FIFA 10 was a crowning achievement for EA Sports' soccer series when it launched last year. It took massive steps forward in both gameplay and feature set design, and while FIFA 11 doesn't quite pack the same mammoth punch of its predecessor, there's little doubt that this year's entry builds modestly on the series' rock-solid foundation.
FIFA has always been about delivering the most realistic depiction of the sport of soccer. FIFA 10 brought us 360-degree dribbling for the first time, which was a huge improvement over the traditional eight directions. We also got Virtual Pro, a feature that allowed you to create a player, put him on a team, and then watch him progress as you used him in any of the game's modes. Bringing the physicality of soccer to the forefront on-screen is another longstanding tradition for the series and one that FIFA 11 takes to the next level with something called Personality Plus.
Personality Plus doesn't just mean that players are going to display authentic emotions on the field. It's more that players that you know and love will look, run, shoot, dribble and react to physical interactions authentically. The best part? Personality Plus actually works for the big name guys of the sport. Some of the lesser-known players don't get the same treatment, and I'd love to be able to develop or assign traits to my created player, but for now Personality Plus impresses. If you're a mainstream soccer fan who only tunes in for the World Cup every few years, the benefits of Personality Plus might be lost on your lacking knowledge of the prominent soccer stars of the world.
More impressive still is the fact that FIFA 11 ratchets up the physical play and allows for even more jostles, bumps and slide tackle variations than the series has ever seen before. You'll see guys get knocked off the ball by big defenders and smaller, quicker forwards can pull off some impressive moves even without the skill moves mechanic (hold left trigger and maneuver the right analog stick). It's rare to see these moments of physicality not come through in a realistic manner, but when they falter it's noticeable. Don't worry, though, it doesn't happen often enough to be an annoyance.
Elsewhere you'll notice a new passing system that allows you to hold the pass button to target a comrade further down the field. The only issue I found was that sometimes I wanted to make a hard, quick pass to the teammate closest to me, but the passing system thought that my elongated button press meant I wanted to pass the ball further down the field. These annoyances didn't happen often enough to be a real hindrance, but when unexpectedly poor passing broke up a potentially good offensive set it was a bit of a bummer.
One issue that I still have with FIFA has to do with AI. While I think the players do a slightly better job of positioning on the field, their aggressiveness still wasn't up to the standard of real life players. Too often players wouldn't make an attempt at a slow-rolling pass because it wasn't originally intended for them, despite the fact that it was clearly going to be intercepted by the other team if they let it go by. Players also aren't all that aware of what's going on around them unless they're directly interacting with another player on the field. None of these problems are new to this year's game, but it's a shame that they haven't been corrected at this point in the series' lifespan. Here's hoping they can make the virtual players aware of everything that's going on during a game, just like real players.
Overall the core gameplay on the field is extremely solid, but much of it relies on the past accomplishments of FIFA 10. None of the new touches hurt the gameplay experience in any way, there just aren't the same amount of innovative steps forward. FIFA 11 still has some of the annoyances that have hurt past games, but the touch-ups to players' personalities reap cool benefits on the field. Plus, there's no denying that FIFA presents some of the best flow in terms of gameplay that you'll find in a sports game.
Another interesting addition to the fleet of FIFA features is the Creation Centre. It allows you to craft players, teams and tactics on EA's website and then download them onto your console. It works similarly to NCAA Football's TeamBuilder mechanic and is a very cool addition for FIFA fans. You can also create custom chants and anthems for your team either through homemade audio tracks or tunes you have on a portable storage device that's compatible with your PS3 or Xbox 360. Once they're imported you can then assign them to different situations in a game (like scoring a goal or during team introductions).
If it's an awesome new game mode that you're looking for, FIFA 11 might leave you wanting more. The Be A Pro career mode has been expanded into a new "Be A Goalie" mode in which – you guessed it – you play as only the goalie. While this does allow for online play with up to eleven players (every player on a team is human-controlled) it's also not very fun. Playing as the goalie puts the camera behind the goal itself, giving you a third-person view of your player. Realizing that this is a pretty boring vantage point, FIFA 11 allows you to press the back button (select on PS3) to warp up to the action ahead of you. This gives you slight control over the passing and shooting of your teammates, but no direct control over their movements. It's more of a tease than anything. From there it's up to you to warp back to the keeper in time to position yourself for an incoming shot and flick the right stick to make a save. It's fun when your outstretched fingers just barely alter the ball enough to force it outside of the goal, but those instances are few and far between (as they should be for the sake of realism).
There's a new item on the game modes menu titled "Career Mode" but don't be fooled, there actually aren't any new career modes to be found. Instead what you get are the same Be A Pro Mode (play as only one player throughout his career), Manager Mode (play as only the manager) and Player-Manager Mode (manage your team and play the games) that have been available before but with a few helpful tweaks like a new calendar system that actually lets you simulate matches on your schedule (unlike the calendar in 2010 FIFA World Cup).
I'd like it if they streamlined Be A Pro a bit more, as it currently still takes an extraordinarily long time to get your player to a reputable level. I certainly appreciate the length and the depth of the mode, but its density could scare off some new, more mainstream soccer fans. Another issue I found with this year's Be A Pro is that you can't carry over your star from last year's game. That's going to be a big letdown for those looking to continue a promising career. But hey, at least there are nearly twice the amount of accomplishments (including goalie-specific accomplishments) to earn once you kickoff your new career.
The setup and design of any of the three career options is just about identical. You're given the same hub page with news items and stats from around your league regardless if you're a manager, player-manager or just a player. I would've preferred a tailor-made experience depending on your role on the team, but there really isn't much of a difference beyond the fact that you have a bit more control of your organization as a manger.
The look of FIFA hasn't progressed very far from FIFA 10, but that's not necessarily a negative mark as the visuals had plenty of polish last year. The replays seem to have been smoothed out a bit and Personality Plus has given different player models a larger discrepancy so that the big bruisers look the part. Another nice change to the visuals are the new user celebrations that are triggered after a goal. Simply run over to a teammate (it also works in co-op play) and he'll hop on your back with his hand in the air or tackle you to the ground or some other variation. These little tweaks are certainly cool, but they aren't grand departures from what's already been established. With all of this good-looking soccer action, EA Sports has seen fit to add a functional replay system that auto-saves highlights from every match. You can pick and choose which of them you want to save or upload to the web after the dust has settled.
Online functionality obviously isn't limited to uploading replays, though. The regular suite of features is back with online leagues and full 11-on-11 soccer aptly represented. There's also a new leaderboard setup that does a nice job of comparing your accomplishments with your friends' online. Every experience I had online contained little to no lag, but that likely had something to do with IGN's speedy network connection.