Social sports games have never really taken off on Facebook. We’ve never been entirely sure why, but some theories include the prospect that most people that might be interested are not your average Facebook user, or at least social game player. So we got interested when the soccer application Bola, from Playdom-owned Argentinean developer Three Melons, reached near 2 million monthly active users recently.
Perhaps it is because soccer is the most widely watched sport in the world — and because the World Cup is happening this summer — but the success may also be due in part that the game doesn’t quite feel like a typical sports game. At its face value, it feels more like a SimCity type of game. Here’s our review.
The opening screen is an empty set of land with some paltry buildings the player must build up. After choosing their team colors, the first task for the player is to build up their stadium. Already the game shows promise as each item you buy for your stadium increases its luxury, and in turn, its ticket price when you play games in it. Unfortunately, this section is far from completed as only the stadium seating and field can be upgraded, and anything beyond that, such as paint, billboards, or random decorations are still “coming soon.”
Obviously, upgrading the stadium is a big deal when it comes to income, but the game also allows you to supplement that with weekly sponsorships from some rather sizable names. The two that stand out are National Geographic and Fox Networks. Furthermore, each sponsor ship offers a bonus achievement, that if you accomplish, you will earn a bonus of 10,000 “Bollars” (Bola’s in-game currency). At the moment, it is finishing a game without any goals scored against you.
This is where Bola moves into a different 5yp3 of a game. Players actually play and control a soccer team in each game. There are three modes: Practice, Tournament, and Social. The former is nothing special, but really just lets the player get used to the controls that consist of the arrow keys, and two buttons for shoot and pass. Tournament mode, on the other hand, allows users with enough experience (fans) and coin to enter and earn various trophies, prize money, and more fans.
The real meat of the game comes with the Social Matches. From here, players can challenge both friends (who have seven days to accept of automatically forfeit) and other random Bola players their level. The game will play out with the user controlling the athlete closest to the ball. This is, of course, all asynchronous, with the AI controlling the other person’s team. At first, it was pretty fun, but it gets old very quickly.
Frankly, the computer is a lot better than the player, with not much in the way of difficulty curves. Also, the controls are too simple for something like this. You can’t control who you pass to, the ball often goes where you don’t want it too, and since control switches to the closest player to the ball, you often find yourself running in random directions before you realized control switched. Furthermore, each match is extremely short; maybe a minute or so, thus leaving most matches at 0 to 0.
Oh, there is also one other thing to… Loading…. mention about the Social Match mode…. Loading 75%…. and that’s that the game constantly, like clockwork, freezes during loading. Not only are the loading screens long from time to time, but well over half that time they freeze part way through the load and the user has to refresh the whole game and try again. Moreover, they have to wait for the initial game to load before trying to reload the Social Match.
The game is in beta, so bugs like this are understandable. The problem is that much of the game is impossible to play as a result.
As a matter of fact, because of this issue, we could not experience the entirety of Bola, as to unlock new mechanics, you have to level up a good amount and playing matches is the only way to earn experience. This is a shame too as there are a number of features that unlock as the player levels up, including a headquarters to modify your players, a gym to train and upgrade them, and even some more “coming soon” areas including a lab and a city. What these will do is yet to be determined, but likely the latter may have something to do with friends cheering for your team, considering when you mouse over it, there is a status bar for “Passion.”
Assuming the game works right and the player is able to level up to the required level to unlock some of these elements, they really do add an extra level to social play against friends. Even though the computer will control their teams, their teams seem to inherit the training given to them. It’s almost like playing a half version of them. It’s not an original concept, and we’ve seen it in other apps, but it is still cool.
Overall, Bola looks great and has tremendous potential. It does an excellent job at masking the most sporty elements, that likely frighten away many Facebook users, with it’s SimCity’esque façade at the start. However, the mini soccer game itself is a bit clunky and really needs some overhauling. Also, many users might also desire an automatic result without them having to play it out. At the moment, it tailors only to real gamers with its twitch-based style of play, and most Facebook users are going to prefer the slower-paced building up of their team and soccer club. That said, all the potential in the world means nothing if players can’t actually play. We’ll be tracking the game as it improves.