Inside Pulse 12

Review: FIFA ’11 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

FIFA ’11
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Genre: Realistic Sports Simulation
Release Date: 9/28/2010 (NA)

Sports fans fall into a trap sometimes. I call it The Innovation Trap.

We continually demand that each new version of a game series, or any new game in our sports, do something major every year. These games run for $60 a pop annually, with the costs rising due to DLC which doesn’t transfer to the next year’s versions, and people reflexively want a reason to buy the new game that extends beyond, “we will no longer update rosters for the old game,” “we’re shutting down the online servers,” and “we added more dimples to the ball.” Due to this, companies such as EA Sports or anyone else that develops a realistic sports game like Visual Concepts (2K) are forced, either from audible or perceived pressure, to constantly add something to their games. Whether it’s a legitimate addition, like Be a Pro, or a repackaged addition that they inserted and subsequently took out years ago (like NHL’s “manual” passing, which was a great idea when it was used in NHL 2004), the message to everyone is clear. We have to be bigger! Faster! Stronger! MORE, MORE, MORE!!!

But what if someone just wants a great game to be better? Beyond patches, tuner sets and the like that modern games make possible nowadays, the great thing about them is that they hold the potential to make a better overall game than the previous version. A previous version that most of us bought, played, abused, disseminated, talked about in message boards and discarded right around the time the playoffs rode around, just in time to get the next big game “” at $60, naturally “” in that season’s sport, which we hope will be better, or bigger, faster, etc. It’s not even a twelve month cycle, in reality; to all but the hardcore, one-sport fans, it’s a six month cycle, because people that play MLB The Show, for example, usually stick around from March to August or September, at which point Madden drops, or NHL, the NBA games, etc. Get done with one, move onto another. It’s hard to stand out, even when you’re competing with yourself like EA Sports is.

With NHL ’11, they tried a new physics engine that was revolutionary, but apparently pulled the one string that made the theoretical sweater that was that game’s code unravel: it was a bug-filled mess. Other than a rewrite of the game’s modes that essentially molds two modes into one, FIFA wasn’t so ambitious. Their most effective on-pitch change was little more than a tuner tweak, but everything else they changed “” things that didn’t end up in a marketing blurb, on the back of the box, or in the PR guides “” made FIFA ’11 that much better a game than last year’s game. The best got better, and so long as people stay offline, it doesn’t come with any unwanted bugs, either.

There are two changes to FIFA ’11 that would be considered major. The first one is on the pitch, where they’ve finally added the ability to play as the goalkeeper. Being a Goalkeeper comes with its own control scheme, camera angle, everything you could want to play the position as competently as you would be able to in real life, and unlike the closest competitor “” goaltending in the NHL series “” it works well for the most part. The camera zooms out far enough to let you see your player and whatever else is going on around the pitch, which I had a huge problem with NHL ’11. Furthermore, the game gives you the optimal position to be on the pitch depending on the situation. Unlike NHL ’11, where an arrow leading the puck to the back of the net is usually enough to keep you centred, there are a lot of different situations to keep in mind when the ball is at your end of the pitch. If they’re coming down on a run, the game will recommend you play a little bit off the line. If the ball is deep on the flank or you’re dealing with a cross, your indicator will shift to just inside the post, so that you can address crosses that come close to you. There are three save modes, from assisted to manual, but you can always use the L1 button to stay on the recommended spot, which is great to use if you’re dealing with a ground passing attack, but saves still have to be made with the right analogue stick. When playing manual “” which is forced online “” you must guess right to make the safe. If the ball goes to your right and you go to your left, you’re going to muff the save. If you don’t hit the stick, you’ll flat-out miss the ball. It forces players to guess right, and is really the only way to enjoyably play the mode; the other control schemes are simply too easy.

The only real problem with Be a Goalkeeper is something that EA Sports can’t really do anything about: playing goalkeeper in a football video game is boring most of the time. The action is either at midfield or in the other end a fair amount of the time unless your team is getting worked. During those times, there’s not much to do. The game tries to mitigate this by bringing up passing icons to tell your team where to pass, but that’s often counter-productive. You can say where to pass, but not how, and just because you’re telling people to go somewhere doesn’t mean they’ll know how to get there, or what to do when they get there. It’s supposed to simulate how a goalkeeper talks to his players, but a goalkeeper would never be able to see that far upfield, and if he started yelling things like “cross it to Rooney in the box!”, he’d be laughed at. Where it would be REALLY helpful is to tell your defence what to do, but that only really works here on free kicks, where you can direct the wall, usually with no effect because kickers in this game are adept at bending it over the wall. If you play or watch football, you usually see goalkeepers directing their players on corners, on free play, or just yelling at them because he was busy trying to get some bird’s number in the stands and this whole save-a-goal thing was just cockblocking his game. There’s no ability to simulate that in this game, but as it stands, Be a Goalkeeper mode actually succeeds where goaltending in NHL ’11 fails: it makes it challenging to be a goalkeeper, and forces people to actually react, instead of simply being in the way in a butterfly stance.

Like I said, though, goalkeeping in football is boring 75% of the time. How boring? The last two paragraphs, including this one, were written while the game played itself. Literally. The game has been playing unpaused while I wrote, and I have not once had to pick up the controller and pay attention. On the one hand, yay, we’re winning. On the other hand, anyone looking for action, this isn’t the place to find it. You have to be pretty dedicated to want to play goalkeeper in a video game. There is playing online, but there’s problems there, which I’ll go into when I get into online play.

