Retro Respawn Tandem – Three Lions/Alexi Lalas International Soccer

Seeing as we’re supposedly going to have some tournament football this year with the belated Euro 2020 finally taking place in some form, I thought I’d go back and look at a game released to cash in on one of England’s many forays into an international tournament in the form of Three Lions (no, not the song). Developed by Z-Axis and published by Take Two, Three Lions hit UK shelves in the Spring of 1998 with the aim to piggyback off the World Cup in France that summer. The game had the official stamp of the English Football Association, and had England performed better at the tournament itself, it probably would have been a bigger hit than it ended up being.

Obviously, a game with the England National Team’s badge slapped on the front of it probably wasn’t going to sell that well in other parts of the world, so Three Lions actually saw a number of different names depending on the region in which it was released. One such variance was when it hit the shelves over in America a year later. Seeing as the Yanks had their own collection of stars following the World Cup of 1994, Take-Two decided to slap the furry ginger features of Alexi Lalas on the front of the box for the American release, with Mr. Lalas being a notable soccer star both on the pitch and off it. He was probably one of the better known yank pig bladder kickers over here in the UK too, and he even agreed to do a “Phoenix from the Flames” skit for Baddiel and Skinner’s “Fantasy Football” show.

My buddy, Adam, actually has a copy of Alexi Lalas International Soccer, whilst I still have a copy of Three Lions kicking about (it might actually be Adam’s now, come to think about it), so we decided to put our heads together and whip up a tandem article so that we can explore both cuts of the game. He also created the featured image, so kudos to him. I don’t personally expect there to be that many differences between the two versions of the game outside of branding and whatnot, but regardless of the version we play, Three Lions/Alexi Lalas Soccer is a game we both remember from our collective youths, so revisiting them for a tandem article should hopefully provide some entertainment for you, my dear reader, and at the end of the day, that’s what we’re here to do, isn’t it?

Backstory/Memories of the Game

Mike – I certainly remember Three Lions as it was heavily hyped at the time in the Official UK PlayStation Magazine, with them going so far as to give it the front cover of the mag and a somewhat indulgent 8 out 10 review score for good measure. I never actually owned the game myself, but I had a couple of mates who did have it, so I got to play it on and off. Truth be told, I didn’t hate Three Lions, but I didn’t especially love it either. It was a solid enough kickabout at a time when a footy game on a fifth gen console being playable wasn’t always a guarantee, so I could at least respect it for that, if nothing else.

That being said, it always paled in comparison to the likes of FIFA 99 and ISS Pro 98’ in my eyes, both of which came out around the same time, so it was never high on my list when it came to games I wanted for my PlayStation, with my intention instead drawn to more interesting games, like Libero Grande, that tried to do something a bit different with the genre. Thus, I was content with just playing it at my friends’ houses and borrowing it for a bit when they got bored with it. Indeed, I’m convinced the copy of Three Lions that I own once belonged to one of my friends, and I just never gave it back to them! I know that makes me look bad, but there are definitely cases of people doing similar to me, including someone borrowing my copy of Summer Slam 1998 and never returning it (that one STILL hurts).

Adam – I have quite fond memories of the Three Lions game. I remember really wanting it when I first saw the advertisement for it in a gaming magazine. I seem to remember one of the selling points of the game being that the players’ faces were actually meant to look realistic, which for some reason really excited me as a kid, and I was immediately sold on the game as a result. I think the title of the game appealed to me too as I was really into the song that The Lightning Seeds had out, and around this time I was quite into football, more so than I am now.

I’ve never really been a big football fan and have only actually attended a football match twice in real life, both times being to see Stockport County play at home, and I only went because I got the tickets for free. I didn’t really enjoy the matches that much as Stockport lost, and I missed all of the goals they scored because I was busy getting food. It was the first time I ever tried Holland’s meat and potato pie though (other brands are available, Ed), and they remain one of my favourites to this day, so I guess I have football to thank for that!

Gameplay

Adam – I’ve played many of the football games available on the PlayStation, and I personally find the gameplay of Three Lions to be pretty smooth. I find the mechanics pretty easy to get used to, and passing the ball around the pitch feels good and fairly realistic. The gameplay may not stand up as well against other football games, such as the FIFA series, but I certainly feel like it can hold its own, and it’s still better than a lot of the other lesser known football titles for the PlayStation console.

