FIFA has long been the undisputed champion at retail when it comes to football/soccer games but this year has seen a slight change in scenery. Ubisoft have released a contender, albeit one which was roundly criticised, and Konami’s PES series has vowed many improvements and a more directly competitive release date.
So are the champions complacent or will they strengthen their squad and regroup for another successful title defence?
This year’s iteration of the world’s most popular sports game doesn’t have any massive changes to grab headlines. The biggest addition to the bullet-point list of features is the option to play the Be a Pro mode (now replaced as an option in the new “Career” mode) as the goalkeeper. This is a welcome inclusion and it works well (although you do often feel a little solitary, stood at the back) but it’s hardly a big departure for the franchise.
FIFA’s development since ’09 has been all about refinement and this year is no different. The game plays in much the same way as FIFA 10 with updated kits, rosters and slightly improved visuals. That has been the FIFA recipe for success for as long as I can remember and it has always served the franchise well. When the base you’re building on is this good why do you need huge innovation year on year?
The menus have been overhauled to make them quicker and simpler to navigate. This is a very welcome change but it still doesn’t fix the slight lag in selections that has been evident in FIFA titles for a few years. As you would expect, the visual and audio presentation on the front-end is outstanding. The ability to slot your own music (or crowd chants, if you have them) in to the situational music rotation is a joyous inclusion too.
Player likenesses are a vast improvement on last year’s game and the kits are more realistic and adapt differently in different weather situations (which also have a big effect on the game-play). Key players have distinctive styles of motion that further pick them out from the crowd and the new crowd chants make the game even more immersive (if you can ignore the still-terrible commentary).
Some of the biggest changes to this year’s FIFA come in the form of minor game-play tweaks. The slightly improved crossing and corners of the World Cup version have been further tuned so that balls in from the flank are no longer mostly useless. It’s still not perfect but it does work a lot more often than previously. When the ball does arrive in the box your strikers are now much more likely to try different things to get some contact too. It’s no longer a case of a failed header attempt if the ball isn’t at the right height, they’ll try overhead kicks, bicycle kicks, volleyed flicks and diving headers far more often than in previous iterations.
The passing system is different too, with weighting of passes being crucial to the success of that pass. It’s not a new feature in the series, rather an existing control option that has now been set as default but it makes a huge difference to the difficulty of the game from the outset.
Player positioning, body shape and pass strength all have a very real effect on how successful your short game will be. This makes for a more testing and often more frustrating game of football. With player positioning more crucial than ever it would be nice if attacking teammates were more prone to making AI-controlled runs rather than edging around your midfielders, leaving little option but to play it sideways while the defence consolidate their positions. This can be instigated manually but some more intelligent automatic movement would make the game far more free-flowing.
The opposing AI has also had a summer at soccer school with a seemingly enhanced ability across the board to perform 360 degree spins and drag-backs. This is frustrating when you’re playing against lower league teams who regularly embarrass top-flight defences with tricks Ronaldo would be proud of. It also highlights the fact that performing these tricks yourself is still fiddly and tricky to get the timing right, to the point where it is much simpler and more successful if you just run the ball around opposition defences and shoot across the box at forty-five degree angles.
The advantage rule is still hugely weighted in favour of the opposition too, with advantage for your team being a quickly-expiring luxury that is only ever reversed if the opposition wins the ball. For the AI controlled teams the advantage rule often seems to be ten seconds or two passes meaning that going in for those 50/50 tackles is essentially penalised with a brief period of non-participation.
So FIFA 11 is far from perfect, there is plenty of room for improvement in next year’s inevitable release. When it does all click, though, it’s magical.
A series of well-directed one-touch passes, when you get the strength of those passes correct, are extremely satisfying. Tie that in to a flat-out run down the wing and a perfectly timed step-over and you will be grinning from ear to ear. Finish the move with a pin-point cross from the by-line and a powerful header into the back of the net and you will need to pause the game and run around the house with your shirt over your head. When you fulfil your side of the bargain, FIFA 11 is simply brilliant.
Tactically FIFA has stepped things up a notch too. Player’s strengths now play a much more important role in how they perform within the team. You can effectively mark the opposition’s star players out of the game so playing hard and tight on Steven Gerrard makes Liverpool all but impotent going forward. Transversely, this means that you will actively try to involve your own star players whenever possible (and suffer the same problems if they’re marked out of the game).
The online modes work in much the same way as previous years. You still have ranked and unranked matches, a lobby mode and that award for playing in a fully human online team. There is still no method of reprisal for sore losers who disconnect rather than lose a game and the matchmaking doesn’t seem to care all that much if you’re not very good at the game. It’s welcome for those moments when you want human opposition but don’t have friends in the room but FIFA is still at its best when played against a human opponent on the same sofa.
- Masses of licensing makes for the most “finished” football game.
- Presentation is unmatched.
- New tweaks to game modes and game-play are improvements.
- A refinement rather than a big improvement.
- Some issues with supporting AI and opposition skills.
- Online modes still don’t discourage abuse.
There is a lot to like about FIFA 11 and fans of the series will no doubt fawn over the multitude of minor improvements. It would be dishonest to ignore the, mostly minor, flaws that are definitely present though. Not that those flaws will spoil many people’s enjoyment of the game, they just give the franchise room to improve next year.