The FIFA series gets surprisingly little attention in the U.S. While football may be the biggest sport in the world, it's largely ignored by the American gaming market. That's really a shame, since FIFA has been a much better product than Madden for the last four years. The series has an absolutely massive following in Europe and is often one of the best-selling games. As a result, it often punctures the highly desired Xbox Live Top 10 activity log. With all this lavish praise for FIFA, you'd think that I must be colossally biased toward FIFA Soccer 11 or this is the greatest sports game ever made. However, my initial impressions of FIFA 11 were not good. During my first few hours with the game, I found that I actually enjoyed FIFA World Cup 2010: South Africa more than I liked FIFA 11.
During my initial impressions, FIFA 11 felt like the title was taking a step backward. The new camera angles for cut scenes and corner kicks were bad, the graphics had taken a few steps back, and for those wanting the "real" football experience, the game seemed to think that over-the-top football was good football (bicycle kicks were a frequent occurrence). Player collisions became significantly more dramatic and had a nasty tendency to slow down the game significantly. Playing was a frustrating experience, as the game would violently shift from slow, violent midfield play to ridiculously fast pacing as one near the net.
After those initial hours, though, something amazing clicked. All the little changes suddenly made sense, and the game started to have that incredible FIFA feel. I realized that the changes bugged me because I was playing the game as if it were last year's edition. Things have changed, and that's largely a good thing, but the game never left me with the sense of awe and wonderment that FIFA 10 provided last year.
Most of the changes to this year's version of FIFA are small little tweaks, but two changes make a pretty big difference on the field. The biggest change is something dubbed "player personalities," which try to hand specific traits to players to make them act and play more like their real-life counterparts. In theory, this means that players such as Landon Donovan and Wayne Rooney will actually act more like Donovan and Rooney on the pitch. In practice, it doesn't quite work, but it's a very solid foundation. Only the bigger name players got this treatment, so people who aren't big name players were simply left as is or received minor traits. It's immensely satisfying to see a playmaker pull off a ridiculously difficult goal while random players in the same situation play it safe, and it changes the game. Suddenly, you're aware of the type of player you need to get the ball. It's no longer merely a matter of statistics and smart play; you need to choose the correct personality for the situation.
The second big change doesn't take nearly as long to explain. In this year's iteration, the play got a lot more physical. Collisions hit a lot harder, and players jostle for the ball much more. Previous FIFA titles have tried replicate the intensity from the pitch, and every year, I keep talking about how it's getting better, but this year, they've really nailed it. For example, in FIFA 10, if I run a player headfirst into the guy with the ball, he'd start jostling with the guy and make a single lunge for the ball. One of three outcomes could occur: 1) The player loses the ball, and attacker walks away with it. 2) The attacker whiffs completely and keeps chasing. 3) The attacker accidentally trips the man with the ball, and a free kick is awarded. This year, that head-on collision sends the ball flying, and players will be on the ground from running into each other, even though I've been given yellow cards for doing it before. There's a less programmed feel to it, with a heavy amount of intensity. It starts to capture the feel of the real sport at work, and that's the highest praise anyone can bestow upon a sports title.
Aside from delivering some fantastic gameplay that takes a short while to get used to, FIFA 11 was pretty much content to sit on its laurels and not deliver new, compelling experiences. The big modes from previous titles, Be A Pro and Manager, have been condensed into a single mode: Career. Nothing has changed. The same deep career structures are in place, and it still takes forever to obtain a decent reputation. Career mode is split into three categories, which play out in rather similar fashion. You can go in as a manager and play manager mode, or you can go in as a player and play Be a Pro Career from last year's FIFA. Take on the role of a single player and work up the ranks, or do both by being a player-manager.
The only thing that even resembles a change to the formula is that the Be a Pro mode figured out a way to let you play as the goalkeeper. Unfortunately, playing as a goalkeeper is boring because they see little to no action in most games. Realizing this, the game lets you move the camera toward the ball during the times when you're not doing anything, and you can try to influence the play a tad. This really doesn't pay off in the end because playing as a goalie isn't much fun in video game form.
Many returning fans might initially ignore the FIFA Ultimate Team mode. This has been tacked on as downloadable content for the last several years, and while they usually offer a free trial that lets you play the first game or two, the rest would cost $10. This year, to celebrate over 10 million sold units of FIFA since the franchise's beginning, Ultimate Team mode is free, and it's amazing. You start with a ragtag bunch of players who are represented by cards, and you play games with them. You make a lineup, try to make the guys have chemistry, use training cards to boost their stats, buy new packs of cards and replace your bad players with new and improved players. It's an addictive system of constantly trying to improve your team without having to manage a budget. Playing more means more money, and that in turn means more cards that you can buy, kits you can unlock, etc. It's a bunch of fun to build your players from a bunch of Major League Soccer benchwarmers to a team capable of taking on world-class European teams. There are even online tournaments that let you take the fight to other teams.
Speaking of online play, FIFA 11 has fantastic online options. The main menu tells you how you stack up when compared to your friends, and there are several different ways to play online, and they're all fun. Getting into a 1v1 match is simple and largely lag-free, but the game shines when it's allowed to stretch its legs in a full 11-on-11 match. With the goalkeeper being a human-controllable character, it is possible to enter a team game with all 22 players controlled by actual players. Watching a team sport unfold like this (and without lag) is simultaneously brilliant and entertaining.
The audio is delivered fairly well. The announcers rarely miscall things and have some interesting dialogue, at one point going off into a two-minute speech about an average player on my team. They're a little quiet when compared to the announcers in most sports games, but what they say is worthwhile.
While animations have been improved, the overall graphics left something to be desired. FIFA 10 was a good-looking game, and the players were a bit gritty. That grit has been removed in favor of cleaner-looking players, but a result is that some of the detail seems to be gone, especially during the times when you get close to the players during gameplay. (Replays and gameplay use different character models, and replays are significantly higher in detail.) It starts to feel a bit cartoonish.
For FIFA veterans, FIFA 11's tweaks take a while to get used to. The style of play has changed just enough so that players will be frustrated during the initial hours. After a few hours, FIFA 11 clicks and becomes an incredible game of football for both veterans and newcomers alike. The changes aren't drastic, but the title has taken several small steps forward to refine the greatest football game. FIFA 11 is one of the best sports games that were released this year, and any fan of football (soccer) can enjoy it. Unlike last year, this isn't the greatest sports game ever made, but it's definitely a fantastic one that is worth your hard-earned $60.
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