Crossing and shooting are both very straightforward and feel equally as smooth and fluid. In the American version of the game, which I have been playing recently, the target that was present in the goal in the UK version of the game isn’t visible by default, but you can turn it on in the options if you want to. I decided to leave it off unless the match ended up going to penalties ,and then I found myself switching the target on to make life a bit easier.

Another thing I noticed about the US release is that the players don’t have their real names, and I’m pretty sure the England team did on the UK release of the game. Players like Teddy Sheringham become “Teddy Teddington”, and then there’s my personal favourite, “David Sperman”. I actually found this quite funny, and it didn’t spoil my experience with the game, but I thought I’d just mention it as one of the differences I’ve noticed between the two versions

Mike – Those who have read my articles on football games in the past will know that one thing I always personally put a premium on when it comes to gameplay is the passing system. If you can pass with any semblance of accuracy and fluidity, then I’ll be prepared to cut your footy game some slack, and I’m happy to say that Three Lions has a passing system that works pretty well. Sometimes you might end up passing to someone you don’t want to, but most of the time you’ll know where a pass is going, and it will usually get there with a decent modicum of accuracy.

You can pass the ball along the floor by pressing cross or pass it in the air by pressing circle, with a small coloured circle showing up around the feet of the player the ball will be going to. You can change this by pressing the triangle button, and you also have the option to play a through ball by pressing L1. This can be particularly devastating if you successfully play a high pass through the middle of the defence as it can leave you clean open most of the time. Playing crosses into the box from down the wing is also a decent attacking option, especially if you have some pacey players who can bolt up and down.

The big downside with the attacking aspect of Three Lions is that shooting is needlessly difficult and reliant on you aiming at an actual target in the goal mouth. This wouldn’t be so bad if you controlled the target with the analogue stick whilst moving with the D-pad, but everything is done through the D-pad, making it very difficult to aim up your shot whilst also dodging the opposing defenders and keepers. It often means you’ll have to do a bit of a wacky dance before firing off a shot, just so you can make sure the aiming reticule is where you want it to be. It eats into the fluidity of the gameplay, which is actually pretty decent, for the most part, and was my personal biggest bugbear with Three Lions from an attacking aspect.

When it comes to defending, you have your basic light tackle in the form of circle and a slide tackle that you can perform with the square button. I personally found the most effective way of making a tackle was to just walk into the opposing player though as this usually dispossesses them rather easily and generally has a higher success rate than the two designated tackle buttons. Your teammates tend to be pretty static when it comes to defending, but you can switch between them easily enough. Three Lions is definitely a playable game, and you can have a reasonable kickabout most of the time, but it’s certainly rough around the edges. Compared to some of the absolute arse that got released on the PlayStation and Saturn to torture footy fans though, Three Lions is pretty decent.

Graphics

Mike – Three Lions is hardly a graphical marvel, with the games all taking place in one stadium and the players themselves looking blocky and moving kind of like they’ve been created via claymation sometimes. Though there isn’t much variety in the types of stadia on offer, the stadium you do play in does have a cavernous feel to it that gives the matches some atmosphere. Though the players are a bit oddly proportioned and sometimes move like they’re underwater when it comes to goal celebrations, they do definitely have some character to them as well and you can mostly tell who everyone is supposed to be when it comes to the named players.

One critique I will throw the game’s way is that I never really felt like any of the default camera angles were that good, with most of them just feeling too zoomed in a lot of the time, making passing and defending overly tricky on occasion. An option to manually zoom in or out would have been nice as would a camera angle that showed most of the pitch. Because of how you shoot a lot of the camera angles are designed with a view of the goal in mind when you attack so that you can accurately aim as much as possible, so this probably played a part in why the camera always seems so close to the action as, otherwise, you wouldn’t know where you were shooting.

Adam – When I first got my hands on the game back in the day, I was immediately impressed with how “real” the players’ faces looked (something which had originally been a selling point for me about this game), I remember often switching the camera angle to “close cam” so I could see the players’ expressionless faces in all of their blocky 3D glory. It’s funny, because now I’m revisiting the game in 2021 the graphics don’t seem particularly appealing at all, but at the time, I remember being blown away by how good the players looked.

I generally found the graphics to be okay for a game from this era though. They are nothing to write home about but are definitely not terrible either.

