You would think that by coming out with three FIFA titles within one calendar year, EA’s fabulous football franchise would suffer from a bit of oversaturation and staleness. Sure, thanks to the World Cup, something like this only happens once every four years, but it still happens. In order to combat FIFA overload, EA has implemented a handful of great new gameplay elements to make FIFA 11 seem fresh. While the upgrades from title to title may seem incremental at first, the longer you spend with FIFA 11, the more you realize that this is the game EA has wanted to make for years.
Though there are some great new ideas present in FIFA 11, for the most part, it plays just like 2010 FIFA World Cup and FIFA 10. The biggest new feature in this iteration of FIFA is Personality+. In trying to create more intelligent and lifelike computer AI, EA has implemented a new rating system, hoping to imbue a true sense of player personality onto their virtual counterparts. While the casual soccer gaming fan may not notice much difference between how the computer in FIFA 11 plays versus how the computer played in FIFA 10, those of you who, like me, have played at least the last three titles, will find the action on the pitch has changed dramatically thanks to Personality+. Skilled strikers are always fighting for a shot, and great defenders are brilliant at keeping the opposition from reaching the box. There will be some brilliant goals, some of which I’ve never seen before in all my years playing FIFA games, and there will be some dramatic saves by goalies and defenders alike. I’ve never once seen a defender dive into his own goal to prevent the other team from scoring, but I came awfully close the other night when one of Dortmund’s players attempted to do that very thing. He missed, and my player scored, but that the computer would even attempt something like that was impressive enough.
While goalkeepers also get an AI upgrade, it’s not nearly as noticeable since you spend so much of your time on the pitch with the regular players. However, this year EA allowed gamers to play as the keeper in both the career and online Pro Club modes. Now you’ll no longer be able to blame the computer for bad goals on the computer because it’ll be your fault if the opposition scored. Playing as a keeper is fun, but it’s also incredibly boring. Unless the team you play for is terrible, you’re not involved with the action for a large percentage of the match, and it can get pretty lonely. It does provide the best chance to really see how the rest of your team performs with Personality+, but there will literally be games where you’re only required to make one or two saves. Would it help to play on a team that doesn’t have a great defense? Probably. Even though you’re standing idle for a pretty decent amount of time, when there is action in the box, or the other team is attempting a corner kick, the intensity and anxiety begin to set in.
You’ve got to be on your toes as a goalie, and even more so as a goalie if FIFA 11. Anticipation is key, as is knowing when to be aggressive and when to play more conservatively. Obviously you want to be able to cut down the shooting angle of the attacking player, but rush out too soon, and they’ll just pass it off or flick it over your head. Attempting a save is as easy as being in the right spot or flicking the right analog stick to try a diving save. While you don’t always want to be left lunging in front of the net, sometimes you just have to leave your feet, and hope your deflection doesn’t end up on the foot of the other team. Like the Be A Pro mode from previous incarnations, you’ll have your performance rated on a game-to-game basis, as well as having a list of tasks to perform in order to build up your overall ratings. You’ll start as a reserve, but it’s not terribly hard to make the squad, even if you’re only a fairly average net-minder, as long as the team is winning. Playing on harder difficulties obviously ramps up the challenge, but even veterans may want to start their keeping careers on the lower settings to become accustomed to the controls.
Like last year’s title, you’ll be able to join up with friends to play as a club online. This time around though, you’ll be able to play full 11-on-11 matches, which is a pretty big deal. It’s been tough to get a complete game in these first few days as EA’s servers have been up and down without any kind of consistency, but if I’ve learned anything playing with others online, it’s that I’ve got a lot of practicing to do. Where I really lose any given game is in the battle for position and possession. With the improved position jockeying, I’m able to defend a little better, but that’s offset by the skilled dribbling of my opponents. I just haven’t gotten the hang of fancy ball control, which puts me light-years behind everyone else online. Even Personality+ can’t help you if you let the other team continually attack your net. The game’s online leveling system is great for those who really want to show just how brilliant they are at the game, but for players like me, it’s a bit of a downer. You see, you can actually earn negative points in FIFA 11’s online leveling scale. As someone who isn’t able to score with frequency, but can stay competitive and close for the duration, the point system is a bit unbalanced. By losing a match 1-0, I earn -22 points, but my opponent, who only scored once, gets +150. I get that possession and passing are all factored in, but I’m actually pretty good at those portions. I just have trouble finding the net. While I agree players should be somewhat penalized for not scoring, awarding someone, particularly someone who plays much more casually, negative points isn’t incentive to keep playing; it’s incentive to only play offline. It’s a shame because the online is incredibly fun, and provides a range of challenges not found playing against the computer on your own.
A litany of new animations accompanies Personality+, and if you don’t see at least a dozen new animations in your first game, you’re not looking hard enough. Players will react to the ball regardless of their positioning, and will often end up capitalizing on being in the right place at the right time, or catching a bad break, and giving the ball up because they weren’t positioned right. What’s more, there’s a bigger difference between player models this year, with every player build looking much more like their real-life counterpart than ever before. It might seem like a small difference, but build factors into positioning, and if you’re able to muscle other players off the ball, it works to your advantage. Other than improved collision detection, there isn’t much else different about FIFA 11’s presentation from the other two titles released within this last year. Then again, not much really needs improvement. Sure, the commentary could be more engaging, but that’s true of any sports title. The crowd could be more impressive, but I really don’t care about the people in the stands. The action on the pitch is what’s important, and thanks largely to the efforts made between FIFA 10 and 2010 FIFA World Cup, FIFA 11 is one of the best looking soccer games to date.
It’s not often that the same franchise delivers titles with such frequency as FIFA did over the course of the last year. Die-hard fans will find plenty of great improvements, while those less obsessed with the minutiae won’t see much different from FIFA 10. While Personality+ and the ability to play as a goalkeeper are nice new touches, they feel like incremental additions instead of revolutionary overhauls. I think Personality+ is the best thing to happen to a FIFA game in years, but I’m not sure it’s a big enough deal to warrant spending another sixty dollars on a third soccer title in less than 365 days. Ultimately, how much you enjoy the sport will directly influence how much you get out of FIFA 11. It’s another solid game from a development team that cares deeply about the sport, but for the first time in years, FIFA feels like the same game I just played last year.