When attempting to review football games it is too easy to fall into football analogies and cliches. It’s a funny old game etc. I am going to try to avoid that here as I have a look at EA Sports’ latest offering – FIFA 11.
Firstly though, I feel some context is important. I got my copy of this game last Thursday, one day before the official UK release thanks to my friendly local video game shop. In previous years the game has been on proud display before the release date, Rooney, Ronaldinho and pals gazed down from the shelves knowingly. ‘Yes it is more expensive to get it early but you know you are going to buy the game. So just get on with it’ they seemed to say with their blank, slightly gormless expressions. This year however, things were a touch more clandestine. Pre bagged and hidden from sight, you had to specifically ask for the game.
So, on a wet Thursday afternoon in a small shop in Birmingham I got in line with six other incredibly uncomfortable looking twenty something football fans. We began shuffling slowly forward to ask for a football video game, in the same way one might go about a drugs deal. Low, hushed voices, glances of understanding and ‘the merchandise’ was slid across the counter. It was all very surreal, and it gave the game an illicit edge, which is something I could do without really as I already feel bad enough about buying FIFA due to my previous Pro Evolution Soccer allegiances. My only disappointment was that I wasn’t handed the game in a brown envelope or in a steel briefcase. I would also have been happy with a code word but it wasn’t to be.
As with all my footballing video game purchases my first game was a biggie. My Birmingham City were pitted against fierce local rivals, and forces of darkness Aston Villa. After getting through the slick and realistic pre-game cut scene the first thing that grabs you regarding this incarnation of FIFA (aside from the excellent commentary team of Martin Tyler and Andy Gray) is that while cosmetically there have been improvements, new animations, celebrations, kits etc. very little of the substance of the game itself has actually changed. Which is fine, as last years offering was fantastic, FIFA 11 just doesn’t feel like a new game.
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EA’s most trumpeted new feature relates to the passing model, and in that respect there have been significant changes. No longer will teams be able to ping passes around at will, slower, more patient football will come to the fore in FIFA 11. Taking charge of a bigger Premier League or La Liga team, you will no longer watch as relative footballing minnows pass around you as if they are the reincarnation of the Brazil 1970 team. The sight of League One Hartlepool United tearing through my expensively assembled Manchester City team on last years game still gives me nightmares. It that respect the system does work, I played a number of friendlies as weaker sides and found passing very troublesome, resorting to long ball tactics and attempting to play on the break against more illustrious opposition.
The only problem with this new passing system that I have found thus far relates to the bigger teams, whilst individual player ability does factor in to the way in which you play football, the system does at time feel ponderous. Great passing sides in the Arsenal and Barcelona mould tend to get bogged down in midfield, a part of the pitch, where, realistically they excel. The passing system seems to be too focused on the perceived ‘lesser’ teams and as such hinders some of the better ones.
In terms of the game’s career modes, things have been revamped somewhat. Manager Mode and Be A Pro have been amalgamated and both feel much more in-depth. Manger mode is a little more reminiscent of PES’ Master League mode, it is much more realistic. Transfers and communication with the club’s owners have both been overhauled and are much better for it. Despite having a healthy transfer budget at my club of choice I still struggled to attract big name players and had to settle for mid level signings and loan deals. Sadly some of the bugs and niggly problems that plagued the last manager mode have survived and do hinder your enjoyment in some places. Hopefully EA will release an update shortly.
It is what happens on the pitch though that will matter to most and if you have played any of EA’s other recent football titles (FIFA 09, 10 and World Cup 2010) then FIFA 11 will feel familiar and you should slip right back into the groove. There are a few areas that will take time to adapt to, beside the passing changes, other notable refinements include the AI marking your centre halves from goal kicks (which was a very nice touch) and with a few exceptions (Rooney and Drogba) defenders almost always have a strength advantage over attacking players. This makes taking defenders on very tricky indeed.
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This season’s update feels more like evolution rather than revolution for the EA franchise, which is understandable as the FIFA games have developed a great deal of momentum in recent years. The true change will (hopefully) come in Konami’s new offering, also due out this week, PES has a huge amount of ground to make up on it’s oldest rival but for the first time in a few years it does feel as though they could close the gap. Oh and I beat the Villa on penalties so that was a good start.