EA's FIFA game series is 11 - the game and the manual proudly proclaims this, frequently presenting the player with banners and taglines like "We are 11". It fits with their other brands nicely, as well as the date of the coming year, but it this is actually the 18th game in the series. Eight-teenth. That's one hell of a long-running series - there have been, for example, FIFA videogames from EA for more than half the time that there have been videogames full stop. That's quite the statement.
A series doesn't get to live that long for no good reason; sure, some contest that there have been better games from the competition in years gone by, and sure, having the FIFA license (occasionally exclusively) has helped. But that EA makes a good football game has been a fact that is not open for debate for a number of years now and, in case you're wondering, FIFA 11 continues that tradition of quality.
First up, for those familiar with the series, the key headline changes from the previous titles are: Personality+, be a goal keeper and pro passing. Personality+ allegedly enables the game to accurately simulate players based on how they really play, including using their physical attributes to contribute to the way they move on the field. Players do seem to have a slightly more recognisable "something" about them that helps you tell them apart from each other but how much of that is due to us looking for the way this feature was implemented and how much of it is actually based on the implementation of this technology is debatable. We also spent most of our time playing A-League games, which is likely the place where the game designers spent the least of their time.
The new "be a goal keeper" is pretty much what you might expect - you can now elect to play the goal keeper in the pro mode. This extends to online, where teams of organised online players can now (finally) play every player on the pitch. The depth to which this feature has been implemented is surprising and pleasing to behold, with so many options available to the keeper that EA had to ultimately implement a number of "tiers" of controls for fear of overwhelming players with options and complexity. For example you can call for passes or even encourage players a long way outside the box (in both attack and defence mode) to play the game as you would like it. There's a heap of options here - prospective keepers should have no fear that they'll be left doing nothing most of the game. Just be sure and earmark some time to figure out how it all works as the array of on-screen information and basic controls of your virtual keeper can be overwhelming when you first try it out.
Pro passing takes a bit of getting used to. Allegedly this takes into consideration a bunch of things, including the stats of the players and even the gamer's prowess with the controller. In reality, this translates to a completely different feel for passing and will be the most noticeable change for ardent FIFA fans. Ultimately what's there feels like a fair representation of the skill of the players but it does also feel completely different and will take some getting used to if you're a hardcore player of previous titles.
Those new features aren't the only new things in 11, with numerous other changes and alterations added into the mix in an attempt to convince gamers that it's worth buying the new version. Match highlights, for example, provide a list of key moments in the match for your review while the career mode has had significant overhauls improve proceedings.
The core content remains, complete with an extremely comprehensive online mode - assuming you have an online pass. This use-once code comes with new retail copies of the game as a part of EA's attempt to kill second-hand sales and fund the ongoing costs of running the (extensive) online service that powers the title. People that buy the game secondhand can trial the mode for 14 days without having to pay, after which costs vary depending on exactly what you want. Whether this sort of thing will last into the future or not is uncertain but EA certainly seems to like it, with all "11" games this year behaving in this same way.
There are heaps of modes and variations, with loads of options to further dial-in the experience. The ability to take a single player or manager (or combination) through their career is a particular highlight, but a complete selection of other modes and tournaments is available. If there's not a combination to sate your particular football fetish, chances are you're a bit weird and should probably look into getting more mainstream interests.
Actual on-pitch gameplay retains the depth and complexity that the FIFA engine has been building up over the years, as it manages to maintain a cohesive, believable simulation of the beautiful game. Taking control of your team (or just one player - depending on the options chosen prior to the match) is easily achieved via the simple-yet-deep control configuration, with only a small amount of time required to learn the basics.
Shooting goals seems to be more challenging this time, especially from the spot - exactly how it works is still not apparent, which can be frustrating if an important match comes down to a shootout. Player skill seems to affect it much more than ever before, something which is significantly a factor when playing teams in lower / lesser leagues.
Gameplay is definitely not perfect (AI strikers have a propensity, for example, to run the ball in to the opposition keeper without proffering a shot) but it is damn good. If you're looking for a way to recreate (or, perhaps, re-imagine) your team's results, there's no better way to go about it - although there's still plenty of room for improvement.
There are also numerous tweaks to the in-game presentation, with statistics and results from other games in particular receiving some attention. The interface has that slick, "we're the experts" EA feel to it, managing to simultaneously feel like broadcast TV presentation and still deliver the additional information that the player needs to retain control of proceedings. Nice.
Visual presentation is mostly very good, with flares on lights during the evenings a particular highlight. Players during gameplay sequences are well animated, with realistic "weight" conveying their activity and even allowing the observant player some indication as to their impending movements. In cutscenes, however, the animations fall somewhat flat at best, with players jerking around and snapping between animations at worst. Even the cutscene celebration animations are somewhat lacklustre, although this is offset by players visibly reacting to the goings-on while you're actually playing (starting to celebrate, calling for a pass, pointing to gaps - that sort of thing).
Player likenesses are so-so, with those few players with hand-crafted appearances standing out against their "identikit" teammates. The identikits players themselves don't just not look like anyone in particular but they look... generic, like they're plastic people crafted from parts. EA seems to continue to struggle with hair in particular, with very few of the hair styles meshing with the heads in any kind of realistic (even if squinting) manner. Here's hoping the next generation of consoles will allow hair and material simulation so we can finally move away from these playmobil representations of players!
The actual player construction tool is, as always, littered with options to tweak and change every aspect of the crafted player. Despite this dazzling array of controls, it's hard to actually make your player resemble anyone; fortunately this tool is backed up by a more impressive online editor which allows you to take more control over the appearance (and makeup) of your team.
Audio is pretty similar to previous releases or, in fact, other EA Sports titles, with decent implementations of crowd sounds and game-related audio. Commentary is so-so, with a limited ability to react to what's actually happening on the pitch and a propensity to lose synch with it (talking about the defenders having the ball when in fact you wrested it from them and took a shot at goal - all without them noticing). There's also only so many samples and it's not many hours in before you realise that you've heard most of it before. There has also been very little attention paid to our little A-league competition, with things like team names (and, obviously, player names) being completely overlooked.
As much fun as it is taking control of Leo Bertos in the virtual pro mode, the fact that he doesn't look like Leo (at all), act like Leo, get called Leo / Bertos, or even exist (according to the commentators) in a team with an actual name somewhat limits the authenticity of the simulation. To be fair, the A-League is hardly going to attract the level of attention of the Bundesliga or the Barclay's Premier League from EA but it's still disappointing.
FIFA 11 is big. It's packed to the brim with virtual football action, all of it bigger and better in some way than last year's version. Whether you should buy it or not really comes down to how casual your interest in the franchise is; if you are a semi-regular upgrader, 11 is definitely a solid step up from 10. If you're pretty casual and just like to take the 'nix for a run around the park when you get back from the match and already have 10, there's no real headliner feature that would justify the purchase. Considered as a standalone game, however, there's no question - FIFA 11 is worth every cent of its ~$100 street price. This is the best football game yet and no cadre of reviewer nitpicks can deny it that title.