From your very first kick-off in FIFA 11, you can tell that this is not the game you’ve been playing for the last two years. Sports game developers get a lot of slack for not doing enough to build on their games year-on-year, and often rightfully so. You can’t accuse EA of that this year though, because there are plenty of changes on and off the pitch to make FIFA 11 feel like a completely new game. The problem is that not all of these changes work towards making it a better game.
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EA has a habit of slapping fancy names onto features that aren’t quite so fantastical. This year, there’s Pro Passing and Personality Plus. I’ll get to the more ridiculous of the two a little later. Let’s talk about the passing first. Not many people may have used it, but past games gave you the option to turn off the default AI-assisted passing system in favour of more hardcore manual passing, which allowed you complete control over pass direction. Pro Passing is EA’s way of taking away the training wheels by infusing manual passing into the default system, while still maintaining enough AI assistance to reduce the number of wayward passes. They’ve found the sweet spot, so while your short passes and crosses won’t have to be directed with deadly accuracy to find your man, you can use the increased passing freedom to intricately thread through passes between defenders and make long passes into open spaces for your players to run on to.
Direction, however, is just one aspect of Pro Passing. The other is power, and this is where things don’t work quite as well. You will now need to hold down the pass button a lot longer to even get the ball from a central defender to a wing back. This is a realistic addition because longer passes require more time and pace in real life too. What renders it ineffective is that the game speed, while slower than FIFA 10, is still not slow enough to accommodate this. If you want to bring complete realism to a game, it has to be in all areas. At the default game speed, you’ll rarely find the time and space to string too many passes together and this often turns matches into midfield scraps with frequent changes in possession. Dropping the game speed down makes things better, but this only works offline. Online, it reverts to the default normal speed. Overall, the new passing system shows flashes of brilliance in its new-found freedom, but it also forces you into a gameplay style that is more clinical and technical than creative and free-flowing.
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Playing with Juventus’ wobbly defensive line, I expected star-studded opponents like Barcelona and Real to have me at sixes and sevens. But thanks to FIFA 11’s overpowered defender AI, even average players like Marco Motta are able to stop the likes of Messi and Ronaldo. Defenders, and even defensive midfielders, are able to dispossess opponents with disconcerting ease, and while that came as welcome respite for Chiellini and co, it also meant that Del Piero and Iaquinta were going to be shut down just as easily at the other end. You’ll rarely need to use a sliding tackle, because your defenders will easily catch up to attackers that have even got past them, and all it takes is holding down the pressure button to take the ball off their feet. Online too I was able to disposes better players than me way more easily than I would have in past games.
Speaking of better players, EA has been tom-toming the new Personality Plus feature in FIFA 11, which essentially means that the big stars, and even some lesser known players, now behave like their real-life counterparts. That was pretty much the case last year too, and I didn’t really see any drastic improvement in this area. This is 2010, EA! Do you really want to be bragging about a feature that your rival has been quietly and consistently implementing (and you should have been too) since the PS2 days?
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The offline game modes have traditionally been where FIFA fell behind the PES games. It was a case of quantity over quality, and while Be A Pro Seasons and Manager Mode offered two different experiences, neither worked well enough to make you keep playing. That has changed this year with one consolidated Career mode. You can either play as a player, a manger, or a player-manager. I had some issues in playing as a player. I created a Virtual Pro and picked Juventus as my team, but in my first two hours playing it, the management only let me play two matches. The rest of the time, I was reading useless emails and staring at the fixtures calendar watching dates get crossed off agonisingly slowly. It’s weird that my lowly Virtual Pro was even able join a top team like Juventus, where I wouldn’t get much play time. Things were a lot better when I restarted the mode with a lower division team.
I like the player-manager career format the most, because it gives you the best of both worlds. Like in the player mode, in each match, you can choose to play as either your Virtual Pro in the Be A Pro format, or as the entire team. Being the manager, you also gain access to the transfer market, where you can buy and sell players in a drastically improved transfer system. No longer will you have to pay obscene amounts to get an average player to sign with you. Transfers are now realistic, fun, and when you pull of a coup with a big-name signing, very rewarding. Barring the unnecessary email system and the annoying calendar format, the Career mode is a drastic improvement over previous offline modes, and hopefully EA will build on this to someday rival PES’ Master League.
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Another big change is the ability to play as a goalkeeper, which means that you can now play 11 vs 11 online matches. Having played as a goalkeeper myself, it’s great to see the importance EA has given to positioning and closing down angles. The emphasis on timing of dives and advances out to thwart attacks and punch away crosses is also nice to see. It’s implementation certainly isn’t half-assed but seeing as how you’ll probably only get your hands on the ball five or six times in a game, this isn’t something you’ll want to stick to for too long. However, this new-found appreciation for goalkeeping also has positive ramifications in regular matches. AI keepers are now better positioned, they hold their lines realistically, and know when to palm away shots and when to hold on to them.
Although I didn’t try Be A Pro online, I faced no issues with online play in regular matches; at least nothing on the magnitude of the connectivity issues in FIFA 10. It’s lag-free, and its FIFA, so finding a player at your skill level is never going to be a problem. Presentation, as always, is impressive, with great animations, brilliant lighting, and improved but still inconsistent player likenesses. Of course, all the official licenses help too. The Tyler-Gray duo still does a commendable job in calling plays, with a few new quips sprinkled over mostly recycled commentary. It’s time for EA to seriously rethink their menu system. Not only does it look dull, but it could also use a more streamlined approach.
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FIFA games have always been a love-or-hate thing for me, but this one is really hard to call. It infuriated me with its faux realism one second, and surprised me with its unscripted flair the next. Moreover, it kept me playing long enough to discover and enjoy the new career mode and appreciate its cared attention towards goalkeeping. EA is dangerously close to going overboard in its quest for obdurate realism, and compromising on the fun factor in the process. It’s a risky game they’re playing, but with FIFA 11, the risk is somewhat rewarded.