FIFA 11 (X360) Review
Year after year we see more digitised attempts to make the beautiful game even more so and at the heart of that is the battle between two disciplines; Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA. Pro Evolution Soccer had been the front-runner for years in the eyes of the neutral but recent efforts had seen even die-hard fans come round to the FIFA way of thinking. FIFA 10 was critically acclaimed, an instant pick-up-and-play sports gaming classic that finally put some distance between it and its rivals.
Not one to rest on their laurels Electronic Arts swore they could do better, quickly going to work on ironing out the minor quirks that always slip through the cracks in any release and promising a much better experience next time around. The collective appetite was whetted and the stage was set for the best fusion of gaming and football to date. Would it be on a collision course with success, like Spanish destiny, or would the final product have more in common with the England campaign? Surely anything that bad would be unthinkable???
The promised overhaul of the engine from FIFA 10 and the World Cup tie in has actually been delivered upon. The difference can be summed up in a single word - precision. No longer can a flurry of short passes be delivered, even with the best teams in the game, without concern for exactly where they will end up. Space is a limited commodity and knowing when to deliver, or even attempt, that through ball will now be key to how many chances players can carve out for themselves. It brings with it both good and bad... Expect frustration when that world class midfielder inexplicably misplaces a simple short ball and true elation when a flowing move is rounded off by a bullet finish.
Still, even if this is a more accurate representation of the sport, it comes at a price. While the AI of team-mates seemed at times quite lively in the previous two incarnations, this element has been shockingly overlooked in this version. No longer will players make runs (having the ability to make one player make a run through the push of a button isn't quite the same thing as having nine aware outfield players moving around) and attempt to occupy that space that is so precious and if the ball reaches the player furthest up the pitch he is utterly alone. Only on the rarest of occasions will the players behind him look to get into a goal scoring position of their own, meaning if he can't beat the defenders deployed to stop him alone the chance will almost certainly go begging. It's right out of the Craig Levin school of management really.
It is a shocking oversight and one that will frustrate many a player. Tweaking the at times comical goalkeeper AI is all fine and well but combine that improvement with non-controlled players simply refusing to make runs and often games can fizzle out into goalless affairs, which in their own right are a terrifying prospect. Why? Because the penalty system is so needlessly awful it conspires to promote the idea that the average professional footballer couldn't take a penalty if their lives depended on it. Even in the awful mechanics of penalty taking there is little difference between the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and some clogger from Darlington, both being similarly equipped to beat the keeper.
So that's what's making the beautiful game ugly this time around but there are also plenty of good things in there too which makes the oversights all the more upsetting. The balancing of the players stats, for example, makes the game more realistic with quality really telling. Pace used to be such a decisive factor that even an average player with go-go-gadget legs could make a fool of a seasoned defender and operate on the premise that they'll get enough chances to put one away. Here, even the quicker players can be defended against with smart play and a player's balance and strength is as big a factor when it comes to carving out chances. It feels a lot more realistic in that sense.
By contrast, the refereeing causes some quibbles in the fact that it simply isn't realistic at all. Of course, in the ideal world we'd like to see something similar to rugby being employed with a flowing use of the advantage rule. In a genuine game of football this rarely happens and whether or not it should be happening isn't up for a game that is essentially a simulation to decide. Sometimes a foul can occur over ten minutes ago and the referee will still go back and book the player, leaving players scratching their heads as they try to remember what exactly it was for. At other times it gets the "advantage" completely wrong and an immediate free kick would have been a much better option.
The game modes have been refined, goalkeepers now being included in the "Be A Pro" mode which still remains strangely compelling. Not so much as a keeper mind and the controls take some getting used to as well as the stony-faced discipline required to not do anything vaguely erratic for the full ninety minutes. Career mode is still strangely disappointing, no extra detail being added to the game and the transfer system remaining as unrealistic as ever. Still, for those who crave pure fantasy football, then this is the place to be.
