Soccer games vie for top honors on the iPhone, iPad

We spend some time playing more than a few matches on soccer games from a trio of iOS developers

For fans of soccer--or football, on the other side of the Atlantic--the just-completed season was one for the books. Manchester City won the English Premier League in the waning moments of the season. Unheralded Montpellier took the title in France, while Juventus returned to glory in Serie A. And Chelsea took Europe's big prize, with a stirring and improbable run to Champions League glory. It's the kind of excitement you don't want to see come to an end, even with the Euro 2012 tournament set to get underway in a few weeks. And if you've got an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, you don't have to let something as inconvenient as an off-season stand in the way of you and constant soccer excitement.

I've spent some time playing more than a few matches on soccer games from a trio of iOS developers. And while no game can match the excitement of what your favorite European league, international tournament, or--God help you--Major League Soccer team can provide, at least two offerings prove up to the task of satisfying your soccer cravings.

Let's dispense with the lackluster app first. Real Soccer 2012 from Gameloft is a free iPhone and iPad download in name only. Much like Gameloft's equally inadequate NFL Pro 2012, Real Soccer seems more focused on getting you to download upgrades, ideally through in-app purchases, than it does in providing you with a compelling sports game.

When you download the free game, your only available option is to manage an international team through a World Cup-style tournament. Winning games and scoring goals builds up your experience, which unlocks other options like domestic leagues in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Some upgrades--such as different balls, stadiums, and national teams--can also be bought with experience, though the best upgrades require you to spend in-game currency, which you accrue at a much slower pace. Of course, Gameloft is perfectly willing to let you purchase that currency for anywhere from $2 to $100 worth of real money. Entreaties to upgrade to new balls, stadiums, and other extras appear nearly constantly--at least every time you try to access a new menu in the game.

That would be fine--if a little off-putting--were it not for Real Soccer's stamina requirements. To play a game, you need at least 50 points of stamina. The game replenishes one stamina point every 10 minutes, but it caps you at 100 points. Of course, if you're willing to part with some in-game currency--which, again, you can buy with real cash--Gameloft will deign to let you play more than a match or two in Real Soccer in one sitting. It's a greedy, contemptuous scheme that's more interested in separating you from your money than in giving you an enjoyable gaming experience.

The constant upsell is even more insulting when the actual gameplay in Real Soccer doesn't exactly keep you coming back for more. The game features a standard d-pad, along with virtual buttons that change depending on whether you have the ball or not. (Buttons for passing and shooting on offense become controls to press and tackle on defense; the sprint button remains constant.) The controls are pretty simple to use; unfortunately, the AI appears just as simple. Pass a ball to one of your players, and he'll stand there waiting to receive it, instead of charging forward for a free-flowing style of soccer. When your player shoots, he'll come to a dead stop, rather than charge toward the net in hopes of tapping in a rebound. If there's a way to turn dead-ball situations like free kicks and corner kicks into anything other than an exercise in futility, it's beyond me--in-game tutorials appear to be non-existent. And even when you opt for a higher degree of difficulty, your computerized opponent won't put up much of a fight--I often found I was outshooting my opponent by as much as 6-to-1.

It could well be that if you're willing to spend the time--and the money--to optimize Real Soccer 2012 to its fullest that there's a decent game in there somewhere. But what I saw didn't make me eager to part with either commodity.

PES 2012 from Konami Digital Entertainment fares much better just by offering a more genuine free-to-play experience. When you download the free iPhone and iPad game, only the Super Challenge mode and a training area are unlocked and you have a limited selection of teams. In essence, this acts as a sort of trial version: A $6 in-app purchase unlocks the rest of the game. (The exception, at least for me: The recent 1.0.5 update added a Copa Santander Libertadores mode that appears to require a separate in-app purchase.) Note that a single in-app purchase unlocks PES 2012 on any iOS device tied to your iTunes account.

Controls in PES 2012 are similar to what you get in Real Soccer--a d-pad for controlling player movements and two buttons for passes, shots, tackles, and other defensive maneuvers. The trouble is, PES 2012 doesn't label these buttons, so you may not realize what they do at first. Dig around a bit, though, and you'll find a help screen that tells you not only what the buttons do, but how to perform more sophisticated moves like back heels, through balls, crosses, and feints. It makes for better gameplay than in Real Soccer, and your players less likely to stand around and wait for the ball to arrive in PES 2012. (Your computerized opponent is a little more competitive, too, though your opponent never seems to rely on substitutions.)

