Sunday, 3 October 2010


this week we saw the release of FIFA 11, let's see what has to say about it

FIFA is quickly becoming the hardest franchise to review in the entirety of the video game galaxy. Basically, it's been making us look like mugs ever since FIFA 09.

The revamped entry - which came after the slug-fest that was FIFA 08 - made critics stand up, applaud and declare console football back on track. FIFA 10 trotted out of the tunnels a year later, bringing the likes of 360 dribbling with it. It offered fluid, flexible play on the field - and lit up score boards everywhere.

"The definitive football game" we all called it. But we were premature. Along came FIFA World Cup, which would go on to brighten up our otherwise miserable summer of soccer with a flair-filled yet balanced take on the beautiful game. It managed to combine the weighty, authentic feel of FIFA and the screaming, pad-clenching moments of PES at its near best.

There are only so many times critics can say, "This is as good as it gets," before being shown something better the following year. It hurts our ego.

The other reason FIFA is a bitch to critique is because the footy sim has become so sophisticated that the annual improvements are more about subtle adjustments than big engine and feature updates. Somehow though, those slight changes seem to have a significant impact every time.

So what's the flagship tweak this year? It's called Personality+, a system where different player types are easily defined, thanks to certain traits and a mechanism that determines everything from a player's shot accuracy to his stamina. 

It means that Sol Campbell should visibly play much differently to Aaron Lennon - and we should finally be able to lament a player's abilities on the pitch without getting the "well, you're controlling them" response.

When we first tested out FIFA 11, however, players still all seemed to have roughly the same feel to them. For a while we were wondering whether Personality+ had any real effect at all.

It was then that we witnessed Theo Walcott attempt to tackle Zat Knight - and bounce right off the big man. With our eyes opened, we started to look for more evidence; and noticed Lee Chung Yong (yeah, we were playing as Bolton, what of it?) flail his arms to keep balance as he scrambled around a left back on the wing.

Sure, it sounds like a big sparkly new feature, and we're sure EA Sports will plaster it all over the box. But the truth is, Personality+ is a classic subtle tweak, rather than an in-your-face overhaul. 

You'll find Rooney often wants to be deep in the field, getting stuck into middle of the park; Lampard and Gerrard can fire rockets at the net; we nearly lost control with Aaron Lennon when we burst past a defender; and you're far more likely to score a header with the likes of John Carew or Kevin Davies (come on you Whites) than Darren Bent.

In terms of most players, Personality+ won't have a massive effect on your game. That could be a criticism; but, then again, how much worth really is there, for example, in studying how John O'Shea moves? 

Elsewhere, the basic feel of FIFA 11 will be pretty familiar to those who played World Cup - but will be a big step up if you've been hanging on since FIFA 10. Players are much more nimble, meaning that 360 dribbling can be properly taken advantage of with tighter turns and intricate dribbling routes.

In moments of inspired stick skill, you'll surprise yourself as you knock the ball around defenders with a number of deft touches in a small space.

In terms of what you can see on the surface, FIFA's visual presentation has never been an issue - but now EA's stepped it up a notch with new animations. 

We were absolutely delighted to see a player bend down slightly to control a lofted ball with his shoulder. Even better, colliding with our fellow team mates during a celebration triggered a context-sensitive and enthusiastic shirt tug, hug or pile on.

Player likeness is still, somehow, improving as well - although it's far more impressive when it comes to the world's finest than it is with lesser known players. The England team line-up for the national anthem, for example, is almost a gallery of graphical achievement. It's the kind of thing you drag other people into the room to see.

Meanwhile, the commentary from Tyler and Gray is still top-notch. Although much of it is recycled from last year, now the pair comment on match stats that appear on the screen periodically in true broadcast fashion, which is a nice addition for number bods.

In the stands the crowd sounds great with specific and authentic chants for the Premier League teams, at least (excuse us for not having an encyclopedic knowledge of Danish terrace singalongs). Fans still look a bit odd, however; like 80,000 cardboard cut-outs rigged to stand in block sections.

EA Sports has recognised its failing in the area - and done something pretty smart: It's opted to focus on a particular player before substitution cut-scenes, rather than supporters in the stands.

It seems like such an obvious tactic and we wonder why it took this long for someone on the team to say "You know during substitutions? Why don't we show off our ridiculously good looking players rather than our crappy crowd?".

Referees have been superficially upgraded, in a way, from faceless hammers of authority to named characters - complete with places of origin. We're pretty sure they're still works of fiction (we've not spotted Howard Webb yet, but we've seen plenty of Mr. Pennyfeather) - but Martin Tyler will actually announce them and use their name throughout the match. It's a nice touch if nothing else.

Speaking of referees, raise your hands to the skies and rejoice! Penalties can once again be conceded with a poor standing tackle from behind - rather than just vicious sliding errors. 

