[Retro] The Beautiful Games: Actua Soccer

The Beautiful Games is a new series offering a retrospective on the seminal titles in the history of videogaming football. Each article looks at a series or title that advanced the art of computer or console soccer simulation, in this case Actua Soccer, which was released on the PC, PlayStation. Mac and Saturn.

When we think of the great dynasties of modern football gaming we think primarily of FIFA and Pro Evo, and while they were certainly around at the dawn of the PlayStation era, it was a different series altogether that first brought true 3D soccer gaming to the masses – Gremlin‘s Actua Soccer.

While FIFA 96 mixed player sprites with a 3D playfield, Actua went the whole hog, rendering the entire affair in glorious polygons. By today’s standards the graphics are simple, with jagged textures and simplistic player models, but for the day it was revolutionary. Debuting in 1995, Actua was an astonishing demonstration of the PlayStation’s power, offering smooth 50 FPS full-screen PAL gameplay with no hint of a sprite anywhere.

The camera never wanted to stay still

The camera never wanted to stay still

The gameplay itself was passable, if not stunning. Matches were a bit too much like basketball, with the ball flying from one end to the other with barely a moment spent bogged down in the middle of the park. Efforts to create a flowing play style weren’t helped by a camera that went swooping around all over the pitch to show off the 3D engine every five minutes. It’s telling that Gremlin saw fit to map one of the shoulder buttons to changing the camera, almost like a racing game. Unlike later football title, which would find the right balance between broadcast style coverage and a playable viewing angle, Actua went a bit mental, spinning the camera around behind the goal in readiness for a goal kick seconds while an off-target shot was still in mid air.

It’s worth noting that Actua didn’t just reinvent the visual language of football games, it was a significant step forwards in terms of the aural experience too. Actua’s match commentary from Barry Davies was amongst the best sports play-by-play of its day, and took FIFA a good three years to better.

The original game featured just international clubs, but was followed by a Club Edition that added Premier League teams, and two sequels, Actua Soccer 2 and 3, with diminishing returns in terms of sales and critical acclaim.

Actua 2 featured closeups of the horrific, deformed players

Actua 2 featured closeups of the horrific, deformed players

Actua 2 spruced up the graphics engine and refined the gameplay – offering power bars for shooting for the first time. The presentation was also spruced up with TV style close-ups of players, on-screen stats, billowing goal nets, Sky Sports-style graphic-overlays on replays and the addition of the ponderous Trevor Brooking on co-commentary duties. Actua 3 refined the formula further, but by the time of its release FIA and ISS Pro had overtaken Actua in both the looks and gameplay departments.

Eventually Actua went down with Gremlin itself, when the studio was bought and subsequently shut by Infogrames. It may not be the best loved series in soccer gaming history, but Actua was as vital as any in shaping the way we play football on consoles to this very day.

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Categories: Retro

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