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  1. Considering the global popularity of soccer (or football), it's a little surprising that it's taken this long for another Mario Strikers game to come out. But after roughly 17 years, Mario and friends are back in the pitch with Mario Strikers: Battle League, featuring offline and online play as well as a Club system that lets you join up with other players and compete against other clubs online. With relatively few game modes and options though, this game might not be strong enough to take home the cup. There's no story mode or narrative to speak of in Battle League, but there is a cup mode that lets you (and up to four friends on the same console) compete against CPU teams. These cup matches can be a little underwhelming though. Each cup is meant to highlight a different attribute of the character roster (power, speed, passing, etc.) but on Normal mode the CPU isn't all that difficult and you're not really challenged with learning the finer details of the game in order to beat them. Finishing every cup does unlock a harder difficulty mode at least, which is more of a challenge, but not surprisingly the real meat of the game is in the multiplayer modes. Let me backup a bit and touch upon the core soccer gameplay. Like a lot of Mario sports games, Battle League finds a nice balance between replicating the sport, simplifying things enough that novice players can jump right in, and reveling in wacky interactions from special skills or items. Throwing out a giant banana peel to trip up an opponent while they're trying to pass is just good goofy fun, but at the same time if you want to master your timing for effective passing and shooting you can do that too. In true Mario fashion, Battle League is easy to learn but has enough depth that you can really spend time fine-tuning your abilities in some fun ways. The main new feature here is the Hyper Strike. Strike Orbs will randomly appear on the field and if you or one of your teammates grabs it you'll be able to shoot off a Hyper Strike by completing a simple timing-based QTE, similar to powering up a shot in Mario Golf games. A perfectly-timed Hyper Strike is unblockable and even an imperfectly-timed one can get through the goalie sometimes (if you're playing a human opponent they'll get a chance to block by button mashing). They're worth two points so there's a bit of a risk/reward system at play since you need time to charge up the shot. Each character has a unique Hyper Strike animation with a fancy windup and field-shaking effect. Hyper Strikes are fun and flashy but they lose a lot of their value when playing against human opponents that can block or just outright tackle you before you complete the QTE. In a way it's good that they're not so overwhelmingly powerful that they can swing the fate of the match in a single shot, but they're also not quite as satisfying to use as they should be. You're also able to customize each character with gear to change their stats. Every character has strength, speed, shooting, passing, and technique attributes—for example, Peach excels in speed while Bowser is a strength powerhouse—and by buying/equipping gear you can change their stats, such as giving Peach a strength boost. To keep things balanced every piece of gear also decreases some other stat, so you can't just make some kind of unstoppable soccer juggernaut by piling on equipment. It's cool to have a little customization (gear will also change a character's appearance), though it would have been nice to have more varied gear as well as an option to save different gear sets so you can quickly play around with different attributes. Buying gear for every character is also extremely expensive so you'll need to grind the game quite a lot to earn the coins to afford it all. Ultimately though, there's a surprising lack of variety in Battle League. You've got multiplayer matches, cup mode, and online Clubs—that's it. There are a few fields you can choose to play on but they have no effect on the gameplay. The character roster is a little light with only ten characters (though that might be a blessing in disguise if you're trying to buy gear for everyone), so the repetition sets in pretty quickly. The online connection works well and you can jump into a match solo or with a friend, plus you can play 2v2 with three other players online, but otherwise there aren't any gameplay options to speak of, like changing the length of the match or doing a shootout instead of a full match. Presumably we'll see some updates down the line with new character releases and the like, but Battle League definitely feels light right now. Based on other recent Mario sports titles perhaps this bare-boned approach shouldn't be too surprising, but it does seem like a big missed opportunity to not have bonus modes, challenges, or even a more robust single-player campaign. As far as the presentation goes, the visuals are pretty sharp with plenty of colorful flourishes during a match that are stylish and a little chaotic, but in a fun way. Each character also has a couple of victorious or disappointed animations when a goal is scored which add a lot of charm to the game. Peach trying to remain calm while her team is losing doesn't get old. The soundtrack isn't half bad either. It's action-heavy and feels hardcore, but that's what you need when you're tackling Toad and pushing your way toward the opponent's goal. What you see is what you get in Mario Strikers: Battle League. The soccer gameplay is easy enough for new players but has some depth if you put the time into mastering it, and Mario flourishes like items and Hyper Strikes add some wacky effects to the match. The lack of varied content is disappointing, as is the straight-forward and grindy approach to gear customization, but if your goal is to jump into some fun, light-hearted soccer matches with friends either locally or online, Battle League has its charms. Rating: 7 out of 10 Goals
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