Back in the day, pretty much every game publisher had at least one football title on their books. That was certainly the case on the 16-bit systems and earlier, with every other big-name football star having a game featuring their name on the cover. Whether it was side-on (John Barnes European Football), isometric (Manchester United: The Double), or top down (Gary Lineker's Hot Shot), there were far more options than we have now outside of EA's FIFA and Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer franchises.
Which is why it'll come as a surprise that things have died down to the point that Active Soccer 2 DX is the first football game outside of those franchises to be released on an Xbox console since Ubisoft's dire Pure Football in 2010. Fans are looking for something new after all that time and Italian developer The Fox Software thinks that their throwback to the likes of Kick Off and Sensible Soccer is enough to get the job done. With the ability to play in vertical top-down, isometric, or horizontal top-down modes and with a few options to change the feel of play - such as loosening up the dribbling mechanic - things start promisingly.
An interface that's not pretty, but that is clearly based on Sensible World of Soccer is on offer, allowing you to play any number of preset or custom tournaments, jump into a quick match, or play a full career as your choice of hundreds of teams. The SWOS-talgia doesn't last for long after you first get thrown into that menu system, though, as the cracks begin to show relatively quickly. Cracks such as having a team editor that lets you change the name of a team but not their three-letter abbreviation or their kit. Cracks such as being able to edit player names, but not being able to do something as simple as changing the name's length, so Exeter City reserve stopper Christy Pym ("Cfrizti Pin" in the game) can become "Kenneth Bar" but not "Kenneth Barnes" or "Ken Barnes." This is a problem as the names will need changing given that with no licenses to speak of, every player is given a slightly tweaked version of their name and they've clearly been altered using some sort of automatic system. So, you've got "Areq Oqlate-Cfamperrain", "Amdios Tovnzent" and "Rafeen Sderrinj" as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Andros Townsend, and Raheem Sterling respectively.
If that were the only interface issue, we could let it pass. But, there are some really, really basic oversights. Things such as in career mode, having to set your first 11 before each match because, even though the game allows you to save and load tactics, it doesn't save the lineup changes. With our Exeter City career, a right-back was always lined up at the centre back position and the second-best left winger in the side was put in the first team, with the better player stuck in the reserves. These had to be corrected before every single match. You'll also more than likely need to change one of the team's kits before each game, as Active Soccer 2 thinks that two teams that play all in red can go head-to-head in their default kits without there being a problem. Also, while we're on the subject of the interface, you'll need to be careful with what you're doing. Once, after three matches of a World Cup, the game hadn't autosaved at all, and since the "back" option is nonsensically highlighted by default on seemingly every screen, all it took was one button press and…bang…tournament progress gone entirely. In the next tourney, it autosaved our progress after one match, which is handy as the game crashed to the dashboard when we attempted to play the second game. Come on, now.
When you do make it onto the field, the lack of polish continues to show. A sometimes entertaining affair is riddled with little problems that make things less enjoyable. There are times when Active Soccer 2 DX doesn't represent the basic rules of soccer particularly well, such as when you – quite shockingly, actually - don't have to pass from a corner and can decide to just dribble the ball into play. Players aren't given a chance to exit the penalty area for goal kicks either, so there are times when the keeper will drill the ball into an opposing striker's back, leaving his teammate free to nip in and have a crack at the all-but-empty net. There are times when the referee forgets to whistle for fouls and offsides, so while he's made the call, the game just sort of stops until you've worked out what's going on. Not that offsides are all that reliable anyway, given that the ref seems to miss absolutely cut and dried offside shouts about 90% of the time. In every match, there's at least one thing that crops up that makes you think that nobody has even bothered to even think about testing this game for more than two minutes. In one match we played, a CPU player's penalty was blocked by a defender, as the game didn't bother to wait for everyone to get out of the box before giving the go-ahead for the kick. To call that a pretty basic oversight is an understatement of the same magnitude as saying that Gary Lineker liked to score the occasional goal.
There's also something not quite right with the game's shooting mechanic. Other controls are pretty much perfect, with two of the four face buttons being used for short or long passes, and Y reserved as a sprint button. But when you're clean through on goal and you press the X button to pull the trigger, there seems to be a random chance that the ball will skew off to the left or right and the speed that it does so means that you can't correct it with aftertouch. We thought it could be down to our aim, but that isn't the case. Let go of the stick and press X from a stationary position, and the ball might rocket forward, hook left, or slice right. It means that things aren't predictable and that can add some enjoyment of course, but that isn't always the case, such as when you're stood in front of an open goal in the last minute of the cup final and your shot ends up hitting the corner flag for no apparent reason other than that the game decided you weren't going to score this time. It's easy to test, since with a 4-4-2 formation, you'll pretty much be able to cruise through the defense, draw the keeper out, then hit a low square ball to your teammate who can test the theory. In fact, as soon as you work this out, the majority of your goals will come from this sort of move.
It doesn't come close to the likes of Sensi or Kick Off, despite those options to alter things so that it feels closer to whichever one you fancy, but despite all of the issues, there are times when Active Soccer 2 DX can play a decent game. To get there, you just have to wade through the amateur-hour presentation, which persists even when you're on the pitch, to the point of team names never being mentioned or shown during a match. You might even fire up a game and find that the last match's score is showing on the screen as the players run out onto the field. In fact, that happens almost every time, which makes it quite baffling as to how it got through QA. Sadly, that can be said for a lot of what goes on here.
Active Soccer 2 DX has its moments as it tries to recreate football games of old. However, even if it did that perfectly, that's all it would be doing since there's no attempt at innovation or anything that would push the genre forward. It's more or less a carbon copy of Sensible World of Soccer that doesn't play as well, has no online features whatsoever, has a wretched frontend and which features a comparatively large amount of bugs and oversights. It's also three times the price of the practically identical mobile version. Pass.