So it rolls around to that time of year again when I tuck away my thoughts of rebellion against our corporate overlords and their incremental annual sports updates and pony up the dough for the latest copy of FIFA. Cos, you know, it just seems wrong for Tevez to still be at Man United now. This year, though, there’s perhaps hope of greater promise than in updates past. FIFA 10 was edging towards being the best football simulation ever made, and would need only a few minor tweaks to head straight to the top of the class.
One of the main criticisms of last year’s generally excellent release was the slight choppiness of the game, particularly when beset with a packed goalmouth to render. It wasn’t that FIFA 10 suffered from slowdown, more that it seemed fixed at a less-than-ideal framerate. All too often things would seem they were chugging a tad, and a sharply-timed press of the shoot button to finish that deft one-touch counter attack would result in a missed animation cycle and a fluffed chance at the far post. Happily that’s a problem that’s been ironed out in FIFA 11. While the graphics engine doesn’t show any significant overhaul in terms of the actual polygons being pushed around, it does seem that the pushing itself is done more smoothly and more consistently than the last outing.
As ever with EA Sports releases there are a few banner additions to the FIFA stable that will grab the most attention. One of those is what EA have dubbed “Personality Plus”. In essence this is an attempt to differentiate between players’ on pitch performances through slightly less obvious gameplay mecahnics than sprint speed or physical appearance. Players with high passing stats will, for instance, be able to pull of a tricky through ball when off-balance, even if they’re playing for Burton Albion. Likewise a pacey winger with great acceleration and fine vision, who nonetheless has a low passing stat, will, in the same scenario, fall flat on his arse and spoon the ball to the opposition. It’s a subtle tweak of the underlying number-crunching that dictates much of the flow of the game, and it seems to have paid off. As a Wolves fan I spend most of my time within FIFA playing with less-than-able players, some of whom will only have one or two areas of skill (George Elokobi’s real life passing for example is roughly on a par with a blind, disabled under-10s goalkeeper, yet his strength and tackling are right up there). The feel of individual players definitely translates better on the pitch. There’s less emphasis on pace, it’s not all about letting Ronaldo or Messi bomb on down the wing. Strength, positioning, short passing. All are just as vital in this game, and it is testament to the success of Personality Plus that a well rounded midfield of good tacklers, passers and muscle-men can overcome a pace-based set up nearly every time.
Indeed the game generally seems to rely less on pacey runs that it has in previous years. There’s new heft to the tackling system, with continued improvements to the player vs player animations. Defenders now jostle and pull at strikers’ shoulders to win posession. Target men back into their markers to steal an extra yard in the box. There’s none of the hell-for-leather, sprinting pinball mania of Pro Evo or earlier FIFAs. This is a game where opportunities must be forged through strength, and patient interplay as much as by constant basketball-style counter attack and through-ball spamming. It marks a further step down the alley of gritty realism, away from FIFA’s traditional arcade football roots. Play through your first half-season of Manager Mode on FIFA 11 and you’ll have battled through a lot of goalless draws and turgid midfield slogs. But that’s not to say it isn’t fun. Crucially, the initial dissappointment that many players may feel at not being able to carve straight through the AI-controlled opposition is tempered by the new depth on offer. Give this game a few weeks to settle and your hard-won victories will feel all the sweeter. You will eventually pull off those Arsenal-style ping-pong passing moments on the edge of the box, it’ll just take a little more skill and practice than you might be used to from FIFAs past.
Speaking of Manager Mode, that’s probably where most people will spend the majority of their in-game time. It’s a far cry from the eccentricities of Pro Evo’s Master League, or the relatively crude single season tournaments of years gone by. Building on the success of last year’s implementation, Manager Mode is now a fairly fully-fledged light management sim, with all the goodness of actually playing the game itself once the match kicks off. Contracts must be negotiated, players loaned out. Transfers involve emails sent back and forth between boards, with personal terms to be negotiated. Using the time honoured “inbox with emails from your staff” metaphor to keep the player abreast of developments may be a bit of a sports-game cliche, but it works well enough here not to offend. Of course, just sitting at a screen reading imaginary emails from the AI is only so much fun, and the meat of Manager Mode are the matches themselves, but taking a team you’ve lovingly crafted into combat week after week in a fully realised Premier League season is far more satisfying than just playing random tourneys or exhibitions. And of course, there’s always the ace in the hole that is the Virtual Pro.
