EA Sports Football Academy is a wonderful little game. It appeals to the child in me, the argumentative know-it-all down the pub in me, the football management sim obsessive in me, the sticker collector in me and the Top Trumps fan in me. It's unlike anything else on the DS, and it's perhaps the best game EA's released this year.
Football Academy's tagline is: "BUILD AND PROVE YOUR FOOTBALL KNOWLEDGE", and that's exactly what you do. You spend a lot of time in the game playing "against the clock" Brain Training style mini-games with a football twist in order to improve your "Football IQ". There are tons of these mini-games, some rubbish ("Reveal the Badge", which requires you to guess the club by rubbing the DS like a scratch card, just doesn't work properly), some absolute genius. "Scouting Mission", for example, challenges you to use the stylus to touch on a map where the displayed football club calls home. I'm pretty good when it comes to English geography. I roughly know where Wigan is, or Blackburn. But when the game began asking me to point out where in Spain Recreativo de Huelva is, or where TSG 1899 Hoffenheim are in Germany, I started to struggle.
After playing the game for a few hours your football knowledge really does increase. You become familiar with the most obscure players from the five supported leagues, English Barclays Premier League, French Ligue 1, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and Spanish Liga BBVA. You get quicker at dragging players into their correct national flags. You develop an uncanny photographic memory of league tables from recent seasons, and a superhuman speed at working out if Watford finished higher or lower than Fulham in 2006. Slowly but surely your Football IQ creeps above 100, and the game's answer to Dr. Kawashima, Big Phil Scolari, the Portuguese manager booted out of Chelsea by Roman Abramovich earlier this season for making the fullbacks play like wingers, starts to praise your efforts instead of ridiculing them.
Playing these mini-games provides as close an experience to Brain Training as Football Academy has. If you want you can concentrate only on improving your Football IQ and chart your progress in the various games on offer. For me though, they were nothing more than precursors to the main action - collecting real life players like virtual stickers and playing matches against other teams.
This is where Football Academy gets really interesting. After taking a test you're given a pack of six stickers to open. Inside players from your chosen league will spill out and it's up to you to decide whether to use them to replace those in your 20 strong squad or reject them. Every player has an overall rating, a position, a nationality, a preferred formation and other, more in depth stats. So you really do have to think about who you're keeping and who you're dumping. For example, you get a statistical bonus if over half of your defenders, or midfielders, or attackers, are the same nationality, so simply replacing your right back with a player with better stats might negatively impact your team overall.
You begin the game with access to Bronze packs, which contain average players. For the first few hours of play I had to make do with Fulham's misfiring striker Bobby Zamora and Icelandic journeyman Heidar Helguson up front, each with an overall rating in the low 70s. But as you play and win matches you gain access to Silver and Gold packs. Eventually you'll have a team packed with the best players from around Europe which, obviously, means it'll be made up of nothing other than the current Chelsea first team.
Collecting players in this way is strangely engrossing. Anyone who spent their pocket money filling sticker books as a kid, or perhaps still does as an adult (if adults read Harry Potter anything's possible), will know what I'm talking about. There's a wonderful moment of breathless anticipation as the virtual pack rips and the stickers magically eject themselves. As it was back in the day, it is now. Need, got, need, got... wow, I just got Ballack! He's going straight into my midfield!
The simple matches are where Football Academy fuses elements of Sports Interactive's Football Manager with Top Trumps. The level of influence you can have on proceedings is nowhere near a proper football management sim, of course, but it's still fun. You can decide which side of the field to drive play (I had Ballack early on, so I kept things going through the middle) as well as tweak the team's mentality: push up gives bonuses to attacking, sit back gives bonuses to defending, and balanced gives a small bonus both ways).
A game will ebb and flow, then an attack will begin. This will see two players face off in a dribbling, passing or shooting battle, depending on where on the pitch the attack begins. If it begins in defence, one of your defenders will try and pass the ball around an opposing attacker. Their passing rating will go head to head, modified by your team chemistry (governed by your Football IQ), the players' energy and team mentality. For the large part you can sit back and watch this happen, enjoying the Roy of the Rovers-style comic illustrations that flash on screen as well as the ooohs and aahhs and often hilarious screams from the crowd ("where's the quality?"). But you can determine whether or not you want to take a risk, playing a through ball instead of passing to feet, for example, or going for a powerful shot as opposed to a placed one. Take a risk and you have the potential to get a huge bonus modifier, but you could lose the same amount. Play it safe and the potential plus/minus modifiers are lower.
Football Academy isn't without problems. I found taking a test eventually became something of a chore that got in the way of the good stuff. Managing your team is fiddly - working out whether new players are better than the ones you've got is frustrating because you have to slowly scroll through the players in your squad to view individual player stats. The game isn't up to date, so January transfers, somewhat disappointingly, haven't been included (I doubt Scolari's sacking went down well with EA, either). And while you can trade stickers with other real world players, and play matches wirelessly, there are no online options, which really would have been something.
Still, these issues don't prevent Football Academy from being great. It's just hugely satisfying to win a match. I found myself geeing on my strikers whenever they took a shot. I found myself cheering out loud after a last-minute Bobby Zamora winner broke Hull hearts. This, fused with the "collect-em-all" nature of virtual sticker collecting, makes Football Academy almost impossible to put down. If you're a football fan and you have a DS, I can't recommend this surprising gem enough. This may just be the best thing Scolari's done all season.