For the third year running by my reckoning, EA Sports’ mighty FIFA series is going to take home the best football game crown. It’s comfortably seen off UbiSoft’s upstart Pure Football (which I didn’t actually mind as a throwaway game), and this year’s Pro Evolution Soccer release, while improved, is still not matching EA Sports’ standards.
And, let’s face it, EA Sports sets those standards high. If you’re after the glossiest presentation, the most up-to-date and accurate player and team names (heck, real team names for starters) and some degree of non-Shrek-like likeness to real footballers, then it’s long been the game of choice.
What’s also leapt forward in recent years has been the game itself. Even this year’s 2010 World Cup release neatly evolved the formula, balancing the game’s goal-scoring sweet spots, and tightening up the match mechanic. The World Cup game, while flying under many people’s radar, improved on FIFA 10 – an already strong release – by more than you might give it credit for. And it does thus feel, come FIFA 11, that the best new ideas were used up earlier in the year.
The fresh thinking isn’t in plentiful supply, here. On the pitch, the graphics have been tweaked once more, you can control the goalkeepers properly for the first time should you wish, passing is more under your control, and you have to fight that bit harder again for your goals. To an extent, it feels a little like it’s where Pro Evo was around the time in PES5, in spirit at least, in that games can be really quite tough, and goals feel harder to come by. Much harder, in fact, as you get to grips with the game.
This is a good thing, as is the general jostling that goes on mid-match, and the quality of the artificial intelligence. Players feel better at running into space, they’re better at closing down gaps, and while the foot in tackle is still very effective, it all feels really quite real.
EA Sports list other features, but these I found less obvious in practice. It’s made quite a lot, for instance, of the fact that individual player skills and personalities have a bearing on the game. But skills always did, from what I can tell, and even though EA puts across the impression that a player might go off on a bit of a sulk, I didn’t really notice a real world different as a result. It’ll look good in the TV ads, but it’s not made much different to the end product.
There’s an accessible balance to the game, though, which has had more of an impact. The skill system feels a little easier to work with, and once more, there are intricate controls at work here if you take the time to learn them. In fact, the game is full of hidden depths, to the point where, as per usual, you can easily lose months of your life to it as you fine-tune your strategy and skills. There really is a lot to love here.
The long and short of the matches themselves though is that they retain a very familiar feel, and you’re not going to notice anything like the rate of change we’ve seen in recent years. In fact, if anything, it feels more like a policy of consolidation is at work here, with EA taking fewer risks, but nonetheless delivering an at-times quite exquisite game off football.
Off the pitch, EA wisely provides the usual depth of online and offline game modes. The career mode is still our favourite, and now you can manage or play for a team of your choice (the Be A Pro mode of old has been amalgamated here). It’s welcome that there’s been some tightening here, too. The computer-generated results feel much more realistic than in past years, even if some of the transfers and loan deals are mighty unrealistic. And the scouting system, so often capable of throwing up good players outside of the transfer window, is no longer something you can lean on. These are all wise moves forward.
EA has been keen to fuse in enough to give you busy and interested between matches, too, and it’s tightened things up sufficiently in doing so. There’s, bluntly, lots and lots to do here, and it’s all furnished with updatable squads and players.
In all, the game remains, for another year at least, the planet’s finest title of its type, although one that’s up against a sleeping giant that may just be awaking from its slumber. For this year, though, FIFA 11 retains its crown, even if at times it feels like it’s not pushing itself particularly hard to do so.