It sounds like a pedantic point but, in FIFA 10, having a defender clip our heels when we were one-on-one with the keeper, only to see the ref look on as if nothing had happened, was absolute madness.

The AI is actually much stronger in defence than in previous editions - but not always too tasty when it comes to moving forward. It could just be that we're cast-iron tackle-masters at the back, but computer opposition does sometimes seem oblivious to the threat of a slide tackle, and we've played more minutes of extra-time than we'd like.

Good news between the sticks, too: Keepers have been given, well, a brain, to be honest. Gone are the days where the goalie would make a half-arsed save and then slowly, almost apathetically, crawl back to his feet while a second striker smashed the ball into an open net. 

Now keepers will parry a shot and leap from the floor to another finger-tip save on the rebound - as if the goal-line is a motion sensing detonator. It makes for some awesome box scrambles - that only get screechier and more breathless in multiplayer.

In terms of actual menu-based features, Be a Goalkeeper is probably the most intriguing. Guess what it allows you to do.

That's right, now 11-on-11 Be A Pro matches are on the cards - and taking control of the keeper is the final step. It's a basic system of positioning and timing, using the the left analogue stick to move to the best spot for a save and then the right analogue stick to dive. 

There are different levels of assistance, which offer all kind of indicators and varieties of auto-diving if you're close enough to the ball. Even with these switched on, though, Be A Goalkeeper is tough - and takes some getting used to. Panic is all-too-often the overriding reaction to a one-on-one.

Penalty taking gets a brand new mechanism, too - which also brings more panic and wayward slip-ups than anything else at first. It combines composure, power and placement all in one. Stopping a sliding bar in a green zone on a small metre determines your players focus, the usual power bar dictates... power, and an invisible target controlled with the left stick determines placement. 

Problem is, these all have to be controlled at the same time within a few seconds. It's as hard as Duncan Ferguson after four scotches at first - but once you get to grips with it, it starts to feel more natural. At least it means there's some level of skill going into spot kicks - making them a more legitimate way to settled a tied game.

The all-new Career Mode encompasses Manager Modes of old - by allowing players to either start their footballing journey as a player, manager or player-manager. It all plays pretty much the same as previous FIFA editions - but the three different footballing roles are neatly combined so that you can build yourself as a player before moving into management or a combination of the two. 

It probably isn't enough to tear people away from Pro Evo's much-loved Master League - especially if PES 2011's online features manage to recreate the mode's magic with friends worldwide - but the merging of roles to represent a full football career on and off the pitch is a great idea.

We haven't yet got our greasy mitts on the final version of PES 2011, but when it comes to on-pitch action, Konami's going to have to pull something pretty special if it's going to regain the top spot this year. It really is hard to criticise FIFA 11 in any truly significant way at all.

If we wrack our brains in the interest of good professional balance, we'd point out that Be A Goalkeeper is actually pretty boring - which we kind of guessed it might be. Playing with 28 AI players seems to cancel out more or less any real goal threat - and you ended up kicking your heels between the sticks, or running up for corner kicks in the 51st minute just to get in on the action.

But to have a pop at a brand new feature that works fine - aside from a few balancing issues - seems unfair, especially since it's something no-one else has done before. 

We're sure by FIFA 12 the goalie's life will be much more exciting. Plus the mode is really built for 22 human-controlled players, which could make it a completely different experience.

The only qualms we can see cropping up for FIFA 11 will be from the hardcore PES faithful, which is fair enough. This is, after all, still FIFA in tone and feel - and that's something that doesn't sit with some gamers due to little more than personal preference. 

It still has some of the quirks that Pro Evo fans may not feel at home with. There's still not quite so much over-the-top frenzy as FIFA's rival had at its best, and the FIFA pass - pulling a ball back across the net to your fellow striker in a one-on-one, leaving the keeper stranded and crying - is still the easiest and an all-too-common way of scoring. 

One more? Oh, God, Erm... hitting the woodwork sounds like smacking a metal box with a baseball bat. Can you see we're getting desperate here?

Let's slip into football cliche to direct you towards our conclusion: When all's said and done, FIFA 11 is the best football game that's ever been slid into a disc-drive. It mixes slow build-up play with quick, killer through-balls. It combines big, meaty defenders with slight, nippy speedsters - and smartly recognises the difference between the two.

You can score headers from the top of towering jumps or cheeky, low nods at the far post. Players can pea-roll a fluky long range bobbler or curl a graceful effort into the top corner. The ball can bounce off glove, boot, shin or shoulder before it hits the net - and all of this means that FIFA 11 will keep on surprising you. 

Apart from a few incredibly minor tweaks, we can't think of anything anything else EA Sports can do to improve their game on the pitch. 

We'll feel like right mugs when they reveal all next year.