FIFA 11

To be completely honest, FIFA 10 was such a massive shake up for the franchise that, with FIFA 11, Electronic Arts could have released a mere update, relying on tweaks and fresh rosters. The software company even enhanced the gameplay a tad in the summer, with FIFA World Cup 2010, so even less work was needed. And, on the face of it, this latest version has the same football engine as its immediate predecessors.

However, the new features this year, 360 degree Fight for Possession, Pro Passing, and the much publicised Personality+, add so much to the gameplay that FIFA 11 feels remarkably different. Take the Fight for Possession feature for starters, it is amazing that adding several new animations and an ability to jostle and muscle your way to or on the ball can enhance the gameplay, but it does. You now feel so much more connected to the action. Admittedly, it also increases the number of fouls you give away (initially, at least), but it’s just more, well, realistic to barge a flimsy winger out of the way when chasing a 50/50 ball.

One of our annoyances with the FIFA games throughout the years was that, unless you were a whizz-kid with dribbling, or only used a player with tricks, you couldn’t take the ball past a decent defence. We always had to rely on crosses or through-balls for a vast majority of our goals - and, hence, the centre forward was the most important player on the pitch. The new feature adds an extra way to get the ball forward and, potentially, in the net; barging. Pardon the pun, but it levels the playing field somewhat.

A stockier player, with good balance, can take the ball past weedier ones without the need to waggle the right stick. It depends on the angle you hit them, how good the opposition player’s tackling ability is, how tired your player is, etc, but it is a gameplay enhancement that is very much appreciated. And it could see the number of goals scored by midfielders and full-backs increased.

It can also come up with some very satisfying in-game moments, especially when combined with another of FIFA 11’s new features; Personality+. Heralded as the franchise’s major new addition, Personality+ adds realism to the way individual players can trick and bamboozle, lending skill sets to players that their real-life counterparts are renowned for. And while that clearly allows players like Christiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Lionel Messi to nip and flick their way around the pitch, it also makes Jamie Carragher, John Terry and Nemanja Vidic rigidly lumber and bruise around at the back. In short, players have never looked as much like their real-world equivalents, in movement at least.

It also helps matches against the computer AI seem more like those with friends. Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott will automatically attempt spins and nutmegs, Steven Gerrard will shoot from distance (and is next to impossible to knock off the ball), and Joey Barton will dive in more. The most fun comes when the computer attempts to flick the ball past you with Nani, for example, and you clatter him with Gary Cahill. And as there are a host of different real-life referees in the game too, all with their own level of strictness, you can often get away with some of the more subtle dirty challenges.

When you first start to play the game, the less welcome new feature of the trio is Pro Passing. The new system makes passing the ball short distances ridiculously hard (especially when playing on World Class or Legendary levels), and it gets even tougher in different weather conditions. Also, as it takes each in-game player’s passing attribute as a major influence in speed and direction, you can end up giving the ball straight to the opposition in your own penalty area if you’re not careful. Persist with it though, and you end up understanding its adoption. Indeed, applauding it.

When you get used to the fineries of the new system, you realise that Pro Passing allows you such precise control over the ball, the weight of the pass, and the pin-point direction, that you’ll be able to put the ball on a six-pence (to use footballing analogy). It is a feature that rewards customer skill, and that will always be a good thing. Initial horror turns into glee at the first time you use a beautifully weighted one-two. And, yet again, when combined with other new additions, it enhances the gameplay experience greatly.

Of course, the match engine introduced a year ago was pretty splendid anyway, so these could have been just icing on the cake. But, they really make the action feel fresh, new, harder (difficulty, or the lack thereof, was always a bone of contention), and much, much more like actual football. In short, the game itself is easily the best yet. Especially if you’re good at it.

The back-end enhancements are possibly less impressive. The new Career Mode is really just an amalgam of former ones. It encompasses manager and Be a Pro modes from previous games by offering three ways to play through 15 seasons; the self-explanatory Player, Manager and Player Manager options.

Online remains mostly untouched, save with 11 vs 11 matches now being available (see the following paragraph as to why), and Live Season - where you can play through an analogue of the real football season - is, for all intents and purposes, identical. There is a new Creation Centre Mode, which allows you to customise teams and players through a web portal on the Internet, accessible through your EA Account, and then share them and download them to the game. It’s nice, but won’t set the world alight.

Virtual Pro is the same as with FIFA 10 (design a player for use in a number of the different game styles and improve his abilities by earning certain achievements, such as score a goal with the weaker foot). But this time you can also play as the goalkeeper too, with a radically different control method than with any other outfield player. To be honest, though, it is a bit fiddly and can be wholly unsatisfying when most of the action in a game is up the other end of the pitch. If you’ve ever been stuck in goal at school on a full-sized pitch, you’ll know what we mean. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t really work.

Thankfully, it’s just a minor gripe with a game that is mostly free of problems. We’re still a touch disappointed with some of the character models as, unless you play with one of the bigger teams, it’s likely you’ll see a fair few anonymous faces, even if you recognise the names. And, the in-game athletes can look like they’re made of plastic at times, especially if they have no hair. But, this is really nit-picking, you’ll be so immersed in the action that you’ll barely ever notice the tiny faults.

Verdict

The FIFA franchise has always been lauded for its style and panache. It has, for several years now, been head and shoulders over its main rival, Pro Evolution Soccer, in presentation, but the dramatic improvements in gameplay first sported by FIFA 10, coupled with the barely-playable mess that was PES 2010, put it at the top on the field too. FIFA 11 further enhances its playability, so much so that it would be hard to see PES 2011 delivering a more satisfying experience.

Certainly, with Personality+, 360 degree Fight for Possession and Pro Passing enabled, matches flow and ebb like the real thing, and offer such depth and realism that both experienced footy gamers and dedicated fans will be discovering new elements for months to come. It is, quite simply, the best football game released to date.