Ever since Electronic Arts stopped releasing its FIFA games on the Vita, soccer fans have had little to get excited about when it comes to kicking the old pig bladder into the onion bag on Sony's handheld. Hell, Konami didn't even bother putting its Pro Evo games out on the system, full stop. The last FIFA release was FIFA 15, a re-skinned 'legacy edition' of a game several years old, so in reality the last time the Vita received a bonafide new soccer title was probably around 2012.
Enter Active Soccer 2 DX from indie developer Gianluca Troiano, a reworked and upgraded version of one the most highly regarded iOS soccer titles. I have to be honest here - when I first learned that Active Soccer 2 DX had its origins in the mobile market, I was a little worried. A quick look at the Apple App Store reviews allayed these fears somewhat, as the game has some pretty positive reviews and ratings so I decided to take the plunge. £7.99 later and Active Soccer 2 DX was sitting on my Vita. With trepidation I tapped that little rotating token, but I needn't have worried - Active Soccer 2 DX is a truly remarkable little arcade soccer title.
Looking at the screenshots here, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a re-issued version of Sensible Soccer, and to put it bluntly Active Soccer makes no secret of the fact that it borrows more that a little inspiration from Sensible Software's seminal take on the beautiful game. The influences are clear to see as soon as you load the game up. The menus could be ripped straight from an Amiga monitor, with the familiar still backgrounds, and small text laid on little coloured boxes. The team selection screens offer a similarly bewildering number of clubs and national sides, all of which have some slightly humourous mis-spellings of famous player names due to the lack of official license. Likewise, Active Soccer 2 DX features classic teams with players of yesteryear populating the team sheets of your favourite club. You have the ability to tinker with formations, strategies, lineups - all standard stuff for any soccer game worth its salt...but it's on the pitch that Active Soccer 2 DX really shines.
A word of warning though. Don't go into Active Soccer expecting metered build up play or anything approaching the complexity of FIFA or PES. This is an arcade experience through and through, so if you go in expecting a mash up of World Cup Italia '90 and Sensible Soccer, you'll come away with nothing but a very broad smile on your face. The gameplay is fast, incredibly simple and above all it's a ton of fun. There are only four inputs you need to worry about - short pass, long pass, shoot and sprint...that's it. There's a training mode included that gives you hints and tips on the best practices for passing, one-twos and how to take penalties and free kicks, but Active Soccer 2 DX is so easy to get to grips with if you've ever played a soccer game before that you'll barely need to visit the tutorial.
Passing is crisp, shooting is as simple as holding down the shoot button and aiming at the goal. Crossing the ball into the box and sending lofted passes across the pitch are both handled by the long pass button. Tackling is fairly automatic - simply run into an oncoming player or slide them. It's not as draconian as the system used in something like Virtua Striker, but it works well in a game this simplistic, allowing you to focus on getting the ball to one of your strikers and sticking the ball in the top corner. That said, scoring goals can be tricky as the goalies here are no pushover; but it never gets to the point where you'll go for hours without scoring. There does appear to be a touch of randomness when you shoot - sometimes the ball sails into the goal with ease, others the keeper will make an impossible save or the ball just goes comically wide or high. But that really just adds to the excitement, especially if you're trailing by a narrow margin and you're throwing everything at the opponent's goal. It can get pretty tense at times.
Active Soccer 2 DX is a lot of fun and represents one of the rare occasions where I've literally punched the air after scoring a vital goal. All of the expected components of the beautiful game are here: fouls, cards, offsides, throw ins, penalties, free kicks - everything you'd want. It really plays very well, and there are plenty of competitions and cups to take part in. The PlayStation 4 version does feature a career mode that's missing from the Vita port, and the handheld version doesn't have an online multiplayer mode at the time of writing this review, but Gianluca Troiano appears to be very active on Facebook and has announced that these missing options will be implemented in an upcoming update for the Vita game.
Active Soccer on the Vita isn't perfect - there are some pretty horrendous loading times when you first start the game, and the slow down when the teams first walk onto the pitch is quite laughable, but as soon as the teams are out it quickly clears up. Personally, I'd have liked more variations in stadia (there's only one) and better replays after goals, along with some rudimentary commentary (it's just pitch and crowd noises during gameplay), but I suppose this style of audio does suit this type of retro-themed, top down soccer title. That said, the matches can be viewed from a number of camera angles, and they're all perfectly playable - especially the isometric viewpoint if you're hankering for some old-skool FIFA action.
I wasn't expecting much from Active Soccer 2 DX, and not least because it started life as a mobile game. However, if you can look past the game's origins what you'll find here is a thoroughly enjoyable alternative to more serious soccer titles that have graced the Vita. Once the updates are rolled out, a full career mode and online multiplayer will make the Vita version of Active Soccer 2 DX a more enticing prospect, but even in its current form, this is arguably the most fun you can have on Sony's handheld that involves 22 men kicking a ball around on a bit of grass.