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Following last year's success it seems as though EA Canada has taken things a little easy with FIFA 11...
Let’s blame the World Cup hangover because there’s just something about FIFA 11 that fails to spark our passion in the same way as last year’s sublime effort. It seems as though the team at EA Canada has decided this year’s version is all about refinement, developing the ideas that the team first introduced back in FIFA 08, tidying up its rough edges and holding back on anything perhaps considered a little too drastic.
There’s no denying FIFA 11 clearly makes improvements over last year’s version and as such plays a better game of football, it’s just the fact that it all seems a little underwhelming with marginal behind the scenes improvements on the pitch and severe reduction in the condensed assortment of modes on offer.
360 Fight for Possession is such an addition, a welcome dynamic that makes scuffles for the ball more engaging and less predictable. It reduces the brutal efficiency of pressing an opponent as the player with the ball stands a better chance of holding onto it or at least holding up the play. That said, the canned animation sequences evidently need a little more variety. Perhaps the most important change is the introduction of Pro Passing, which effectively makes it harder to pass the ball around the pitch. It’s been designed as a bridge to narrow the gap between those who opt for Manual and those who choose Auto Assist and brings an end to the pinball like momentum for those who choose the latter. That’s not to say you can’t play one-touch, tiki-taka, football, but that it just requires a little more skill and puts greater emphasis on the player performing the pass.
Which brings us to Personality+, perhaps the biggest introduction to the title and undoubtedly something that will provide the momentum for the series to continue developing over the next few years. It means individual players perform on the virtual pitch as you’d expect to see them in the real world thanks to a fairly comprehensive database of player stats and traits. Its influence over virtually everything FIFA offers is unmissable, whether it’s wing backs who think they’re forwards streaming up the wings (and leaving space at the back), or tenacious box-to-box midfielders covering every blade of grass. More significantly it ties in with the various other additions and improvements so pass masters will be able to produce pin point passes where others fail and hard-hitting attackers will find it easier to hold the ball up and fend off the defender. FIFA 11 is evidently driven more by stats and now presents a much more authentic experience as a result. However whether or not it’s really a standout feature to get excited about is questionable, particularly when FIFA did a reasonable job of faking it in the past.
Chiefly its appearance seems to be a response to grievances the studio had with imbalance in previous versions of FIFA. As David Rutter told us earlier in the year, “if you wanted to win at FIFA 10 or FIFA 09 or FIFA 08 you took the strongest players and the fastest players and you played with that team, the nuances of everything else that is football was completely lost.”
So FIFA 11 makes the improvements on the pitch that we’d expect, albeit ones that don’t take significant strides forwards for the franchise but do at least provide greater parity and honest admissions. Some of the features you can clearly see providing the groundwork for the series to evolve in the future, others seem less so. In general it’s a little difficult to get overly excited about any one particular feature because much of the work lies behind the scenes, ultimately helping to round off and refine what is still the best game of football out there.
Given that FIFA has reached something of a peak in its current on-the pitch gameplay we can tolerate EA making the marginal on-field improvements. What’s slightly disappointing is the fact that the changes to the game modes fail to really offer a new FIFA experience. EA made a bit of a noise about the unified Career mode in FIFA 11. Combining the Manager and Be A Pro: Seasons modes of FIFA 10, the all-new Career mode presents the choice of becoming a Player, Manager or Player/Manager. It’s a wise choice as the disparate selection of modes in FIFA 10 always seemed a tad bewildering and having one unified mode should provide the scope for EA Canada to really tidy it up and push it forwards. The emphasis there is squarely on ‘should’.
Following the outburst surrounding last year’s bug-ridden Manager mode it does seem as though the decision to condense has allowed the team to deliver a considerably more stable experience. The second year of a planned three-year rewrite for the mode at least brings an end to eternal nighttime fixtures and match congestion issues that plagued last year’s version. After a couple of seasons the finances appear to remain relatively stable and the heavily requested ability to adjust the balance between transfer and wage budgets appears to ease any transfer issues. The overall authenticity appears to also stack up with the Top 4 as expected (albeit Liverpool wining the league), Drogba, Torres, and Tevez competing for the Golden Boot award. If anything it’s perhaps a little bit too heavily skewed to ‘on paper’ statistics, with recently promoted clubs unlikely to cause a surprise.
So EA at least appears to have delivered a mode that holds up to the scrutiny it’s likely to come under. We just can’t help but feel the mode is beginning to feel a little tired and in desperate need of a few new ideas. The big concern is that EA Canada has stripped away a huge amount of content from both the modes that featured in FIFA 10. EA reportedly made more than 50 changes and additions to the Manager mode last year, but it seems as though it’s made at least 50 reductions in the Career mode for FIFA 11.
Following poor feedback from the appearance of Player Form in last year’s title EA has decided to remove the feature completely, along with the manager’s backroom staff. So ultimately the manager’s duties consist merely of rotating the squad when stamina levels are low and buying/selling players - that’s it. It doesn’t exactly make for the most engrossing of modes. FIFA 10 packed a whole load of player statistics broken into different categories such as Short Pass Percentage, Movement Average and Shots on Target. FIFA 11 reduces this to the bare minimum of Top Scorers, Assists, Clean Sheets and Cards. It just makes the managerial aspects of FIFA 11 barely noticeable and little more than skipping to the next match.
It’s also the same when you opt to choose as a Player. We’ve played a couple of seasons and found no mention of aspiring to become an international, in fact it seems as though international games have been omitted entirely. You no longer have individual objectives before each match, but instead have one objective at the start of the season to fulfil. And because the game, even just as a player, is built around the unified Career mode there’s a lot of waiting and loading in between games. Tolerable if you’re playing as a Manager, but less so when all you want to do is play a few games.
Now in its third year we can’t help but feel that EA needs to really push the Be A Pro/Player feature forward. The main problem lies with the on-the-ball AI, which still tends to get bogged down in midfield battles and rarely has that spark of creativity that turns a football match. Certainly when you take on the role of the goalkeeper in the all-new Be A Keeper mode you’ll notice this. The AI just doesn’t do a very good job of carving out chances and getting away from the midfield scuffle. We highlighted in our preview and think it needs noting again that in most of the matches we’ve played we’ve barely had a save to make on World Class difficulty. It doesn’t make for the most exciting experience and we’d also rather have seen more focus on goalkeeper responsibilities than calling a pass or shouting for a shot. That said having the option to play as a keeper is certainly a welcome introduction when it comes to playing with 10 other people online, truly the ultimate experience provided you can actually get it going.
Ultimately both the manager and player sides of the mode fail to provide the engagement we want. It would probably be a little naive to think EA could deliver something similar to the immersion of Football Manager, but we’d like to see them at least try out some new ideas or at the very least not remove features purely because they didn’t work last year. It’s a highly subjective thing but the dressing room cut-scenes in this year’s PES highlight the type of experience we’d also like to see from FIFA. It’s embellishing the experience and moving away from the clinical and repetitive nature of match after match. Another way to consider it would be needless fluff, but at TVG we quite enjoy a bit of fluff.