New Star Soccer is one of those mobile games that, in the first 30 seconds, absolutely hooks anyone of the ball-kicking persuasion. Focusing on what touch controls are good at – precision taps and great finger sweeps – it distils the beautiful game into a turn-based, semi-Sensi form that incorporates every true fan's love of running arrows. It is quickfire, it is fun, and builds up to a serious challenge. Even thinking about it makes me want to go back for another go because, to channel Scottish football commentators, New Star Soccer is an absolute beautaayyyy.
It didn't come out of the blue, however. The New Star series had been niche PC titles for almost a decade before the mobile version brought wild success, and over those years the games had zeroed-in on what they do so well: creating the atmosphere of a football career, and giving the player control at those crunch moments. Many years in the making, New Star Soccer Manager takes this to the next level and gives you overall control of a club, while still leaving the key moments in matches up to you. It's now live on the App store and free-to-play.
New Star Soccer Manager is an exceptional football game that comes with an enormous caveat, which is that it is monetised to the point of tainting the overall experience. One of the first things I did after starting was buy a £4.99 IAP that removed 'interstitial' adverts, both because I loved the previous games and more generally respect this option in mobile games. I hate ads popping up on my phone so this seemed a fiver well spent.
Were it so easy. The developers of New Star Soccer Manager are being clever about the word 'interstitial.' Sweet summer child that I am, I expected the purchase to remove adverts from the game. It doesn't do this, it removes some adverts but retains other ones that – it gets worse – are baked-in to the game's core loop. Before key matches your assistant coach will turn up and ask if you want to watch an advert for an extra retry in the match (you get one by default). Worse, the 'yes' button is put where you are always clicking through to confirm – one of many examples of dark pattern UI here built around 'player packs' – meaning that, of course, I kept accidentally choosing to watch adverts when I wanted to go to the match.
So it was that, soon after starting New Star Soccer Manager and having made a downpayment, I found my phone taken over by some garish casino ad that that tried to spam notifications. Did you think no interstitial ads meant 'no interstitial ads'? Hahahaha. Look forward to not just the above, but a player search screen where fully a third of the search results are permanently obscured by a gold banner advertising purchasable player packs (which naturally contain gods rather than the clay-footed troglodytes you're searching through.) Every important match, you'll be offered extra retries in return for either watching ads or paying. Your assistant pops up every so often to mention that your team's crap and you should buy player packs.
Frankly I felt like reporting this IAP to the UK advertising standards agency, before deciding that would be too much of a stunt and merely contacting Apple to request a refund. Developer New Star Games should be ashamed of the UI and monetisation implementation here, not because of the greed but because of the sheer disrespect it shows to both the player and the game it smothers.
The kicker is, unfortunately, that New Star Soccer Manager is at least partly brilliant. The opening few minutes take you at blinding speed through a load of nested menus and club options, but in reality a lot of the 'management' side is automated and your main involvement is in using various cards to train, treat, and massage the egos of players. These cards are doled out sparingly after matches and for succeeding in a number of random challenges: a journalist occasionally pops up to ask a pressure question, for example, like the name of your fitness coach. Get it right and you'll get a couple of manager cards (such as Team Talk, which boosts energy levels at half-time), get it wrong and everyone involved in the club (fans, players, sponsors and the board) will lose a tiny bit of confidence in your abilities.
New Star Soccer Manager crafts this imaginary football club into an enterprise you really care about. Early upgrades to the facilities produce big benefits, a gorgeously slick touch sees players' social media accounts popping up in the corner of your screen, and fans celebrate big wins by boasting that they're heading down to the bookie to pick up their winnings. It's funny too, and the banter as you begin to build a dynasty gets you invested in certain players and is also a good reminder of hidden talent you're neglecting. Each player has a skill level but also a potential skill level, which decreases as they age. So you want to get young-ish players full of promise, then train them up over time with skill cards to create a Ronaldo.
As any student of the game knows, of course, any team can look great on paper but it ultimately all comes down to your performance on the pitch. NSSM's match interface is a mix of text updates that lead into a top-down and (mostly) turn-based take on football at the crucial moments, where pinging another player passes the ball to them and drawing running lines makes players run into space. It's simple to get the hang of but there's something great in how many different scenarios it can throw up, and it comes to feel like something of a puzzle game - you'll stare at the situation on the pitch, rotate the camera around for a better look, and only after some judicious chin-stroking choose the killer pass.
At the crucial moment of a shot, a cross or a header, the game switches to a first-person view of the ball which, depending on the situation, will be moving across the screen. You tap the ball to shoot and try to judge height and spin as best you can, then watch the result play out in the top-down view. The 'feel' of scoring a goal is another masterstroke, with an irresistible 'net bulge' sound effect as the ball crashes in, accompanied by an LCD animation in the text window (like the giant screens at stadiums) as your little dudes run over to the corner flag going wild.
The question of how much your performance matters is hard to answer, however, because NSSM does feel suspiciously like it's guiding the player along something of a pre-defined dramatic route. I'd be interested to know if any players share my experience, which was that after saving the team from relegation (this is basically the tutorial) my first season saw about 20 wins on the trot and a huge lead at the top of the table. Then weird stuff started happening. I went 2-0 up in my next game, and the opposing team immediately scored two on the bounce then, after half-time, two more. I got one more attack which I fluffed. OK fair enough, a bad match. Then in the next game, my goalkeeper got injured in the first 10 minutes, I brought on my sub keeper, and two minutes later he gives away a penalty and gets sent off. I mean, what are the chances?
This all felt a little weird, like the game had decided I'd got too far ahead of the pack and had to be brought back into contention. Like it was managing my management experience. Who knows, but it had the effect of decreasing my interest in the game, because at the same stage you hit the gold roadblocks: NSSM has an in-game 'soft' currency, which is earned in small amounts after matches but can also be bought. Prices start at £9.99! In time-honoured F2P fashion your initial upgrades to the facilities are affordable and have impact, then after around level 3 the prices jump from tens of thousands of coins to hundreds of thousands.
NSSM ended up in limbo for me. There are parts of this game I adore. But I've never been so outright bothered by an IAP as the 'no ads' option here, and the core football action is surrounded by a fun management-lite side that after a certain point turns into something of a grind. Let me put it this way: when I got this game, I played it for maybe six or seven hours over the first two days. I had a lot of fun, but probably won't pick it up again.
Look, I’m all for developers making money, and I think players should pay for games they enjoy. I regularly spend money on the App Store and am happy to do so. But when a game’s design feels so in thrall to the business model, something fun and important is lost. There's no reason not to try it for yourself, because for good or ill NSSM is free. Thanks to FIFA Ultimate Team and to all the F2P consultants that have turned New Star Games's heads over the years, because you really played a blinder here. No doubt this will make money and good luck to it. The reason so many players dislike F2P is that few developers can hit that balance of keeping the cash side distinct from whatever loop they're employing. What's sad about New Star Soccer Manager is that you can see the potential here, and the beautiful game at the core. As it is, however, you leave with an ugly impression.