For as long as player creation tools have been part of the sports sim experience I, for one, have always created a personal avatar. While I’m all about the realism in my sports sims, there comes a point when you have to recognise that the alternate reality you are shaping during the course of your tenure at the helm of your chosen club is mere fiction. If so, why limit yourself to simply managing. Haven’t you always wanted to play for Man Utd or Chelsea? So it seems only a small stretch to accommodate myself as my own starting centre forward.
In FIFA 11 the Virtual Pro creation tools are a slight, but welcome evolution from the previous two versions. There are innumerable ways to tweak physical appearance to replicate yourself, or anyone you fancy. As ever EA’s GameFace feature makes an appearance, offering players the chance to upload images to the EA website to be used as texture maps on the game’s models. Typically the EA website is confusing and error-prone and I haven’t yet had the patience to get it working. Once I do, I’ll post the – no doubt terrifying – results here.
FIFA 11’s real genius when it comes to Virtual Pro though, isn’t the array of options for tweaking your avatar’s look, it’s the way the Pro is integrated into the play experience. In FIFA 09, when the Pro first popped up it was in a separate, but refreshingly novel game mode. Last year’s version went someway to integrating the Pro into things a bit more, but this year, once you’ve set up your midfield dynamo or Lineker-esque tap-in merchant and assigned him to a club, he’ll follow you through the game like a lost puppy. He’ll be there for you to have a kick around with behind the main menu. In Manager Mode he’ll be there for you to pick as part of your team. Indeed if he’s in the starting lineup for a match you’ll be given the choice to play two ways, as the god-like controller of the whole team, in typical FIFA fashion, or in the Pro mode that forces you and the camera to stay focused on your man, calling for passes and demanding the ball every six seconds or so. Its all very deftly handled, and allows players to develop their Pro’s skills (for all Pros begin life equally bereft of talent, but drowning in potential) across a variety of modes, including multiplayer.
Ah yes, multiplayer. At least in my house, FIFA was the one game that could unseat Modern Warfare as the XBox Live game of choice each year. There simply is little better than taking on a real opponent at the beautiful game. For the last couple of years the FIFA online experience has been pretty much perfect. Games are almost universally lag free in my experience (unlike Pro Evo) and matchmaking is usually fast and effective. The internal ranking system does a decent job of finding worthy opponents, though for the newbies it can be a little intimidating to be paired against someone who’s deemed to be at their level because they’ve never played FIFA 11 before, even though they might have been one of the world’s leading FIFA 10 supremos. That aside online play is great fun, and there are complicated league and Virtual Pro modes to satisfy those with more adventurous tastes. It’s even possible to take your Virtual Pro online as one of 22 human-powered players, though in my experience the rush to play upfront, and the selfish nature of gamers generally left every online Virtual Pro game a nightmarish free-for-all that descended into chaos within seconds.
So the online side of FIFA 11 is great. That much we’ve established. What’s not so hot though, is the restrictions EA have decided to place on your getting online. Gone are the days when owning a legitimate copy of the game was enough to allow online play. Now you need an online access code. Each copy of the game comes with one on the printed manual which can be redeemed once. But that’s it. No transfers, no swapsies. That means you can’t take your copy of FIFA 11 round to a mate’s house for a quick blast of two-player versus the world. It means no second hand copies of the game will be allowed online. It also means that if you redeem the pass on your gamertag, your sibling / partner / housemate, can’t then boot up the game with his own tag and take it online. Not without forking out another £8.50 for a new “online pass”.
I wouldn’t mind if it was designed as a measure to combat piracy, but as Microsoft are so pro-active about banning modders from Xbox live, that can’t work as an excuse. No the real target is the second hand community. It’s an issue that’s been bubbling around in the gaming world for a couple of years now, but simply put, publishes are not happy about the millions of games sold, traded, swapped and rented each year. And they want it to stop. EA, already a company that made more than $700 million net profit last year, has decided that you, yes you, the hard up student who buys his games from the pre-owned bin at Game, or you, the cost-concious key worker who rents his titles from LoveFilm are stealing from their pockets. And they want their money back. It’s a disgraceful attitude from such a successful company, particularly on Xbox 360, a format that’s been kept alive by its phenomenal attach rate, itself partly driven by second had sales. Sadly, it’s not something that shows any signs of going away, and as digital distribution starts to take over from traditional retail, consumers’ chances of picking up bargain games second hand look set to all but disappear.
Still, I digress. In summary, despite the ever-present feeling that the EA corporate pistol is still pressed somewhat against one’s temple, FIFA 11 is a wholly satisfying experience. What worked well last year now works better, what was worrying has largely been eliminated. Is it worth another forty quid of your hard earned to update from last year’s version? Maybe, maybe not. That depends on whether you can justify the expense. Perhaps try and find it second hand…