Multiple game modes are where PES really shines. The Super League mode gives you a chance to lead a team up a four-tier league, with promotions and relegations awaiting at the end of each 38-game season. You can augment your team by adding players through the transfer market with coins you accrue by winning games. You earn this virtual money at such a slow pace, however, that if you have dreams of adding a Messi- or Ronaldo-caliber player, you're going to end up boosting your budget via in-app purchase. In addition to this league mode and a League Cup tournament offering, PES 2012 features not only a Champions League simulation--complete with Champions League anthem--but a Europa League mode as well. The 1.0.5 update also brought the game's rosters in line with real player movements from the 2011-12 season. PES 2012 has its share of shortcomings--the menus are cluttered and the stadium simulations are fairly generic--but soccer fans should appreciate the in-game action.

They'll also like some of PES 2012's multiplayer functionality. I wasn't able to test the game's challenge modes, which require you to know user names or email addresses of PES-playing friends or track them down through Facebook. I did, however, test out the multiplayer features that use a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection to host a local game with another iOS device-toting friend. These local network games work well enough, though there's the occasional lag in action, which can make it difficult to time shots and tackles.

Soccer fans craving realism will probably want to turn to the offerings from Electronic Arts, which makes separate versions of FIFA Soccer 12 for both the iPhone and iPad. These apps come with a price tag--$5 for the iPhone version, $10 for the iPad edition--but a single purchase unlocks everything. And there's lots to unlock: In addition to the top leagues in Europe--England, Italy, Spain, and Germany--FIFA Soccer 12 lets you manage real teams from leagues across the European continent not to mention Australia, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, and the U.S. You get the real club names here, too: Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United go by those names and not London FC, Merseyside Red, and Man Red as they do in PES 2012.

If lower leagues are your passion, FIFA 12's got you covered there, too: It includes the second-tier leagues in Germany, France, Spain, and Italy, as well as all three levels of England's Football League. As a Leyton Orient fan, I was happy to get the chance to lead the O's to the glory that has thus far eluded them in real life.

Controls mirror those in the other two soccer games: FIFA Soccer 12 uses a d-pad for player movement and contextual on-screen buttons for offensive and defensive maneuvers. I found FIFA's controls the least forgiving of the soccer games I tested. One of my players would be sprinting down the pitch when all of a sudden, he'd come to a dead stop as my thumb slid off the d-pad. That said, FIFA Soccer 12 offers the best in-game tutorials for performing more advanced tasks like lobbed passes and through balls, and it handles free kicks and corners in a more intuitive way than the other games.

FIFA Soccer 12 offers limited multiplayer functionality. It's non-existent on the iPhone version, while the iPad offering requires a separate iOS device and a free download of the EA Sports Gamepad app. That app uses Bluetooth connectivity to turn your iPhone or iPod touch into a gamepad, allowing a second player to control a team in FIFA Soccer 12 for the iPad. The set-up is only moderately challenging, and once in place, gameplay works pretty well.

But FIFA Soccer 12 offers another gameplay mode that helps it standout from the competition--a daily challenge. Sign into EA's Origin service, and FIFA Soccer 12 serves up daily tests of your soccer skill. You might have to block a penalty shot or lead a 10-man side to a comeback victory. The challenges are varied and give you the opportunity to play different squads--Bayern Munich one day, Real Madrid the next--and discover which teams you enjoy controlling. Combine the daily challenge with FIFA Soccer 12's friendly match and team manager modes, and there's plenty here to keep you coming back for more.

The iPad version of FIFA Soccer 12 seems noticeably buggy. When I first downloaded the app and tried managing a team, the game would always crash roughly four games into the season, making it impossible to advance any further. After wiping the game off my iPad, reinstalling it, and starting the season again, I was able to finally move forward. Even so, the iPad version will still occasionally limit me to one substitution per match when I should be allowed three. Force-quitting the app usually sets things right. Considering EA last updated the game nearly six months ago, these kinds of bugs are noteworthy enough to make me less enthusiastic about the iPad release.

Soccer fans looking to bring the beautiful game to their iOS device have a couple of worthwhile options. PES 2012 is a good download, so long as you're willing to pony up to unlock the full game. If a realistic soccer simulation is more to your taste, either the iPhone or iPad versions of FIFA Soccer 12 will fit the bill, though you should be prepared to run into some bugs with the latter offering.

Macworld.com editor Philip Michaels is overly pleased by the fact that he led Leyton Orient to both the Johnstone's Paint Trophy and promotion to the npower Championship in FIFA Soccer 12.

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Philip Michaels

Macworld.com
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