As regular readers will be aware, the eponymous Stars refers not to the overpaid drunkards that grace our national game, but rather to the unique performance-related reward system around which the game is based. Essentially, if you do well, you are awarded Stars, although it's a rather arbitrary system - a Man Of The Match award carries the same weight as a victory, and Fair Play is worth more than scoring a goal. Once received, the Stars can be spent on improving the attributes of your various squad members, such as control, agility, power, strength, shooting, passing and heading, which again is fairly vague, the difference between power and strength, for instance, proving a fairly murky area. If you save up enough Stars, you can even delve into the transfer market, albeit at the cost of a current player, with squads strictly limited to 16 players.
So far, so what? It's a vaguely acceptable idea, and adds a kind of 'management lite' aspect to the game, although it can become a chore having to dish out the Stars after every game. However, fancy gimmicks are no substitute for a decent game of togger and, as any pundit will confirm, it's on the pitch that it counts. The Premier League licence has bought extreme authenticity, and every stadium in the Premiership has been immaculately modelled, from the ramshackle sheds of newcomers Watford to the Old Trafford's corporate-ridden whispering gallery. Player names are all present and correct, although likenesses are not part of the deal, and only generic efforts have been made - with many of the faces looking as though they've been freshly ironed.
Turn On A Bin Lid
But it's what they do with their feet that's important, and the action is a curiously stunted affair, coming across as a mutant hybrid of FIFA and Actua, albeit lacking the immediacy of the former and the intricacy of the latter. The major problem is the players' first touch, which generally has all the grace and poise of a Hackney Marshes slugger. An adroit through-ball can be played to coincide with a perfectly timed run, only for the receiving player to stumble aimlessly for a few seconds, by which time the defence has caught up, defeating the object of the initial ball. This encourages greedy play, and a lot of goals are inevitably unlikely solo efforts, coming at the end of long jinking runs. Also, the camera system is less than perfect, and when embarking on a run down the nearside wing it zooms in to such an extent that you lose your bearings, oblivious to the proximity of the byline, let alone the positions of any team-mates.
It's a pity, as the presentation and atmosphere is immaculate, with lively commentary from the Sky Sports Team and specific songs being sung at particular stadiums. All of which will be lapped up by the mass-market punter, which is who the game is aimed at. We can only hope FIFA 2000 sees a return to form.
Download The F.A. Premier League Stars
We're constantly being told that it's the best league in the world, and while Charlton versus Forest on a wet Wednesday evening may not be the stuff of dreams, EA certainly rate the Premier League highly. So much so that they spent a vulgar amount of money securing the licence, the deal initially spawning the irksomely titled - and distinctly average - FA Premier League Football Manager '99. Never slow to capitalise on a brand, that will be followed up in the summer by The FA Premier League STARS, which promises to be a different bag altogether.
Initial reports suggested some kind of FIFA-style hybrid but with role-playing elements, a description that had us picturing a league comprised of Ore City, Dragons United, Goblin Albion and AFC Beard. Thankfully this isn't the case; the role-playing simply refers to a pseudo-management feature whereby performance-related stars are awarded to successful teams. In that sense it's a bit like working in McDonald's. However, rather than advertising your status in the cut-and-thrust world of fast food, the stars can be used to continuously customise your team and players -not by adding go-faster stripes, but by improving skill ratings in key areas such as shooting, tackling, passing, drinking, gambling and so forth. The so-called STARS can also be used to buy players, a method of payment that would hold little water in today's grossly inflated transfer market.
Spookily enough, the subject of a management game where you can control your team manually was brought up in this month's Supertest, as this hasn't been attempted properly since the peerless Sensible World Of Soccer 96/97. It's not clear how deep the management options in STARS will be, and the game's producer Danny Isaac would only reveal that "the game will combine the high excitement of the Premier League with a brand new gaming concept to break the mould set by more traditional football games".
What is certain is who's providing the commentary in the game, EA's big pocket having secured the services of the Sky Sports team, namely the hairy-handed Richard Keys, Martin 'Zombie' Tyler and the effervescent Andy Gray. And if Gray's got anything to do with it, the game should be "absolutely fantastic!"