Ooh, we like that. Having just loaded up UEFA for the first time, we’re greeted by the stirring operatic Champions League theme so familiar for people who actually watch UK soccer, at least. God bless the FIFA series and its license-happy handlers - this is powerful stuff. Electric memories of pre-match excitement are stirred, atmosphere heavy and anticipation high. We suddenly need a bottle of Amstel.
In reality, of course, we know that our excitement has everything to do with the might and majesty of the Champions League itself – the most passionately followed and angst-ridden soccer championship that’s not called the World Cup – and very little to do with EA’s hardly-anticipated yet full-priced update of the barely six months-old FIFA 07. But still, our initial shivers make us think that another game trading on the thrills and spills of the Champions League might not be such a bad idea after all, especially if it were to come packaged with some innovative new features and gameplay improvements.
Which, predictably, is the major sticking point - it doesn’t really bring any of these to the table, significant or otherwise. Granted, the visuals are better than ever, but otherwise little has changed on the pitch since FIFA’s last romp. Kicking the ball around feels sluggish and leaden - there’s never any zip on the passes or urgency to the play. Worse still the shooting - which was coming together in 07 - again seems highly automated. The power and direction of your attempts on goal have little to do with whatever buttons you press - the ball just takes off. It’s miles away from the nuanced control offered by Winning Eleven.
It’s not nearly all bad, of course, as the controls are familiar and the atmosphere is genuinely tinged with the weight of huge expectations. It’s also hands-down the best looking soccer title you’ve ever played, as everything from players to crowd and in between is simply gorgeous. Even the advertisements on the field borders look sharp, although we’re wondering just how the heck Microsoft lets EA get away with having Playstation 3 ads on the 360 – someone’s likely going to get sacked for that one.
The standard Champions League season and exhibition matches return, and as for different game modes, the Pokemon -esque trading card-based Ultimate Team is moderately interesting. You build up a squad of disparate players along with a bunch of power-ups to win a Golden Ticket to the League, buying more of these cards as you kick around, whilst trading them with players online. We don’t know how many collectophiles are also serious footballers, but at least it’s something different. There’s also the Ultimate Challenge mode, a celebration of the greatest moments in Champions League history, in which you can replay the competition’s most memorable comebacks, the best (and hardest to complete) of which is Manchester United’s last-gasp final victory over Bayern Munich in 1999.
More focused than a standard 90-minute game and adding a welcome bit of drama to a non-narrative game, the Challenge mode is the highlight of UEFA, although even this is slightly tarnished by the fact that EA hasn’t included the correct squads for the teams of the time - you have to play the challenges with the current-day line-ups, which obviously differ in strength from their predecessors.
To analogize from another sport, UEFA is Anna Kournikova to Winning Eleven ’s Martina Hingis; one of them is knockout gorgeous with decent enough skills to hang around but never dominate, while the other may not be so easy on the eyes yet consistently wins championships. The Champions League is an amazing showcase of the drama and passion of the Beautiful Game, but EA has mostly wasted an opportunity to transition it to the 360 by repackaging FIFA 07 with a shinier coat of paint. It’s fine enough for a lark, but not enough to claim the crown.