As I write this, Liverpool sits atop the Barclays Premier League log with seven wins out of seven games. Torres is in fine form, the team has gelled and even the manager is garnering praise. It should be noted, of course, that this is in FIFA 11’s Career Mode. Real life tells a different tale, but that’s about the only discrepancy between FIFA 11 and genuine football, because in just about every avenue EA has nailed the crux of the sport.
Following on from the vuvuzela blaring antics of World Cup: South Africa, FIFA 11 is a slower, more refined version of the beautiful game. Attention in particular has been paid to the passing mechanic. No longer can you rely on splitting a defence simply by using a through ball, or gain the upper hand via an aerial lob over the back four. Rather, an astute eye and an ability to read the play is key and the best route to goal is often from a cross into the box. Much like real football then. Moreover, lobbing the keeper is now too difficult to rely on, and while it was often a sure-fire route to goal in FIFA 10, more inventive tactics are required this time around. For instance, making use of Ribery’s pace down the wing and playing the ball in a “triangle” can often break a defence down, but it takes time to master and for the first few hours you’ll find yourself floundering, whether you mastered FIFA 10 and World Cup: South Africa or not.
The pace of the game is significantly slower, so much so that you might be prompted to change the game’s speed to “fast”. But, persevere, and you’ll soon find that the greater challenge leads to greater rewards. Matches are often decided by a solitary goal and being the one to break the deadlock can be considerably rewarding. Keepers are difficult to beat and defenders hound you, but these frustrations dissolve when you watch the ball sail into the top right hand corner of the net, courtesy of a perfectly timed finesse shot from outside the box.
In almost every respect, last year’s FIFA 10 feels arcade by comparison and FIFA 11 takes a significant stride forward in recreating football. The pace, midfield battles and overarching feel is so reminiscent of the actual sport that, at times, you’ll be astounded. Much of the realism is down to the fine details. Player’s remonstrations illicit a smile and their movements are incredibly lifelike. The Rooneys and Drogbas of this world shield the ball with aplomb and their strength makes for an intimidating proposition. In fact, FIFA 11 plays a far more physical game and jostling occurs throughout the field; ironic, considering that the Premier League has been besieged by injuries and criticized for becoming too physical this year. FIFA 11 couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
“Matches are often decided by a solitary goal and being the one to break the deadlock can be considerably rewarding”Unpredictability abounds too. Manchester United against Blackpool should be a sure bet, but stepping into FIFA 11, you almost never feel assured of a victory. On the higher difficulty levels, every match is a taxing affair. Goals that do arise are often as unpredictable as they are in real life. Trying to find space and gaps in the midfield takes real skill, and you’ll able to save your finer moments to a replay theatre. Lower the difficulty to Amateur or Semi-Pro and the defenders will back off you, allowing for shots outside of the box. Cleverly however, with the difficulty scaled down, the opposing team never plays stupidly. FIFA 11 retains its realism even when the AI is deliberately affording you space.
Martin Tyler and Andy Gray reprise their roles from FIFA 10, but commentary is the weakest aspect of the game. Tyler’s delivery is sound, but Gray’s direction feels aimless. “I don’t usually say this, but they’ve won the match”. Hardly award winning stuff when Barcelona is 6-0 up against Accrington Stanley. Tyler falters too. During matches he’ll often spark up and say, “Oh, it could be a goal” when the goalmouth opportunity is long gone. This is not so much Tyler’s fault as the game’s — for it’s a matter of timing rather than delivery — but all the same, when almost every aspect of the experience is so carefully constructed, the commentary does feel backward.
Musically, however, FIFA 11 boasts a good selection of songs that cater for the wide audience that engage in the series each and every year. Adrian Lux’s “Can’t sleep” is catchy, and there’s even a song from up-and-coming Cape Town duo, Locnville.
The new Career Mode acts as a hybrid of the Be A Pro and Manager Modes of old, and custom tournaments can also be created. Still, considering that Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 will arrive with the Uefa Champions League, it’s a tad disappointing that EA has failed to retain the license themselves (considering that they produced a Champions League title a few years back). Then again, while the PES series has struggled for player and team licenses, FIFA 11, much like its forebears, is spot on in this regard. Simply taking a search through the transfer market will reveal the depth of the players on offer. It’s possible to run the gamut between the Messis and Ronaldos of the world and complete unknowns from lower division clubs. The fact that every single player comes with attributes and information regarding their age, height and skill levels is impressive.
The best players can be acquired for a price, but occasionally a team will completely deny your request. This usually occurs if the player has recently switched clubs, and the fact you don’t get every transfer request your own way is a welcome step in the right direction. All the same, with Kaka, Anelka, Maicon and Rooney in the same team, my Manchester United squad was hardly bereft of talent either.
“It’s possible to run the gamut between the Messis and Ronaldos of the world and complete unknowns from lower division clubs”Online FIFA 11 sparkles. You can now take the reins of a keeper and the game runs with the tagline: “We are 11”. Quite simply, 11 vs. 11 matches. You get the feeling EA has held back this feature until now so that they can coin the phrase, but cynicism aside, the implementation of goalkeeping is handled well and makes for a diversion from the routine of playing normal matches. Being able to create your own player and import your game face is another welcome facet and a hefty set of objectives encourages the use of your created footballer in the Arena and on the field during matches proper.
As expected, FIFA 11 plays a fantastic brand of football, but its depth and nuance is surprising all the same. Huge strides have been made since FIFA 10 and the World Cup 2010 offering of the summer, and in a few short months, EA has seemingly overhauled the experience, narrowing the gap between real football and the version we re-enact on our screens. Whether you’re an aficionado or a newcomer to the series, FIFA 11 takes practice and perseverance, but once you’ve come to terms with its expectations, it’s the finest football offering on the planet.