The Olympics! A stirring opening ceremony. Athletes who pushed their bodies to the limit. Golden postboxes gleaming in the British sun. Dancing horses. The Spice Girls. Truly all that is good about sport. But now foot-to-ball has raised its ugly lug again and sport is once more the playground of the crude and the rich, and that is absolutely most definitely not a reference to oil money. Lords of Football is a management game that's not afraid to look at the ugly side of the glamorous game.
The short voyage from the Olympics to the Premier League has caused a severe case of the reverse bends in some onlookers, as they feel themselves descending from the rarified air of Olympia to the tawdry bench of the latest foot-to-baller court case. But this is where we find ourselves.
After an opening weekend (plus Monday evening) that showered the country with goal pie, the time has come for an overconfident re-evaluation of the season ahead, or blind panic and self-loathing. It all depends how one's club of choice/inheritance performed in the first few moments of a season that will last until all the works of humanity crumble to dust and the sun has burnt off its excess weight and revealed itself to be the size of a plum. Yes, foot-to-ball is back and it is never going to go away ever again.
Lords of Football delivers the tactics and the matchday experience but it also delves into the dirt, giving each fictional player a personality type and set of wants, needs and addictions. Barry Chelmsford, left back for the Tunnington Elbows, might like to squander his easily-earned at the poker table, for example, which is his perogative and not a problem at all until he stops showing up for training because he can't tear himself away from a high stakes tournament. Oh, Barry Chelmsford, you're a wrong 'un and no mistake.
And what about Neil 'The Turbine' Beaufort, the fastest goalkeeper in the land? He likes the ladies, Beaufort does, and, once again, that's fine, so long as he's not treating people terribly, causing scandals, distracting from his on pitch performances and generally being an absolutely reprehensible human being. Those piston-pumps he calls his 'golden gams' might be able to propel him from his goal mouth to the opposition box in less than four seconds but if The Turbine wants to spend his time being the Casanova of Sunderland rather than putting in the hours at the training ground, there'll be no place for him in the matchday squad.
How does all of this translate into a game? This is a case where the lazy, obvious description is almost entirely appropriate. Lords of Football is the offspring of The Sims 3 and Fifa Manager. The majority of the game takes place in a town, viewed from above and looking almost exactly like the kind of place a bunch of Sims would spend the dwindling days of their lives. At the edge of the town is a training ground with a number of facilities around it, including a physiotherapist and a non-physio therapist.
At the beginning of a game the player creates a team to inhabit that training ground. There are extensive options to create a crest and kit, all of which can be randomised so you could end up with the sort of picnic tablecloth jersey that no major sports equipment manufacturer would ever have the cheek to manufacture and sell. All players and teams are fictional, and it's not just because the licenses cost several moons and this is a debut game by an independent developer without even a single moon to their name. It's all well and good for Messi to license his face and likeness to a game in which he dribbles all over a pitch, but I suspect he wouldn't be too happy about licensing his face to a game in which he spends a great deal of time drooling all over the other participants in speed dating sessions.
So, no real people, although if you really want to watch the wearisome woes of John Terry you can either turn on the news or edit the name of a suitable player in the game.
Once you have your band of footsoldiers it's into the game proper, where menus are a thing of the past and all interactions take place on the town view. It's about as different an experience to Football Manager as could be hoped for by someone who hopes for such things, with not a spreadsheet in sight. Players can be grabbed, causing them to flail limply in the cursor's pointed grip, and then dropped on the training ground, where all sorts of exercises can be set up. Given that there's a full squad, rather than just eleven men, there are useful filtering options, so it's possible to select all players with low physical strength, for example, and drop them in the gym.
There are stats but they're all hidden from view unless you want to look at them, unlike in Football Manager where numbers will actually start to buzz from the screen like bees from a hive and assault your face as soon as the game begins. Click on a player and you can see how good he is at kicking and running, stuff like that, but you can also take a look at his personality. The golden mean is what's wanted, a player who is balanced in all areas and can, therefore, take pleasure in the joys of life without allowing them to become vices. It's fine to indulge your sex drive, says Lords of Football, these men are not cloistered, but have a bit of decency, restraint and respect for your partners or trouble is likely to follow.
