The Actua Soccer series was one of the first instances of me getting to play a football game in glorious 3D, with the version for Windows 95 also being one of the first PC games I ever owned as well. Gremlin were one of the pioneers of the 3D footy sim, and for a brief period, the Actua Soccer releases were held in high regard. However, whilst companies such as EA and Konami upped the level of their own releases and started taking big strides forward in the genre, Gremlin stagnated and started falling way off the pace.
Actua Soccer saw releases not just to personal computers but also the PlayStation, where it received good scores and enjoyed healthy sales. Rik Henderson even went as far to say that the Actua series was the best one overall on an episode of popular UK video game TV show GamesMaster. Actua Soccer even enjoyed a whopping 93% score on the show’s review segment. Whilst PlayStation owners were able to enjoy the first Actua Soccer game, Saturnites were forced to wait until the lazy half-sequel cash in “Club Edition” version before they could have a virtual kickabout. In many ways, it might have been better had they not bothered.
As the name suggests, Actua Soccer: Club Edition is a version of the original Actua Soccer that allows you to play as club teams instead of international ones. In this case, you can select one of twenty sides from the 1996/97 Premier League season, all with fully licensed club names and players. Of course, the immediate issue there becomes apparent, that being that Actua Soccer: Club Edition offers the club sides and ONLY the club sides. For whatever reason, Gremlin didn’t seem to think it was worth including the international sides from the original Actua Soccer, leaving you with a pretty meagre selection of teams to choose from.
I’m not sure why this is the case as games like the FIFA series had been including both international and club teams since the fourth gen, so Gremlin just going with the club teams here is pretty confusing. My guess is that paying for the Premier League license might have hoovered up the budget, and they then couldn’t afford to also license the international sides, but that’s just me musing to myself and shouldn’t be taken as any kind of a fact. Regardless of the reason for it, the overall result is that Actua Soccer: Club Edition is left with a pretty threadbare selection of sides to pick from. If your team didn’t happen to be in the league that year, then you can’t compensate by picking your favourite international side instead. You’ll just have to pick one of the included Premier League clubs and trudge on.
When it comes to the graphics, they almost shouldn’t have bothered shelling out for the licenses, to be honest, as the players all look the same. Not only are the player models crude and blocky, but they are also all the same body type and ethnicity. Each player is white with dark hair, which is acceptable if you’re playing as Duncan Ferguson or Teddy Sheringham, but it becomes slightly problematic when Ian Wright and Andrew Cole are playing. Don’t get me wrong, I can accept that early 3D games might look a little rough, especially on a console like the Saturn that was optimised for 2D. However, as a bare minimum, I would expect each player to have the right hair and skin colour. Even ISS Deluxe on the SNES could manage that, so what’s Gremlin’s excuse?
As frustrating as the graphical issues might be, if Actua Soccer: Club Edition on the Saturn was actually fun to play, then I could have forgiven them somewhat. Unfortunately, Actua Soccer on the Saturn is a far cry from the better soccer-em-ups on the system. I’d go as far to say that even International Victory Goal gives you a better kickabout, and that was a launch game! Actua Soccer: Club Edition is slow as molasses and stodgy like underbaked bread. The game employs a three-button control scheme, with A for shoot, B for pass and C giving you a negligible speed boost. Passing redefines the term “laborious”, with the ball moving like you’re trying to kick it underwater and the pass you’re making rarely going to the player you actually want it to.
Sometimes I’d look directly at a teammate a few feet away and press ‘pass’, only for my player to hoof the ball downfield to a completely different player off-screen, leading to much frustration as I tried to recenter myself and then, usually, lose the ball pretty quickly. In the end, I mostly stuck to trying slaloming runs down the field as these usually bore more fruit. Thus, you’d get bizarre sequences where defender Colin Hendry would run the length of the pitch to have a shot because I couldn’t trust the ball to get to Kevin Gallacher up top. When you don’t have the ball, there is a dedicated button for tackling, but I often found just running into an opposition player tended to do the trick without relying on a slow-motion slide tackle.
The computer-controlled players seem to suffer from poor AI in general, especially the goalkeepers, who will wander out of their net on corner kicks and leave the thing completely unattended so that the opposition can score with ease. I often found matches either devolved into turgid 0-0 draws or ended in a victory/defeat due to the AI going on the frizz at an all-important moment. As matches wore on, I noticed banners around the pitch for other notable Gremlin stinkers on the platform, such as the horrendous Hardcore 4×4, and it led me to ponder just what the folks at Gremlin had against SEGA in order to release so much undiluted rubbish to the Saturn.
Ultimately, Actua Soccer: Club Edition looks bad, plays bad and doesn’t offer much in the way of longevity either. The only positive that I could take from the game was that noted commentator Barry Davies handled the announcing duties, so that aspect was good at least. Aside from that though, Actua Soccer: Club Edition on the Saturn is not only pretty awful, but it also shows why Gremlin weren’t only overtaken by the likes of EA and Konami but straight up lapped as the fifth gen rumbled on. The SEGA Worldwide Soccer games are imminently more playable, and FIFA 98 is also much better as well, so there’s no reason to rely on Actua Soccer for your footy fix.