We've laced up our boots and taken to the pitch for some high-octane football action.
It's been far too long since we got a new Mario Strikers game. Far too many years of waiting for the opportunity to don some footy boots as Mario, Luigi, Peach and the rest of the gang, and to head out onto the pitch for some intense and fast-paced football action. But that drought is over and now Nintendo and Next Level Games are back with Mario Strikers: Battle League Football, a title that takes the core gameplay and improves on it with some welcome new features, and also looks to move past just local and single player content by providing a fully-fleshed out online mode. I've been playing and scoring goals over the last few days and have varied thoughts about what has been served up.
For those unaware of what Mario Strikers is, this is a smaller, more concise take on football. Each team consists of four players, with one of those players being the dubbed captain. You have to use these individuals, composed of characters from the world of Mario, to pass, tackle, lob, and most importantly strike in a variety of Cup tournaments and other matches to win games. But as this is a Mario title, the rules aren't as defined as regular football is, and here you can use items from Question Mark blocks, can tackle rather viciously whenever you so please, and can use the iconic Hyper Strikes for serious, powerful, and visually-striking assaults on the opposing goalkeeper. Needless to say, all of this combines to make for a very fast-paced take on football, one where you will never really get a chance to breathe, especially when considering the fact that the arenas are compact and encourage you to get your elbows out - often literally.
Where this game sets itself apart from its predecessor however is in the finer details of the gameplay. This includes the aforementioned new addition of items that can turn a tide of a match (for example Mushrooms to give your character a boost of speed, or a Star to become invulnerable to tackles), but also includes dodges, charged tackles, and timing to have to consider, as if you learn to perfectly time your passes and shots and dodges, you'll be rewarded with more powerful strikes and passes between players that are far more challenging to intercept due to the faster speed that the ball travels. But, with this wealth of additional gameplay mechanics to take into account, Battle League Football is a noticeably far more complex title than former games in the series, and will require a lot of practice to get up to speed with the new mechanics and far more time to master them.
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Add to this the fact that there is now customisation for your characters as well, customisation that allows you to change the gear that each character is wearing to influence their core statistics (for example you could equip Bowser with Cannon Boots for better shooting skill, or Toad with a Chain Plate to improve his passing game). It seems like a complex system at first glance, but the more you play, the more you start to become comfortable with it and begin to create squads with specific focuses, or even attempt to create a truly well-rounded roster instead. It's a welcome feature, one that works incredibly well to add extra layers of depth to the gameplay without being too complex.
Once you have your team locked in, the main body of gameplay revolves around either the online (which I'll touch more on later), or instead the Cup Battles, which are small four-team tournaments where you play against three AI-controlled rosters. This is a great way to get up to speed with Battle League Football, and even includes a harder mode (much harder for that matter), which unlocks when you win all of the cups on the regular difficulty. You'll want to participate in these tournaments as they reward Coins that are used for buying gear for each of your characters, and will even reward special, powerful clothing items at certain points.
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But while all these new and improved features are great, I can't help but notice a few issues that plague the gameplay. For starters, those who never intend to try the online will have to face the wrath of the AI, which means a double-edged sword in multiple different ways. On the lower difficulties, you get basically no challenge at all, and will annihilate opponents by scoring 20+ goals over a tournament without conceding more than three. The lack of a challenge takes the fun out of the game after a while, but that's why the harder difficulty exists. The problem here is that the AI ramps up in difficulty exponentially and there doesn't feel like a learning curve at all: instead the game goes from being too easy to too hard. And this feeling is exasperated by the way that the AI plays, which for the opposing team is a fluid, well-oiled machine that anticipates moves before they've been made, and will often make it a challenge for you to even possess the ball never mind score a goal. All of which makes it even more frustrating that the AI on your side doesn't seem to understand the basic concepts of football and won't move to create space, won't make crucial immediate tackles, and most importantly - and for a reason I cannot fathom - will do everything in its power to avoid picking up a Hyper Strike orb (necessary for being able to use a Hyper Strike) for your team.
Plus there's not a lot of deviation outside of the actual characters and the customisation. Every tournament is a four-team double-elimination bracket, and there's never any change to this. There's not even an option to create your own tournament brackets, perhaps with eight teams, or with a group stage leading into a knockout bracket. It may seem petty to point out, but I can't imagine serving up these few extra options is a huge ask, but if they were available, it would've given the game all the more extra depth to entertain. It's not like the Cup Battles portion is even all that long, because you can bash out one of the six tournaments per difficulty in around 20 minutes. With six tournaments making up a difficulty, well... you do the math.
But that's why the online mode exists because here is where you can play against like-minded and skilled individuals, and can even team up with other players if you so desire. The online, be it simple quick matches or the Strikers Club league system, looks to provide a way to keep you entertained long after the Cups mode has been exhausted. And while the ability to create clubs, to easily dive into online matches, and challenge yourself with rising up the ranks as a club is a bonus, it's not a flawless system in any sense, and I've encountered laggy gameplay and even match terminations, due to connection instability. When it does work however, it works rather well, and is a lot of fun to muck around with, but it's not a reason for such a limited offering of single player/local content, which is what is present in this game at the current time.
Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love the fast-paced, fluid gameplay that Mario Strikers: Battle League Football offers. I love the customisation suite and how that allows you to build teams that have certain playstyles. And it's also a title that looks visually-striking and has taken a fantastic series and brought it into the modern era of gaming - but I can't help but notice the glaring issues as well. If you love football - perhaps you have an affinity for street football games and online gameplay - then Mario Strikers: Battle League Football will be an ideal game for you. But if you don't have that deep admiration for the sport, the novelty of this title will likely wear out rather quickly.
7 / 10
Fluid, fast-paced gameplay keeps you engaged at all times. The customisation suite adds a lot of depth to playstyles and team compositions. Online mode is well supported. Great visuals and Hyper Strike animations are still iconic.
AI is either crushingly difficult or completely useless. Online seems to be a bit shaky. Lack of variety in the Cups mode. Sometimes the complexity of the gameplay is its own worst enemy.