FIFA has always been ahead of the opposition when it comes to graphics and this is no exception. The official licensing of course helps, with player likenesses being utilised to good effect but what makes the real difference is the level of detail in those unremarkable players that might only be controlled two or three times between now and FIFA 12. Improved level of facial detail, textures and animations all round on those little known players give the game a much more realistic feel and the graphical improvements come at no discernable cost.
The stadiums are looking more realistic too with attention to detail that is arguably unnecessary given the fact that most players will skip animated intros after a time to get to the action. A shame really because they are much better than that included in the predecessors, the crowds seeming more detailed even with without the too frequent and pointless cutaways of close-ups to the crowd that tried to underline the "global" feel of the previous World Cup iteration.
Weather effects are also much improved here, a realistic subtlety to their representation that immediately bears comparison to a televised game in how they don't overpower the on-screen action. "Let me assure you, if you can't see it at home, it is really pouring down here" is a phrase familiar to football fans and it is better for the gameplay that the games goes with televisual sensibilities first.
All told it has a polish and sheen that blows away the competition, same as it always did, without becoming as overblown as Wayne Rooney.
We'll skip past the "record your own chant" option - seriously, who would actually want to do that? - And move straight to the sound effects. Crowd atmosphere is good and what chants they are feel genuine, although they obviously lack the blue language and football fan's wit that provides the authentic note of the terraces. Still, there's enough of an atmosphere that with eyes closed it could be the real thing.
The soundtrack is the usual mix of "EA Trax" that don't really seem to have anything to do with football, except that there's a host of bands that would like to potentially market their music to people who play the game. There's something very strange about some sub-techno music that would be better suited to a Peter Crouch robot dance blaring out of a Tannoy and eerily floating across the pitch during half time. It just doesn't fit and some football themed tunes wouldn't have gone amiss. EA's most recent NHL game included some good examples of how to blend the two.
The commentary has improved and in terms of its delivery and is uncannily accurate in that Andy Gray spends most of his time talking like he still wishes he was out on the pitch, or making vague judgements about players based on little information. No commentary system is flawless and there's still the odd eyebrow raising moment where the words simply do not match what is happening on screen. In general though, there are some nice flourishes missing from both rival and previous titles, such as banter between the two, jokes that feel like they belong in a blooper real and give that true representation of the Sunday afternoon game.
A lot of the changes were supposedly brought in following fan feedback and it's easy to believe that to be true as FIFA 11 feels something of a mixed bag. Improvements have clearly been made in some areas, while others feel strangely neglected, almost to the point of needing a patch. Team players remaining static, lobs being made a lot harder, tougher passing mechanics and occasionally inexplicable behaviour from star players... It doesn't have the same fluidity as its predecessor and it doesn't generate the same levels of enjoyment.
While simulation is something to aspire to it should always be carefully balanced with the understanding that people don't want those rare moments of footballing genius to be as equally rare over the course of their console escapades. A football game has to be a distillation of the highs and lows, everything that makes the game great in its purest essence. This version of FIFA is good, make no mistake, and had it come out before FIFA 10 it'd rightfully have drawn a lot of praise. Having played a game that had the balance a lot better before this will always make it feel like a step backwards and that's the feeling most will take from it once they get past that twenty / thirty hour mark... It's just all slightly disappointing.
Another solid entry then and proof that Electronic Arts are definitely getting the hang of the football titles after years in the wilderness, however the game still needs some refining if it wants to replace the previous version in the hearts and minds of long standing fans.
Some flaws overall but a solid game that will go over better with those who didn't play on the previous engine.
Improvements made from last time, nothing Earth-shattering but still the best looking football game out there.
Commentary and sound effects have been improved, while the soundtrack seems strangely unrelated to the game.
Career mode hasn't been tweaked enough to offer the level of depth people crave and some frustrating gameplay mechanics make it less fun to play multiplayer.
(Not an Average)
A solid game but one that doesn't measure up to FIFA 10 and would benefit from some alterations. Fans will still buy it in droves though...