Well, they've certainly managed to get the referees right. One-nil down to Maccabi Tel-Aviv in the opening qualifier, the clock ticking down to 90, you steam into the penalty area, only the keeper to beat, you shimmy, dribble, pull back the trigger, and then - WHAM! A stray right leg pole-axes you ferociously into the muddy turf. "Penalty!" you scream. "Play on!" retorts the referee as your Champions League aspirations vaporise in one blurry instant, and the vultures start composing tomorrow's headlines: 'Mr Bastard Sacked as AC Milan Crumble At First Hurdle'. Oh, it's a ruthless, ruthless game...
More than anything, UEFA Champions League prides itself on dodgy refereeing decisions, like the kind you get in the real world. Borderline offsides, ridiculous red cards and penalties for fouls so far outside the box, they may have well been committed in the car park up the road - this one's got the lot. We're even expecting a two-yards-over-the-goal-line 'goal' to be ruled out as soon as we draw Manchester United. But hey, UEFA Champions League is actually quite realistic in other ways too. In fact, it's surprisingly quite good.
It's essentially quite similar to FIFA Football 2005, but tailored like an action adventure. The main Season mode doesn't let you view domestic league tables, transfer players when you want, or even kick off every match at 0-0. Instead, it often sets up scenarios, shoving you in a match 30 or so minutes down the line and challenging you to overcome various deficits. It's all about bounce back ability - being able to turn on the style when the pressure's on; defying the odds and achieving even more unfair objectives set by your fascistic chairman. Of course, you can still customise your own tournaments and leagues too, and the Season mode does let you enjoy many 'full' matches. But the onus on this game is its storytelling feel, something that gives UEFA a unique twist.
But let's talk about the main footballing action and to be fair, it ain't half bad. Developed by a new team up at Vancouver, it's solid, playable, enjoyable fare. The animation is good, the passing generally crisp, and a neat addition to the controls is the ability to decide when to send nearby players on forward runs. Sadly though, it just isn't Pro Evolution. As hard as it tries, the responsiveness can feel a tad sticky, and your players are also erratic - sometimes they lose the ball the instant they receive it; other times they flashily turn an opponent, which totally catches you unaware. And some of the movement just feels too predictable.
Still, if you're a massive football fan and enjoy European Cup action much more than domestic league drama (i.e. you don't support West Ham), UEFA Champions League is worth the effort. Amongst other things, it's got Live tournaments and decent multiplayer. But to everyone else (and it's a bit of a cliché), Pro Evo 4 is still by far and away the essential footy title to own.
From out of nothing the Xbox has another decent football title to add to its ranks. Enjoyable but not essential by any means.