailed it to a T, so they can concentrate on developing their already good game even further. If they're taking suggestions, or reading this, personally I'd like to see the introduction of a build-a-bot system, akin to that found in the Robot Arena franchise, to liven up the gameplay a bit. It's not necessary, but it would definitely catapult this to the top of my favourite indie games list. Which is admittedly rather short, anyway.
It may not be for everyone, but as a party game, or for a fan of robotics or football (or both), it's a blast. Not a literal blast, like Rocket League, though as a unique title with its only competition dating back to 2002's Robot Wars: Extreme Destruction and its abysmal football minigame, it's certainly in a league of its own. You thought this review was all over? It is now.
|+ Easy and fun||– Can get boring pretty quickly|
|+ Simple controls||– No customisation|
|+ Good AI||– No online functionality (yet)|