Just another day in the Sam Cruise detective agency, except it was the AMIGA POWER office.
"Good morning! " said Cliff (from Daze) as he strolled in. "I have got a great new football management game. From Germany". He waved it around hopefully.
"Oh good," mumbled JD unconvincingly, trying to hide under a desk. "I will get someone to review it straight away. Thanks Cliff. No, really", he added more loudly as Cliff (from Daze) ran away.
JD eyed the game with suspicion, already regretting his impetuous words. Perhaps Cam would care to review the game? He glanced across at his Deputy Editor, who was always coming up with top ideas for features and suggesting JD go on holiday and was never asked to make the tea, just in case. Cam was carving the words, "I despise football with every fibre of my being" into his desk with a sickle.
Jonathan Nash then. JD slid the game inconspicuously across his desk in Jonathan's general direction, but to no avail, for Jonathan was in a different room using seven thousand pounds' worth of complicated scanning equipment to digitise himself into an episode of Animaniacs. JD gnawed his lip.
Suddenly, light burst upon him. Steve McGill! He was always going on about Kilmarnock and they, apparently, were a football club. He was the man for the job. But a quick search of the office revealed no McGill. There was, however, a small note pinned to his computer. "I have had enough", read JD, his stomach between his knees. "Nobody respects my religious beliefs, so I am off to make my fortune with the script of a new Tom and Jerry cartoon, Killie Kitty". The hapless Editor fell back into his chair, perspiration spotting his brow. Surely he was not going to have to review a... a... football management simulation himself!
Just then a familiar figure appeared. It was AP's tousle-haired Production Edtior, Steve Faregou. Fagaaarrr. Steve, er, Thingy, and he was whistling something. Something tantalisingly familiar. Why, it was the theme tune to Match of the Day!
"Steve", cried JD, almost excitedly, "Do you like football"? Steve jumped back in alarm, dropping his copy of 90 Minutes and nearly snapping the harness of the complicated car-battery-small-television-video-recorder arrangement he was using to watch the 1958 World Cup (Brazil v Sweden). "Possibly", he answered guardedly. JD ate a chocolate biscuit in triumph.
Already regretting his impetuous words
And so it came to pass that I got to review On the Ball World Cup Edition. And am I ever glad. It is terrific. It is also incredibly big (about 10Mb) which means it is best to play it from hard drive or have at least two external drives.
The plot is the same old thing: your task, as a national coach, is to prepare and qualify a squad for the World Cup. Or, if you prefer, you can skip all the qualification process and go straight into the Cup. You can choose to be the coach of any team in the world and you have a period of months over which to organise friendlies and training sessions around the qualification matches.
It is the way the game has been put together that makes it so enjoyable. Numbercrunching is kept in the background where it belongs, leaving you to get on with the important business of bellowing in disbelief as your striker completely misses his shot and nibbling your tie-clip in a frenzy as the opposing team swoops on your goal. The highlights are a mixture of running text commentary and 3Dish animated bits, and they mesh perfectly. Which is more than can be said for your players.
Quite possibly the finest aspect of On the Ball is its storytelling feature. You know how in other footy many games your players are just a group of statistics? In OTB, they really come to life, training badly, attacking unkind journalists, having good days and off ones.
As coach, you have to attend press conferences, give interviews on the touchline after an important match, deal with players' personal problems (when I was playing, one of my team fell madly in love, which affected his form) and make stirring speeches at half time, being sure to single out the right people for praise otherwise everyone else will get cheesed off. It is a level of involvement that turns a game into a memorable story - something I have never before seen in a footy sim.
The game is also helped a lot by the excellent graphics. The match highlights are true Roy Of The Rovers, and the static in-game screens are beautifully drawn. Even after several hours of playing, I was still discovering new pictures - and some of them are really funny, displaying an unusual (and hugely welcome) lightness of touch.
This sort of skewed thinking is typical of the approach to the game - make it fun to play, and all else will follow. And, of course, it is fun to play. The menus are all easy to use, the results of the matches are believable, and your decisions have a significant effect on those results.
You get to know your players, tailoring their training accordingly, and learning who to praise and who to criticise. If I have a criticism, it is that the game is limited in scope: You only play in the World Cup and there are no financial decisions to make. But! According to Daze a league version will be released in September, featuring exactly those things in addition to sponsors and FA Cup and European tournaments. I cannot wait.