FIFA Soccer 11 Review (Xbox 360)
While Madden pitched the idea of "simpler, quicker, deeper" in an attempt to broaden its appeal, the other recent EA Sports games appear to be heading in the opposite direction. NHL featured some significant changes, but many were probably overlooked by less than "hardcore" fans. Likewise, FIFA 11 is improved, but the refinements here are aimed at creating an authentic experience rather than enhancing accessibility. As such, FIFA 11 is a great representation of soccer, and the changes have made the game much more strategic, taut and rewarding. However, these changes definitely do not make the game easier.
First Word: Freedom
Playing word association, the first thought that comes to mind when launching FIFA 11 is "freedom." No longer is there a sense that everything is bound or linked by animations or artificial restrictions. Combined with the 360-degree dribbling that was previously introduced, the new Pro Passing system frees up the entire field and allows players to place the ball with a good deal of touch and precision.
The system also makes the passing system more touchy and prone to errant passes. Again, this is an addition that inexperienced players may find challenging, but it certainly adds realism, especially when playing purely on manual settings. This new system, and its associated freedom, makes every successful pass feel truly rewarding.
EA claims that the passing system relies on both the human player’s skill with the controller and the context of the game, including virtual player skill and situation. In my time with the game, I definitely missed my share of easy passes. But with practice, I was able to be more precise, especially with the more skilled players.
It's Got Personality
Speaking of player skill, the stars of the game are a main part of a new system called Personality+. It’s EA’s version of signature style, and it is much more than an advertising gimmick. It affects just about every aspect of play, including dribbling and jostling animations, celebrations and play style. The difference is the most noticeable when switching from a big, unskilled player to a light superstar. This is a great addition to the game, and it keeps games from feeling too stale. However, it is one of those features that will appeal more to true scholars of the game.
Goalies are also affected by the Personality+ system. More acrobatic goalies will now make fancy kinds of saves more often, and traditional goalies will play more to their preference. This seems to have also affected goalie AI because I find it much more difficult to score, especially on those "cheesy" chip shots. I have also noticed that weaker goalies make more of the saves that they should make. In other words, even when playing with a bad goalie, I never felt artificially cheated.
Altogether, this system, with both players and goalies, allows teams to play to their actual strengths and styles. As an example, I played a bad MLS team and noticed that the players on the team were feeding it to their quickest players -- those players were also usually making long runs. I have encountered teams who primarily used the cross. Other teams have flooded the box with tons of offensive pressure. Another team played a slowed down possession-style game. With this system in place, it's fun to try to deduce the AI's strategy before working to effectively negate it. For me, this play style is enhanced from FIFA 10 where team style seemed to be set primarily by formation.
In terms of overall gameplay, this is one of the best soccer experiences I have played to date. There is a clear focus on strategy, positioning and movement. It plays more like what you see on your TV rather than what you see at a local high school. It is more chess-like than ever before, placing a premium on making good tactical decisions as opposed to button mashing. Because of this, I'll say again that this game is much harder than previous iterations of FIFA. Fear not though, with the assists in the game turned on, the game is not out of reach for new players. Either way, I do think this game needs an interactive tutorial instead of canned videos.
Of course, there are a couple of issues I have come across that detract from the otherwise stellar gameplay. First, tackling (on the default settings) is a bit too easy. It feels like players should be able to use their body more, which might make the shield button more effective. This issue breaks up the normally smooth flow of the game. It’s frustrating to seemingly be able to "walk" through a player’s dribbling animation and come away with the ball.
Secondly, fouls sometimes seem messed up. I was getting dominated in a game and, out of frustration, "accidentally" initiated a hard slide tackle in the box. I broke up the play and the offensive player went down. Naturally, the whistle blew. While mentally preparing myself to defend the PK, I was surprised to see the ball coming out.
This perhaps ties into the new variable referees -- some are forgiving, some enforce to the letter -- which would perhaps explain this problem. The problem is the fouls are not consistent. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, it’s just puzzling why some fouls are called -- I guess that mirrors real soccer to some extent.
I also wish the skill moves were a little easier to pull off. Here, with a nearly unlimited amount of moves, it makes pulling them off slightly erratic. However, they are not always effective, which may or may not seem realistic to you. Certainly, they are not overblown.
I also had some issues with the player switching. I did not always get the player I expected. Again, this is not a huge deal, and it is something that can be tuned. Nevertheless, there were some frustrating moments with the choices the game made when trying to select a player.
Shooting seems pretty unchanged, even with the increased difficulty. If anything, it’s a little more finicky, which is unfortunate. I wish that the shooting was more context sensitive, at least on easier difficulty levels. It should not be so easy to accidentally float a shot 10 rows back when you are inside the 18. Yes, it happens, but at that range the strength should translate to shot speed rather than distance.
New Career Mode
In terms of modes, there are not many huge additions. The biggest, depth-wise, is the Be a Player Manager. This version of a franchise/dynasty mode is simply a combination of the familiar Be a Pro and Manager modes. Going into each game, you are given the choice of playing it as your Pro or playing it traditionally. Between matches, you are given the same roster control as before. It’s a nice twist on a pretty standard mode.
