What is it about British academies that's so appealing? Is it the uniforms, the block scheduling or the fact that they all look like castles out of fairy tales?
Whatever it is, it's part of Academy of Champions' charm right from the menu screen. The cartoony soccer game opens with a giant castle where soccer legend Pele beckons youngsters to join is academy and master the fundamentals of the sport. He's got an effective sales pitch, too: if soccer's cool enough for Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher to play, why shouldn't you? Other Ubisoft characters also appear though out the game, like the Prince of Persia and Assassins Creed's Altair. If you stare at that opening menu screen of the academy long enough, Rabbids start popping out from behind the towers.
What Is It? Academy of Champions is a soccer game similar to Mario Strikers Charged as opposed to a soccer sim, like FIFA. Players can jump right into multiplayer quick matches or spend time building a team in story mode. In story mode, players can choose to be a boy or a girl – though it doesn't make much of a difference – and plow through an entire academic year of soccer training. Different days of the week and terms of the school year determine what kinds of things you do in a day – it might be a mini-game to build fundamental skills like shooting, a dialogue tree to recruit new players, or a scrimmage game against another team – and throughout the year, you can buy skill upgrades and special items to bulk up your team in multiplayer mode.
What We Saw During Ubisoft's UbiNintendo press junket, we were given about half an hour of hands on time with the title plus some Q&A with product manager Carsten Myhill.
How Far Along Is It? The game is due out September 2009.
What Needs Improvement? Separate Tutorial Would Be Nice: For players that just want to jump into a quickmatch without fiddling around in story mode, it'd be nice to have an optional tutorial mode that just walks you through the basics. For the most part, the game is intuitive, but there are things that need explaining and maybe a little bit of practice. For example, each characters have special abilities that can only be triggered with a specific button under certain conditions and there's a tussle challenge during games where players have to press a sequence of directions on the Nunchuck's analogue stick to steal or protect a ball from another player. These subtleties aren't the kind of thing you can really pick up while you're playing and they can totally turn the tide of the game once you master them.
There's No Dating Sim: Some of the 30 characters you can recruit in story mode require social interaction. Maybe you have to successfully navigate a dialogue tree or maybe you have to win a certain number of games before you join. The social interaction definitely feeds into the school feeling of the game – like a primordial version of Persona 3's social interactions – but without a more detailed friends system like maybe a dating sim, I wonder if it won't get dull after a while.
What Should Stay The Same? Saving Throw Versus Sexy: There's a power meter that builds up the longer a player is in possession of the ball. This meter fuels both the special attacks – like Sam Fisher's stealth mode or Altair's flying hawk kick – and the basic dodge or sprint controls that you need to get from one end of the pitch to the other. This creates a sort of endurance contest whenever you get control of the ball where you're trying to see how long can you go without dodging or sprinting. It's a subtle, but spiffy game mechanic.
It's Fun: Once you get the controls down and start seeing Ubisoft characters in story mode matches (Pele vs. Jade from Beyond Good and Evil – so awesome), Academy of Champions evokes both a sense of gameplay satisfaction and nostalgic fondness for familiar Ubi characters. Even better, the story mode appeals to the collectors by offering a ton of unlockable characters, items and upgrades over the course of the academic year.
Final Thoughts I get the feeling a lot of hardcore soccer fans with sniff with disdain at Pele's character model and other types of gamer will steer clear of Academy out of apathy. But this is pretty fun game that's well put together. I was sold after my second match and I recommend it for anyone who enjoyed Strikers or is just quasi-obsessed with fantasy British school systems like Hogwarts.