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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

FIFA 11 (9.0/10)

There’s something you should know about me… I’m a soccer fanatic. My parents were born and raised in England. I may be first generation American, but my blood is British and so is my love of football! So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I buy the newest FIFA game on release day each year. This is my Madden

At first glance it would seem that the changes to FIFA 11 were pretty superficial, but in truth the way the game plays has been dramatically changed. It’s far and away the most realistic soccer simulation ever created. Not only does the ball have real weight, so do the players. Gone are the days of running through your opponents with the ball attached to your feet by a magic string. If you have a smallish forward trying to run through a big burly defender, he will bounce off. Literally. Sure, that same forward can dance around the big guy, but that’s much harder to accomplish. Just like in real life. Since the ball is it’s own entity it’s easy to lose control, especially when jostling with opponents.

This sort of physicality makes the game play much slower overall. One touch passing is more realistic because it depends on the positioning of your player as he receives the ball, as well as where his target is. As a result, ‘ping-pong’ passing is harder to pull off. Again, just like real life. You’ll find play getting bogged down in the midfield as you try and string together passes long enough to work your way up field. If you do manage to break through the defense, the goalkeepers have also been upgraded, making it much more difficult to put the ball in the back of the net. Scoring from outside the box takes real skill, and I’m convinced more than a little luck... wait for it... just like in real life! And since I like to be the one on the field…

I love playing modern sports games because you have the ability to create your own player, an avatar in the game. In the past I’ve been a wide receiver for the Colts, a shortstop for the Red Sox, and a shooting guard for the Pacers. It’s great; I can even have hair! But every year my most important transformation is into a poaching forward in the wide world of European football. The FIFA series has created a ‘Virtual Pro’ hub which you can develop across all game modes. You create the look, position and playing style of your virtual... you. It’s almost like a RPG! The game will even recognize a whole slew of names, so you can assign a commentary name! It’s awesome to hear the announcers shout, "Simon scores!" Makes Simon happy… except for some reason they also call me Simone somtimes (think French pronunciation) which is not so amusing...

I love guiding my 'Simon' through multiple seasons, building up his skills and turning him into a force on the pitch. Once again FIFA 11 uses ‘Accomplishments’ to level your virtual pro. You have to complete tasks on the field to gain points towards certain stats. For example, if you complete 75% of your passes over 10 games, you get +3 points to your passing skill. Score from outside the box, and you get +2 to you shot power skill… and so on and so forth. I still don't like this. It feels far too limiting because it’s not based on your performance during the game, but rather arbitrary actions that you have to commit. Doing something incredible on the field, like scoring from thirty yards out, only upgrades you once no matter how often you do it. I feel like this actually inhibits your play. You might start thinking, "Okay, I need to take more shots from outside the box so if I score I'll get those points for my shooting skill" even if it’s not practical taking shots from range all the time.

To actually max out your character, which I would contend is the point of treating him like an RPG character in the first place, you have to do an insane amount of stuff. There are over four hundred different ‘Accomplishments’. To get the biggest payoffs though you’ll need to play on ‘World Class’ difficulty. Normally I’m not one to complain about difficulty, but since the core of the FIFA 11 experience is enhanced realism, playing on the harder levels can be down right infuriating. I’ve found that ‘World Class’ difficulty straddles the line between being awesome and just plain frustrating. Is it more realistic and true to the game? Yes, definitely. Is it more fun? I’m gonna say probably not. The ball gets bogged down in midfield, just about every run ends up getting tackled away. Spectacular goals are few and far between.

Some would say "That's just soccer..." and I'd agree, to a point. If you want to play like Ronaldo you need to practice! But getting to that level will take a major commitment that most people are simply not willing to do, be it born of frustration or simply that there aren’t enough hours in the day. They have maybe hamstrung themselves a bit in this regard. After all, we are playing a game here. If I wanted to really play soccer, I'd go outside!

Fortunately, EA Sports has kept the same tight controls, otherwise this might have been a disaster. They still don’t always do what you want though. There are a few peccadilloes; namely wonky passing mechanics and some idiotic AI still rear their ugly heads. You could chalk this up to human error, but I play this game a lot, and there are still times that I’ll yell (literally) "NO! I passed to him, not him, ya flippin idiot! ARRRGGH!" But if you can put it all together, especially playing on the harder difficulty levels, it’s a special feeling. I’m struggling to think of another sports game I’ve played where I felt such a sense of accomplishment.

All of your standard game modes are present: Exhibition, Tournament, Manager, and ‘Be a Pro’. I pretty much stick to the ‘Be a Pro’ mode, it’s my favorite. You play as just one player, usually your created character, and not the rest of the squad. I actually like relying on the computer to play as the rest of the team. It adds a certain amount of realism. When a computer controlled player watches the ball run out of bounds or passes to the wrong player or misses a sitter after an inch perfect pass, I shout at my TV exactly the same way I would if I were watching a real match! My only major complaint is that for some stupid reason when playing a 'Be a Pro' game you can't request a sub for your player... my 'Simon' is tired, give him a rest!

New to FIFA 11 is the 'Be a Goalkeeper’ mode. Now you can have full 11 vs. 11 matches online. Playing as a goalkeeper is a novel idea, but honestly it’s pretty boring. I’ve played in goal many times in real life and trust me, it’s ninety minutes of boredom with about thirty seconds of sheer terror. The goalkeeper controls are okay, but they don’t work too well, almost like this mode was tacked on. Hopefully, it will be honed in future versions.

I’ve yet to mention the graphics, but they are the best to date for the franchise. The stadiums (most of which are real) look phenomenal. The on-field animations are excellent, more fluid and realistic in the way the players move and react. They’ve really gone into a lot of detail with the major names in the sport. If you follow international soccer much, as I do, then you will be impressed with the recognition factor. Sadly though, that doesn’t translate into the less well known, or the ‘Virtual Pro’ creator. I know I ain't pretty, but I don’t look quite that bad!

The sound work is excellent as well. Andy Gray and Martin Tyler are back, reprising their roles as the commentary team. They have created quite a library of quotes over the years, and keep adding more. As a result, there is tremendous variation during the game. For the most part it is spot on as well, although there are still instances when they will say something completely out of place. The soundtrack is great every year, that’s no surprise, and the new stadium chants are fantastic. I love hearing "You’ll Never Walk Alone" belted out at Anfield after a goal… 

FIFA 11 is a much improved soccer simulation but ultimately it may be a step back for the series. It reflects what really happens on the field more realistically than ever before... but it may be too realistic for its own good. The added difficulty leads to a much slower paced game. If you appreciate the intricacies of the sport then you will play through this, but I feel like it may alienate some of the more casual fans (and casual gamers). But if you invest the time to get good at FIFA 11, it’s probably the most rewarding sports game I have ever played. Students of the beautiful game will appreciate it. When you place that inch perfect cross for a headed goal, or when you really catch a hold of one and score a cracker, man… it’s awesome! When that ball hits the back of net… well, I’m up off the couch like a shot, startling my girlfriend and scaring the crap out of the cat! It takes something special to elicit that kind of response, and FIFA 11 definitely delivers.


Score = 9.0 / 10

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