There has been some tweaking of some leagues, which has led to truer tournaments and the addition of new teams. Still, not all leagues are authentic. Scouting and endorsements are seemingly missing. The transfer system has also been changed a bit, allowing for individual negotiation with the player in question.
The interface of the Manager mode has been improved, and it now looks more like a Web page. It’s nice and colorful, but ultimately it is still just a bunch of menus.
When it comes to the long-term potential of the FIFA 11 Manager mode, I’m not sure I’ve put in enough time to make a long-term final judgment. That being said, despite all of the teams and players, this mode falls behind other sports games. FIFA does represent many more types of leagues than most other games, but I think an overlay like the one found in NHL’s Be a GM mode might help make this feature more accessible and more interesting in the long run. What is here is not bad -- though there are some reports of inaccurate AI rosters and a lack of progression -- it just won’t captivate those not fully interested in a particular league.
The other addition of note is the Be a Goalie version of Be a Pro, which obviously grants you control of a goalie. I found this role surprisingly fun and unsurprisingly difficult. The game helps you out with on-screen graphics that indicate ball trajectory and optimal positioning. During games, you also have limited control of what the other players are doing. Again, I think this mode has promise, but it will take me a long time to become proficient. I expect that for most, this mode will not take up much gaming time -- unless they have a sincere interest in being a keeper -- but is worth a look.
For the Be a Pro modes, FIFA again uses a universal upgrade system that allows you to earn development points with your virtual pro when he is active in any mode. These points can be applied to a nicely organized "book" of upgrades, which includes traits that mirror passive characteristics of traditional role-playing games.
Visuals Are Good, Presentation Is OK
Visually, this game is right up there with the prettiest soccer games ever made. The lighting and arenas seem to have been given sizable upgrades, and the players also look more like their real-life counterparts. There are more body types and the faces look better, even if you won’t see the faces of the players very often. There are some frame rate issues here and there, especially during cut scenes, but nothing that cripples gameplay. That said, the game did lock up on me once.
Presentation is efficient, streamlined and a bit stale. The camera angles and replays are nice enough, but the commentary, while being very solid, feels a bit old. EA has added a live-scoring system of sorts, but it is usually just the announcers saying "let's look at other scores" before a pop-up scoreboard shows up on the screen. The end of game highlights are nice, but there are occasionally strange choices. In a year where many games have bumped up the presentation level, FIFA’s has remained the same. It’s still good, but it will certainly need an update in the years to come.
Celebrations, chants and music are controllable and customizable, which should delight those who like to fine-tune things for their own personal tastes. Also in the mix are savable highlights from any of your matches. I like that the Photo Game Face is still available, and that it is simply imported from last year’s settings.
Pay To Play
The online options did not see significant change in terms of gameplay. The quality of the match is still pretty dependent on your opponent. The traditional modes are back, including the favorite Club mode. The newest addition is the Creation Center. It’s not as fully featured as the Teambuilder found in NCAA Football, but it’s a great way to build teams and players. The sharing feature is also nice.
Finally, one other (small) complaint. While FIFA is certainly a game that is packed with things to do, it’s too bad that things like the live seasons are still paid DLC. Ultimate Team will at least be free when it's released in the future, but it's a bummer it's not already in the game from the start.
In all, this year’s FIFA is the antithesis of Madden’s "simpler, quicker..." mantra, while sharing the "deeper" label. With additions like Pro Passing, it’s anything but simpler. Instead, the game provides a much more difficult but authentic football experience. The slower pace, too, adds to a more realistic game, but again this might not appeal to the casual soccer fan. Lastly, a refined career mode, Be a Goalie and Personality+ make this game deeper than past iterations.
Much like in NHL 11, the changes here have made a significant impact, but they might go unnoticed by casual or new fans. This, coupled with its increased difficulty and slower pace, may make FIFA 11 a polarizing experience, like chess or jazz.
Still, FIFA 11 is one of the best soccer games of this generation, and it should be a strong contender for our sports game of the year awards in a couple of months.
On the Pitch: An outstanding representation of soccer that is slower, harder and more authentic than previous iterations. "Cheap" tactics, like sprinting up the field with wingers before using a chip shot, have been made less effective. Teams play more to their individual styles.
Graphics: One of the better looking sports games available. There is good lighting, stadiums and player models. Personality+ effectively adds unique and individual animations for star players. There are occasional hiccups in frame rate.
Audio: Commentary is good, but it feels a little stale. Custom chants add an element of individuality to the team you are playing with in the game.
Entertainment Value: There are a lot of ways to play this game: Manager Mode, Player Mode, Player/Manager Mode, tournaments, exhibitions, Be a Goalie. There are also hundreds of teams, so certainly this a game that will keep you busy if you plan to exploit all that the game has to offer. You can extend the experience with pay-to-play DLC and some free Ultimate Team action in the future.
Learning Curve: This game is much more difficult than previous versions, and it unfortunately does not do enough to welcome new users. Assists will help, but tutorials are limited to videos. An interactive tutorial would certainly help, as well as a "Transfer Handbook" similar to something found in a game like MLB: The Show.
Online: A nice variety of gameplay modes that work effectively. Quality is dependent on who you play.
Score: 9.0 (Exceptional)