There isn’t anything like New Star Soccer anywhere else in the App Store or in the Android Play Store. NSS lets you live the life of a star athlete – or at least, the tabloid newspaper version of it – in a light RPG wrapped around some addictive soccer-themed minigames.
New Star Soccer is available for free for both iOS and Android – the initial download gives you access to an Arcade Mode which familiarises you with the game’s core mechanic. Arcade Mode places you into increasingly difficult soccer set-pieces from which you have to score. The slingshot controls for kicking the ball draw a bit of inspiration from Angry Birds. Judging how much oomph to put behind each kick and then hitting the right part of the ball to apply spin requires just a touch more twitch reflex skill than Angry Birds, but it’s fun rather than frustrating.
Once you’ve had your fill of Arcade Mode (which will come very quickly), Career Mode is available as an in-app purchase. This is really the meat of New Star Soccer. Career modes puts you in the boots of a 16-year-old footballer and signs you to a team in the lower leagues of a country of your choosing. Every week you’re trotted out to a match, and the challenges of Arcade Mode become key moments in the game where you have to make a pass or take a shot on goal.
The presentation of those key match moments are simultaneously the greatest strength and the most jarring design choice of New Star Soccer. You are presented on the screen as the ball itself and several of your teammates and opponents are randomly scattered around the pitch, standing stock still and waiting for you to kick the ball. Players will react to your passes, but are always working from a dead start and can’t be bothered to move if they aren’t within a narrow radius of the ball itself.
It bears about as much resemblance to actual soccer as foosball does – but that’s actually quite all right. In discarding the fluidity and motion of real football, New Star Soccer makes every moment you play into a thoughtful tactical decision. Once you’re practiced at it, squeezing a pass in between two defenders or slotting in a goal from a tricky angle becomes viscerally gratifying. Because you’re only attending to the key moments, a whole match can be played in just a matter of minutes – perfect for a mobile game. Play NSS in your leisure time and you’ll find it taking on a “just one more go” sort of addictiveness that one normally associates with Civilization.
You can train your character to improve his stats, but this – like playing in your team’s matches – consumes your finite energy. Energy tops up once a week, but if you want to fit in a meeting with your sponsors (to improve your relationship with them in the hopes of landing a new endorsement) and a training session, you’ll need to buy an energy drink.
This is where developers New Star Games have inserted an in-app purchase system, but it’s one that can be played around entirely. The impatient can use real cash to buy energy drinks, but the frugal customer just has to plan his time a little more thoughtfully. One genuine gripe about the energy drinks is that they (and some other items) scale in price according to your level of fame – so when you’re commanding a monster salary in the Premier League a single energy drink costs you several games’ wages. It’s clearly done for game balance purposes, but ultimately makes you feel as though you’re on a treadmill and never really advancing. Aside from energy drinks and soccer boots (which provide a stat boost) you can spend your wages at the rudimentary in-game casino and on mostly gameplay-irrelevant items like cars and boats, rounding out the Sun gossip page aspect of the modern football simulation.
For all of the details, New Star Soccer takes place in a thinly populated Truman Show. No one else in the world of NSS – not your squadmates, not your girlfriend – has a name. In the course of a typical game, you will rise from obscure lower leagues into the apex of competition at Manchester United or Benfica – but there doesn’t seem to be any difference in ability between your top-flight teammates and the ones you started out playing with at Guiseley AFC.
But these limits have a charm of their own. If everyone other person in the world of NSS is a paper doll, it’s because you’re unequivocally the center of the game. If your team is down a goal going into the 80th minute, the chance to equalise (or to be the scapegoat for the loss) almost always comes to your feet. Like the great games of the 80s and 90s, NSS sketches out just enough of a game world for you to impose your own imagined narrative onto it. It’s worth noting that the game shipped with a number of bugs and balance issues besides, but New Star Games have been diligent in patching and rebalancing. It’s not inconceivable that some of these gripes will be addressed.
NSS defies easy categorization: part time-management game, part tactical soccer sim, part casino simulator. None of the individual parts are particularly deep, but the overall experience of the game is greater than the sum total.
4 out of 5