Sound

AdamAlexi Lalas International Soccer isn’t that memorable to me, as far as the music goes. It would have been awesome to have the Lightning Seeds’ song on the main menu, but unfortunately, it isn’t there (I assume they couldn’t get the license?). One of the things I like about the sound during gameplay is how you can hear the players and/or the manager shouting things such as “down the wing” or the goalkeeper yelling “my ball!” as he dives for a save. I found this to be a nice touch and something I haven’t really seen before in other football games.

Mike – Strangely, the song “Three Lions” by the Lightning Seeds and Baddiel/Skinner doesn’t actually appear in the game, with Ocean Colour Scheme instead providing the licensed music and Alistair Brimble providing the music for the menus and other occasions. I quite like the music, for the most part, and it definitely has that late 90s “feel” to it that is like chicken soup for my nostalgic soul. It’s not revolutionary or anything, but it’s solid enough, and I liked it overall. It’s very weird that a game called Three Lions doesn’t feature the titular track though, especially as a special 1998 version with new lyrics was released for France 98 and did really well, so you’d think they’d want to make sure it was included here in the interests of branding?

Longevity

Mike – This is one area where Three Lions suffers somewhat as there are only two modes on offer in the form of Exhibition and Tournament. Exhibition lets you pick two of the teams and go at it with a friendly, either with a friend or against the computer. Tournament sees you enter a 32-team World Cup-like tournament, with there even being an option to use the exact fixture list from France 98 so you can rewrite history by finally managing to get Scotland out of the Group Stage or lead Jamaica to an improbable World Cup victory. Winning the Tournament with different teams will see you unlock additional special teams, which is one area in which the game excels.

Not only can you unlock the 1966 England squad (complete with officially licensed player names),, but you can also unlock Brazil’s imperious 1970 side along with squads made up of the best German, Italian and Dutch players. As a classic football junkie, the chance to play as the likes of Pele, Marco Tardelli and Alan Ball were right up my street, and it certainly encouraged me to play through the tournament more than once. However, aside from unlocking the additional sides, you don’t really feel like you’ve achieved much when you complete the tournament as you don’t even get a quick cutscene where you see your captain lift the cup.

It would have been nice for there to be a few more options, such as a League mode and maybe the ability to create your own tournaments outside of the standard 32-team World Cup set up. That would have added a bit more life to the single-player experience, if nothing else. Sadly, Three Lions doesn’t support the Multi-Tap, but there is at least the option for two-player local multiplayer, meaning that if you don’t mind passing pads around, you can likely have a fun time with your mates, especially if you unlock all the special teams.

Ultimately I personally found that it didn’t take me long to see everything Three Lions had to offer and the gameplay wasn’t satisfying enough to keep me coming back once I had. As a result I kind of lost interest with it after a certain point, even though it was a mostly decent gameplay experience outside of a few niggles here and there. Again, a League mode would have been perfect as an additional option for those who fancied a longer challenge after completing the tournament, but sadly, that wasn’t to be. I’m not sure how long the game was in development for, but in some ways, it kind of feels a bit slapped together in order to cash in on the France 98 tournament at times as the lack of modes on offer would kind of suggest.

Adam – There is a lack of different modes in Three Lions, and I spent 99% of my time playing friendly exhibition matches. I imagine this could become boring quite fast for some people, and it’s not really a game that you can keep playing and keep getting mileage out of. There is also the tournament mode that you can complete for some unlockables, as Mike mentioned above. Those would be enjoyable, especially for football enthusiasts, but once you’ve completed and unlocked the few rewards available, there isn’t really anything left to do apart from more exhibition matches or maybe playing the 2 player mode with a friend. That’s how I actually spent most of my time on the game as a kid.

Would We Recommend It?

Adam – I would! I don’t think it would be worth it if it was an extremely rare or expensive game to get hold of as there are other alternatives that are equally as good as Three Lions, if not better. But seeing as you can find the game used for not very much money at all, I’d say it’s worth every penny. It’s not going to keep you entertained for months, but it’s the type of game that you can fire up every now and then for a quick no nonsense game or a to have a laugh with a mate.

Mike – You can get Three Lions for less than a fiver if you’re willing to shop around, so I think it’s worth getting in that respect, if only to have on your shelf as part of your collection. I’m not really sure what OPSMUK was smoking to give it an 8 back when it came out, as it’s probably a 6 at best, and maybe a 7 if you’re being outrageously generous and happened to be in a good mood at the time of review. It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but it lacks options and is decidedly lacking in polish when compared to its competitors from the same timeframe. At £5 you could do much worse, but Three Lions is not a game you need to break the bank for.

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