Dream League Soccer 2016 wears its heart on its title screen. On the one hand you've got Aaron Ramsey, a model professional, a decent footballer, and by all accounts, a good man. He represents the positive side of the game, the beating heart of a title that looks great, and plays pretty well on mobile and tablet.
However, there's two sides to this particular coin, and this is exemplified by Diego Costa, the man who adorns the title screen alongside Ramsey. Costa's game is characterised by his combative nature, and to complete the metaphor, there's a similar amount of friction in the game that means, like Costa, we find it hard to enjoy this take on the beautiful game as much as we should given what it undoubtedly offers.
Let's start with the good. First up, it looks really decent all things considered; like an older FIFA game, with crisp graphics and solid animations (and the load times between matches are lightening quick). It's easy to get into a match, and although they're over quickly, they can be quite enjoyable. The controls are well implemented, and it won't take long before you're pulling off one-twos between teammates, sliding through-balls past defenders, and pulling off last gasp tackles. If you consider it on those terms, it's worth the free download.
It's not, however, a perfect interpretation of the beautiful game. Turning over the ball and transitioning from defence to attack is often as simple as running your own player into the path of your opponent and tapping tackle, players get tired too quickly and injured a lot, and the AI can be daft beyond belief at times (like when in one game the opposition goalkeeper twice passed straight to our forward allowing him to run through and score). It's a simple game, and while that can be refreshing at times, it's often just as much of a hinderance as it is a positive.
But you can forgive most of the issues because as a mobile experience, it works. The matches might be short, but they're fully featured; so dodgy tackles mean red and yellow cards, there's injuries and substitutions, and goals can come in all shapes and sizes (although the touch controls make it tricky to execute long shots).
Behind the business of sticking the ball in the back of the net, there's a campaign mode that underpins the experience, and it was here that our enjoyment was hampered by the game's financial model. You can pick a captain from a selection of decent (but not world class) players, and he joins your team of no-hopers in the bottom league, and your mission is to get them to the top.
You're given a small number of gold coins, and you earn more by playing matches (the better you do, the higher the reward). At the start you've got enough to buy in a new player, someone of comparable quality to your captain. But then the gold is gone and you're building up your fortune again. This gold can be spent on kit customisation and the like, as well as transfers, but earning enough to get a new player in will take a lot of grinding. You even have to spend gold on training your existing players.
Of course, you can spend real money to buy more gold, if you want.
That payment model, in theory, shouldn't affect the experience, but it does. The rate at which you earn the coins needed to acquire new players and train existing ones is glacial, but you could live with that if you were happy taking your team of slightly rubbish players up a division but without reinforcements. However, there's a twist in the tail which left us thoroughly unimpressed: if you get promoted from your division and want to proceed to the next league you have to upgrade your stadium, and if you decide not to pay real money to unlock the gold coins needed for said upgrade, you have to restart the old league and keep playing until you've got enough.
We certainly don't have a problem paying money for customisation, and we wouldn't have had an issue paying for boosters to give us a comfortable amount of gold so that our progression felt natural, but gating parts of the game like they have ultimately put us off grinding through, especially when gold needed for the stadium is the same currency used to upgrade your squad. Hell, we'd have probably been happy with the first division being free, and paying to unlock the rest of the game, as long as the transfers and training were free.
It gets worse in multiplayer. When it works. Most of the games we tried to play had opponents drop out very early, as soon as they realised we weren't rubbish. On top of that, you don't play with real teams, but instead you take your own single-player team into the multiplayer arena, and seeing as you can spend real money to buy great players in single-player and then transfer them into the online portion of the game, you're left with what is effectively pay-to-win (of course, my team of minnows might have a chance at beating your team that includes Ronaldo, but there's a huge advantage there for someone who has spent lavishly).
The monetisation of the game left a sour taste, because we were looking forward to seeing which teams were in the next tier (teams are drawn from different leagues around Europe, it's kinda random, but it just about works). Dream League Soccer 2016 is a solid mobile football game, but there's just too much grind. There's ways of making the free-to-play financial model work, but for us this takes things a step too far.
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