Like many issues in football, opinions upon the UEFA Champions League are decidedly divided. Ask a hundred fans whether it is a glorious celebration of the highest standards of modern football or a cancer on the domestic leagues, designed to make the rich clubs richer and leach more cash from an already well-tapped fan-base, and you'd get a pretty even split.
Ask a hundred game fans for a similar opinion on EA Mobile launching an officially licensed Champions League game half-way through the competition – and only a handful of months after the latest FIFA (which itself followed shortly after their 2006 World Cup game) – and we'd expect a rather more polarised response.
To be fair, even the determinedly unbiased review staff at Pocket Gamer towers were a little sceptical when we first heard of the title.
All of which might explain our surprise and delight at discovering in UEFA Champions League 2006-07 a game that is not only an entertaining additional to the portable footie canon, but a refreshingly original one, too. Whilst the PSP version (reviewed last week) set the tone for gameplay innovations, the mobile game has extended things considerably, effectively creating a whole new footie genre.
At first glance, UEFA Champions League looks worrying familiar; you pick a team from a hefty officially-licensed selection, engage in a little strategic shuffling, and then launch out onto the pitch. Even the players look familiar (albeit slightly less detailed than in the latest incarnations of FIFA 07), up until you try to take control of them and realise… you can't.
Instead, your miniature midfielders go about their business of passing, tackling and shooting whilst you happily watch them – or more likely look on with the sort of dismay usually found on the faces of the England coaching staff, as your charges waste chances, lose possession and generally perform ineptly.
Fortunately, unlike Steve McClaren you do have the power to do something about it, interacting with proceedings via a series of cards that enable you to leap into the mind of a player and direct him to perform a particular action, be it a tackle, aimed pass or long shot. Once the card is played, the game resumes and you get to watch the actions play out until you drop in again. In practice, this is usually pretty soon afterwards, as you follow a sliding tackle with an incisive pass and then a shot.
The mechanic may sound a little clumsy, but it works incredibly well and provides an engaging mix of strategy and action without the need to scramble for hundreds of keys.
The tactical element is sharpened by the fact that each deck of cards (of which there are four – defensive, passing, attacking and special) are frozen for a time after you've played a card from them (so you can't follow a slide tackle with a diving save) and the more powerful the card, the longer the recharge.
As you proceed through the competition, from qualifying to group to knockout stages, the strategic options are widened by the ability to exchange points secured by victories and goals for further, more exotic cards. Even here there's a clever balance at play: with limited resources, you have to choose between opting for a broad deck featuring the likes of 'wing passes' and 'back passes', or channelling all your resources into one or two super cards like 'perfect shot' or 'catlike reflexes' for your keeper.
There's a sustained challenge on offer, too, with three skill levels and a fantasy team option offering good replay value, although with each competition lasting three to four hours, you're unlikely to feel cheated even if you decide not to return after scooping your first European crown.
Admittedly the balance isn't perfect; some cards are unfairly over-weighted (the miss-kick being the prime example), others (like the magic sponge) virtually pointless, and the recharge system for most seems a little too speedy. The player and formation selection process is redundant, too, in that there's little noticeable change on pitch in their performance (special cards for star individuals would have been great) and we never once saw a defensive player breaking up to support and score (a John Terry card?).
If you wanted to be especially picky, you could point out a few niggles in the presentation, with players looking identical on-pitch, the passes and shots happening a little too 'on-rails' at times, and the presentation of a single flat picture of the trophy proving a slightly underwhelming reward for victory. Where's the ticker tape and official music?
However all of these elements can be addressed easily enough in future versions, and the fact that we're already looking forward to the next rendition with even more varied cards and polished visuals tells its own story. UEFA Champions League is a refreshing, inventive and enjoyable mobile experience, and one that's deserving of its brand.