Back at E3, I got some very early hands-on time with FIFA 11. I was more impressed by the graphical improvements than the on-field improvements at E3 because the game was still pretty raw, and some aspects of the demo were not even working properly yet -- for one you could not shield the ball in the E3 build. But at a recent EA event in New York, I played a build of the game that was about 75 percent completed and left more of a gameplay mark on me this time around.
If you have not yet heard about Personality+, I can sum it up with two keywords: ratings and tendencies. If your player is highly rated shooter, he'll be good at shooting the ball. And if the AI is using that same player, the AI version of that guy will tend to take a rip at net rather than pass. I did not feel many differences between the players at E3, but at this event the differences were a bit more noticeable. For example, strong defenders clearly had wider tackling areas than weaker defenders, and players on the wing who were good at crossing clearly had different trajectories on their balls than lesser talents.
The bigger defenders were also better able to utilize the improved jostling system, which now seems to be working at every angle. In other words, the jostling now seems to equate to 360 degrees of pushing, shoving and rage. While fighting for a loose ball or trying to wedge someone off a ball, the added amount of freedom 360 degrees of jostling affords was immediately felt.
I still am not comfortable saying how different passing and shooting are for players of different skill levels, if only because I still have not taken many shots and passing is the most important part of the game. I am not going to say that passing is CLEARLY different based on the skill of the player after two short demo sessions. However, "Pro Passing" is another feature being touted this year by the development team. Basically, it combines your skill level on the sticks with the game situation and skill of the actual player. I don't really have much more to add on the passing front, but it seems like, at the very least, the development team realizes how important it is to nail the passing portion of this whole Personality+ addition.
All that being said, the singular thing that will cause issues for Personality+ is a soccer problem more than a video game problem. I follow soccer pretty closely, but even I don't know a majority of the players in the game. So with so many players and teams in the game, how will gamers get the best out of their team each game? Yes, I will want to get the ball to my midfielder with strong dribbling/possession ratings when the ball is bouncing around and I need someone to settle the game down. But, if I'm just playing a random game with a buddy, how will I know which player that is during a particular game?
I have seen a template for the "badges" in the game (not sure if "badges is an official name or not), and basically the badges give you a visual reassurance that a certain player is really good at a particular skill. However, I have only seen these badges after digging through a player's info before the game begins. In no way are these badges visually represented on the pitch. Now, many people had an issue with the "weapon" icons showing up under players in Madden (me included), so I'm not suggesting the FIFA squad go that route, but it is going to be very difficult to know what each team is capable of during a particular game unless you are already familiar with that team. And for a series that is always trying to broaden its fan base, that seems to be an issue that lacks a perfect solution at this time.
The pace of the game felt slowed down from World Cup 2010 and FIFA 10. I feel like World Cup is a very counterattack-heavy game, but I came away feeling like FIFA 11 was more about the build up. A reason why the game felt this way was because I was not able to simply counter and thread a through ball to my lone striker going up against four defenders -- something that still happens too often in World Cup. So it seems like the development team's focus on improving the back line's positioning and lines may be paying off so far. And with less counterattacks going on at every turn, there was more of a focus on midfield and possession play since I was trying to find the seams and build up towards a potential scoring chance.
The dribbling also feels noticeably different this year. How different players dribble the ball is one of the easiest things to visually notice because of Personality+. For example, better dribblers keep the ball closer to their feet than poor ones. In addition, they more easily pull off skill moves. But this dribbling difference seems to have to do more with the controls than the ratings/tendencies. It seems like you can now really finesse the ball and move it from the inside to the outside of the player's foot. It could just be in my head, but I do think there is some new stuff going on here.
Beyond just making AI player tendencies more noticeable this year, the development team has also said that the AI will do human moves now. For the newcomers out there, you just need to know that the AI really did not try to do many dribbling moves in the past. The FIFA representative I spoke to said the development team has tweaked the AI so it will do dribbling moves and act more like a human with the ball rather than just pass or cross to move the ball into scoring position each time.
Manager Mode Is Dead, All Hail Be A Manager Pro Mode...Wait What?
This is all pretty early info, but my understanding is that Captain Your Country/Be A Pro/whatever the mode is called these days has been combined with Manager mode to create one unified Career mode this year. So if you want to play Be A Pro or Manager mode, you will go into the same Career mode. This does not mean you have to do both things at once, but rather you can do the Manager mode-style things from the start, or you can play out your career as an individual before retiring and moving into the "manager" role. The Career mode runs for 15 years.
The bottom line seems to be that the Manager mode you knew before is dead. The FIFA development team is starting over in an effort to improve the mode in the long run. The reasoning for this choice seems to tie back into the last-gen consoles. The Manager mode in FIFA 10 was hard to develop any further, at least partly because the mode was still working off PS2/Xbox code. So rather than continue down the path any longer, the developers canned the code and are starting fresh.
This means there will be an all-new heads-up display (HUD) in the mode, which should help with navigation. This also means the old (terrible) simulation engine has been scrapped and is being rebuilt. The hope is that this will lead to more realistic final standings, transfers, stats, etc. Basically, the developers seem to want Chelsea to finish at the top of table rather than Burnley on a more consistent basis.
The FIFA representative I spoke to said no features that were already in Manager mode would be taken out this year. It also seems like this is just year one of the rebuilding process, so not much will be added either in terms of new things to do for those already familiar with the old Manager mode.
There is still a lot that we do not know about FIFA 11, and hardcore Manager mode folks out there (I am not in that group) will want to hear more about the changes on that front. Nevertheless, the gameplay changes really started to shine through in this latest build of FIFA 11.
Be on the watch for more info in the coming days, weeks and months before FIFA 11's release.
Chase Becotte is the senior editor at Operation Sports. He resides in Philadelphia, and loves to be knee-deep in any video game that is unrelated to football. When he's not gaming, he cheers for the Sixers, Pirates and Flyers. You can follow him on Twitter @ChaseBecotte, on OS as ChaseB, and on XBL and PSN as Slizeezyc.