Lets start with the good news for AFL fans -- AFL Premiership 2006, Melbourne-based IR Gurus' latest attempt at turning Aussie Rules into a videogame, trumps its 2005 effort in a couple of key areas. First, the game is already out there ready for your purchasing pleasure, which is a markedly better than last year when the 2005 version was released after the AFL Finals season had come and gone (taking a lot of the buzz out of the game). And second, AFL Premiership 2006 features a fairly comprehensive multi-season mode which allows you to manage nearly all aspects of your chosen team, including modifying player skills, trading players at the end of each season and going through the entire draft process. It's almost sim-like, and it's a top addition for wannabe coaches.
And now for the not so positive. Many of the gameplay shortcomings found in last year's game are still here in AFL Premiership 2006. Players still move like they're running through treacle, look like robots and react sluggishly to controls. Those weaned on the slickness of other big name sport games will find the lack of responsiveness and blocky graphics in AFL Premiership 2006 immediately frustrating. AFL fanatics who persevere will find the game passable and for the most part enjoyable -- once you spend a few hours getting used to AFL Premiership 2006's gameplay peculiarities, that is.
To be fair, AFL Premiership 2006 has made some noticeable improvements to its on-field gameplay from last year's effort. Tackles stick much better in 2006, and general run of play seems to be smoother. The rest is still hit and miss, however. Overly sensitive directional controls make it fiendishly hard to direct kicks and handpasses -- when aiming a kick or a pass, it's far too easy to turn your player completely around by slightly over pushing the PS2's left analog stick, meaning a kick you intended to go on a slight angle may actually end up being hoisted in another direction completely. Your on-screen players also take too long to recover from missed tackles or even the slightest bumps. Missing a tackle usually results in your player getting up from the ground painfully slowly, while getting bumped by the opposition sends your player reeling for a second or so. It breaks the flow of the game and becomes frustrating, particularly at the hardest difficulty setting thanks to some unforgiving AI which sees computer players seemingly able to shrug tackles at will while landing each and every one of their attempts.
Kicking for goal doesn't fare much better. As soon as a player is within kicking distance from goals, a small indicator representing the sticks with a sliding meter appears. Players need to stop the sliding meter when it's in the middle of the goal indicator to make their kick accurate. While this system works fine in most cases, having to wait for the sliding meter to move back to a good position results in some fairly ridiculous situations during a game. Players will often find themselves in a great position to shoot for goal (such as being directly in front and a few metres away), only to be forced to wait for a second or so before the sliding meter reaches its best point.
Compounding the control issues is the game's AI, which is perplexing at most times. While players have the ability to set tactics for different areas of the field (usually a neutral, aggressive or defensive stance), none of these seem to matter. Players, both in your team and the opposition, will almost invariably run into space without a defender in sight regardless of the tactics employed.
AFL Premiership 2006's saving grace lies in its excellent career mode, which is an AFL trainspotter's dream come true. The career mode allows you to play multiple seasons (both pre-season, full season and finals games) and lets you develop your chosen team in any way you see fit. Each of the 16 teams in the league and all of its listed players are available -- which means all of the well-known superstars as well as first-year hopefuls. Each game you play earns you experience points, which you can then use to develop your players. All players are given a rating out of 100, which is derived from a list of 10 attributes like strength, speed, stamina or skill. This means you can take a few rookies (or an entire team of average players) and build them up to become powerhouses over the course of a few games/seasons.
And the tinkering doesn't stop after the finals. The game's career mode also allows you to initiate player trades once the September action is over, as well as take part in the pre-season draft. The draft itself is very detailed, with each of the new players broken down into player types (such as ruckmen, forward, etc) that allow you to easily choose players to complement your team. You can, of course, allow the game to do all of this automatically, although we'd suggest you don't as the AI will often allow some insane trades.
Outside of the career mode, AFL Premiership 2006 also has quick match, single match and season mode, which only plays through one season. New to the franchise is a training mode, which is essentially a single match which occasionally pauses the game to dish out some play instructions. It's a nice feature, but we would have liked to have seen a more dedicated training mode which allowed you to practise the basic skills of the game such as kicking and passing.
The major new game mode addition to 2006 is the mission mode. Missions dip into the recent real life history of each of the 16 AFL teams and presents players with a scenario to emulate. For example, the Sydney Swans mission takes you back to the last quarter of the 2005 Grand Final and gives you the task of repeating history by wining the game. Geelong fans get to relive the heartbreaking semi final loss to the Swans last year, instead this time they're required to win the last quarter instead of losing it in the dying seconds. The missions themselves are a fun addition for fans, but since there is only one for each team it's a relatively short-lived feature.
Those looking for graphical finesse will find little joy in AFL Premiership 2006. All of the players still sport the blocky features seen in last year's effort, and bear little to no resemblance to their real life counterparts. Jerky animations are the order of the day, with the player's movements unrealistic for the most part. Odd graphical bugs also pop up from time to time -- it's not uncommon to see players running straight through each other, and the strange, disembodied boundary line pom-poms from last year's game make a return appearance. Audio is similarly patchy. AFL Premiership 2006 does feature some nice commentary from the likes of Dennis Commeti, Dermott Brereton and Christie Malthouse, but you'll hear the same phrases over and over again by the time you're a few games through.
But despite its technical limitations, AFL Premiership 2006 plays much better than its predecessor, and is overall a much easier game to recommend for those who must have an AFL videogame in their lives. A lot of the gameplay issues will end up frustrating most, but there's enough of a base there to make for some decent fun, particularly when playing against a human opponent.