I saw a player with a huge ego signing autographs for fans rather than training and another decided to scream at onlookers during a training session. My assumption is that they had pointed out the inaccuracy of his threaded through balls during last week's sporting occasion and his ego dictated that he did not take to criticism kindly.
Pleasingly, he was sent to clean the other players' boots as punishment for being an oaf. This, however, caused him to resent the manager. It's a balancing act, then, ensuring that players actually participate in training, which makes them better players, but without punishing them for indiscretions or truancy too severely, which makes them less willing to play to the best of their ability. In fact, the whole set up seems to be a balancing act: training takes place during the day, it's like a Sim's career and it sucks all the joy out of them. Then, as night falls, they go and have fun to top up all their meters again, ready for the next day's training.
What a miserable way of looking at life; we become steadily more depressed during the 9-5 and then fill up our tolerance in the evening just to face the next day, when all of the happiness falls out through the holes in our soles/souls once again. But that's the life of a Lord of Football, the poor blighters. No wonder, then, that if left to their own devices they will immediately rush to the places that give them the biggest (non-football) kick, indulging all their most extreme habits. You, as baby-mansitter as well as manager, can interrupt their evening festivites and pluck them from nightclub or bar, dropping them somewhere more suitable.
You are Alex Ferguson, this much is clear. You are also, however, the owner of every establishment in town. With a wave of your hand you can order a pub to have a happy hour and are even capable of upgrading buildings so as to fit your footballers' needs better. I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out this is actually the case in certain parts of Manchester.
"Boss, I hear Rio would like to have a shark-wrangling centre a little closer to the training ground. You know how he hates to drive to the Blue Planet Aquarium but loves to wrangle sharks."
"True enough that, the boy loves nothing more. Tell you what, is there anywhere near the training ground big enough to install a suitably sized tank for a massive herd of great whites?"
"I don't think they call them herds, gaffer, but there is one building that's suitable. The local kindergartorphonage and kitten sanctuary."
"Ideal. Fill it with water and let the sharks loose."
"Shall we empty it of kittens and tiny orphans first?"
"Fill it with water and let the sharks loose."
As you achieve various things in the game, new buildings and options within those buildings are unlocked. And I feared that was the sum total of Lords of Football. A lifestyle management game about the rich and famous, but, thankfully, there are actual matches to play as well. And they actually look quite good.
Using the same 3d models and perspective, the matchday plays out with each player at least vaguely adhering to the formation and tactics you have chosen, but their happiness, the after-effects of any punishment or overindulgence and commitment to the team all determine how well they play, and, crucially, how often they listen to instructions. You're there, you see, at the side of the pitch, screaming at the Lords. Kick there, you yell, pass to feet, you holler, RUN LIKE THE WIND, you parp.
You do this by clicking on a player, or a place, and selecting an option. It's still The Sims, essentially, but a football game is happening. One of the developers showed me how it all works and I was surprised because it actually looked enjoyable, particularly when things went wrong, as they invariably do. The ball deflects, a player refuses to pass to a teammate who is in space, a tackle is a second too late and leads to a booking.
The most obvious problems with Lords of Football are in the overall structure. The transfer market is a simple thing and there is no actual career management, the whole thing is more like a race to the top. There are only two divisions in each of the five nations and there's no way to change jobs, or to be sacked. Relegation from the second division leads to a game over screen and triumph in the first gains entry to the European Championship. Win that and you've won all of foot-to-ball and it stops forever. It's the only way to stop the beast and you, the player, are very much humanity's last hope.
Of course, chances are I'm the only person around these parts who actually quite likes the idea of crossing foot-to-ball with The Sims, and even I'm hestitant to say I'm actually looking forward to having Lords of Football on my hard drive. Once it is out (released date TBD), curiosity will make me poke at it for a while though and if there are enough bits and pieces to muck about with it'll probably end up being one of those games that quite happily fills in the gaps between all the rest.