Even in its mid-90s heyday, Sensible Soccer was a game so austere, so reductionist, so masculinely unfrivolous (yet ironically dainty) that to profess genuine adoration for it is deemed wholly acceptable among gamers of a certain age and understanding. Like Frequency, WarioWare and Katamari Damacy after it, it was a game that recalled the style and simplicity of trailblazing arcade games from the 70's and 80's, and yet felt effortlessly dynamic when viewed next to its own bloated contemporaries.

Its return could not have been timelier. Not only did Sensible Soccer 2006's release chime with the start of this summer's World Cup, but the dominance of Konami's Winning Eleven series and EA's FIFA games in the soccer genre (both critically and commercially) has led to a kind of stagnation that only a game as sprightly and fun as Sensible Soccer could challenge. It may be a step backwards in terms of sophistication, but the pure fun factor and verve it packs, as well as its lack of pretension and stripped down presentation, makes this potentially a far more significant soccer game than any other is likely to be this year.

Underneath the simplicity, Sensi (as it is affectionately known) has always prided itself on a ruthlessly demanding playing pace, and while solo-heroics and strategies take a back seat, angle, trajectory, timing and gut reactions are more than enough to keep you on your toes. It might look like a Flash game with a console game retail price, but you're not paying for looks and you're not paying for depth. You're paying for the millisecond gap that exists between the opponents' striker launching the ball towards your goal, your eyes seeing this, your brain reacting, your thumb pressing down on the Circle button and your defender slide tackling the ball away from danger not 3 yards from the striker's feet. As value for money goes, paying for a millisecond may not sound like much, but you'll soon rack them up.

Unfortunately, undermining Sensi's amiable ideology and back to basics approach are a litany of gameplay issues that begin to chip away at the experience the moment one starts playing it enough to consider entering the game's many league and cup competitions. The speed, the bending 'banana' kicks and the true 360° directional kick freedom promise much in the opening matches, but the virtual inability to dribble the ball past opponents enforces the same pass-and-move play style on all players. This in itself isn't so bad, but pass-and-move becomes not only dullingly routine but frustrating, with drone team mates simultaneously bee-lining for any loose ball and never breaking a sweat to reach good support positions—crosses from the wing are nearly always a lottery. Then there's the inability to switch character-control when not in possession, which renders almost every defensive situation a messy one-man mission for whatever player the CPU has chosen for you. At the other end, we soon learn that skill and strategy take a backseat (in about 4 of every 5 attacks) to force of numbers, with the unfailing rule that a charging player will dispossess and incapacitate the man with the ball leading to farcical penalty area scrambles that are almost embarrassing to take part in, yet almost certainly the surest way to score.

Even multiplayer, where the game is at its best, soon starts drawing disappointed sighs (over the annoyingly long pre-match loads). Though the game may become more dynamic with two players, its silly lack of reliable one-touch passing is even more keenly felt (intercepting the ball in a crucial area is generally a bad thing because the opponent will almost always have time to steal it back before one can act) and sure, the ugly and sometimes unfair goalkeeper glitches can be laughed off, but only along with the suggestion that SS2006 is anything more than an easily disposable time-waster. On the plus side, the games are usually more evenly matched than in previous Sensi games, if only because mastery is a case of learning to play with the game's dubious idiosyncrasies rather than hard-earned skill. Sadly getting better at the game only makes it less and less satisfying to play, with the long and laborious tournaments and leagues revealing the repetitive and even flimsy gameplay lurking behind its initially promising and refreshing fun factor.

There are just a few too many flaws for SS2006 to be the game it aspires to be and unless concessions are made to more recent titles (such as in team mate AI and the ability to switch character control), it's really hard to see an ongoing series here, let alone a popular resurgence in Sensi's patented gameplay. For a good few hours in single-player, and more generally in short multiplayer bursts, the game is entertaining and addictive, but I'm afraid it needed to be damn near perfect to fully justify its simplicity, live up to its heritage and make a lasting dent on the market. A plucky attempt from left-field then, but safely wide of the mark. [Rating: 6.0 out of 10]

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.

Note: This game is currently only available in EU territories.

Andrew Fletcher
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