The other big change on the pitch is the addition of player traits. This is really nothing new; if anything, they just borrowed an idea from the NBA games, though it’s integrated into something called Personality+. In theory, it separates the good players from the elite ones by giving them traits such as strength, or trick moves, or the ability to run for long periods of time, or what have you. It actually works mostly as intended. You can notice the difference if you go from a high-level player to a mid-level one that doesn’t have the traits, such as the difference between Carlos Puyol jostling for a ball and someone like Jody Craddock: the latter is a competent defender, but Puyol is in a league of his own, and it shows in this game. Somewhat related to this is the ability of Pro Passing, which is a fancy way of saying, “we tweaked ground passing.” More accurately, it’s a way of saying, “we got rid of ping-pong passing.” In prior games, you could just zoom the ball along the ground with one-time passes, no matter where the player was going, what direction they were, or what was going on anywhere on the pitch. Just ping-pong it along the ground and you’ll eventually be on offence. That’s not the case anymore; you have to set up your passes properly. It took a little bit of time adjusting to it for me, and due to this, I was able to use the aerial pass to set up my offence more. It’s a nice addition, even if it’s something that would theoretically be added in a tuner set.

What’s notable about all of the minor on-pitch additions is that they’re just that: minor. With that said, they do a great job of adding something to gameplay, while not taking anything away. FIFA ’10 was a great football game in its own right, and FIFA ’11 is better in every way, unlike the NHL or even the Madden games, where a good change or two would come with a bad one. Probably the best addition is the fact that the game and its’ animations run smoothly, running at a constant 60FPS with no slowdown. I cannot stress how smooth the game looks in action. With that said, there’s a few things I’m still not bullish on. On throw-ins, they still have everyone magically in position down field, even if the ball is cleared with no one around. On that note, quick free kicks are still totally arbitrary; there’s no real way to just take any free kick immediately, the game decides it for you. There are other minor issues, but the big one to me is that all of the changes that happened with the AI “” the traits, the Pro Passing, etc. “” are things that only really show up in World Class difficulty and above. If you play below World Class, everything I’ve said doesn’t really show; you’re essentially playing FIFA ’10. However, move up the difficulty, and things start to get fun because players start to act like real footballers, and start showing some deviation in how they play. On professional and below, I can’t recommend FIFA ’11 over last year’s game, but above that, I can.

Now, come the real problems. Everything I’ve said in the previous few paragraphs applies mostly to offline modes. Online modes are an absolute travesty, due to a problem that’s becoming recurring in EA’s games lately: bugs and exploits.

We’ll start with what I mentioned before: playing as the goalkeeper online. If you are a goalkeeper and you take your player online to play goal, you’re treated to playing goal from the default – tele – camera angle, instead of the normal Be a Pro angle, which is set behind the goal. This has the benefit of making it so you have no clue what’s going on half the time. You want to guess shots? You want to play a proper angle? Forget it. Playing goalkeeper online is only a great way of getting kicked out of matches by your captain. To be fair, having captains kick people out is a good thing; it’s something I wanted last year, since griefers were hurting the experience irreparably. The problem is that a captain can now kick you for one mistake, arbitrarily. The PERFECT setup would be for moderators to control gameplay, but with EA controlling things on their side, that’s not theoretically possible. Still, this part of things is better than the alternative, which was simply anarchy.

All of this is assuming that you can even get into a match. I had MASSIVE issues from multiple systems at multiple houses over multiple accounts connecting to any kind of match, be it online team play or a regular versus match. The game would often hang for a bit, without showing anything, before saying that the play session was no longer available. If I was able to get into a versus match, things would usually go fine, but in OTP, I had massive lag issues, both often and for long periods of time. I’ve tested this across several different setups, friends who have the game have confirmed them, and online reports collaborate my report. Furthermore, it’s been almost a month after the game initially dropped, and about two and a half weeks since I received it, and there’s still no patch from EA, only a report that it’s coming. It’s currently late October, and the NHL ’11 patch is still “coming.” That game was released on September 7th, so don’t hold your breath. Simply put, what was the best online sports game of 2009 is one of the worst in 2010 until EA gets their shit together. So, EA Sports, I’m sorry your review is so late, but if you would stop selling us $60 betas, I wouldn’t have to wait so damned long to make sure everything’s reviewable before slapping scores on it.

Going onto more positive subjects, the key franchise modes of FIFA ’11 have been redone, or more specifically, combined into one super mode called Career Mode. This lets you take the role of either a player, a manager, or a player-manager, which just combines the two modes. On the surface, this is a great change, but unlike the on the pitch changes, a lot was left off the table. Manager mode is just like previous years: you take over a team, are given a transfer budget and a wage limit, and are able to do whatever you want with them. However, the actual managerial part of the equation is much, much improved in that they finally took a cue from other management style games. The time advances in days now instead of just instantly warping you to your next match, which is crucial during transfer periods. In previous games, it would be possible to miss a transfer opportunity if you weren’t careful about planning around your schedule.

As for the transfers themselves, they’re finally made more realistic, in that you first have to negotiate the fee with the team, and then you’re allowed to negotiate a wage with the player, with feedback given as to whether or not you’ll be able to sign the player for the money you’re looking at. If you don’t have enough transfer funds or wage limit to play with, you’re allowed to take away transfer funds to increase the wage cap and vice versa, though there’s a limit to how often you can do it. Even better, especially if you manage smaller teams, if something positive happens “” like making the next round of a cup tournament “” your team’s board takes the financial windfall and puts it back onto your transfer limit, or basically, “hey we’re selling tickets like hotcakes now; here’s another few thousand pounds to throw onto the kitty.” It’s a noted improvement on the old system “” though really, anything would have been “” but it’s not perfect. First off, unless you are throwing around stupid amounts of money “” like, Manchester City numbers “” you’re stuck to whoever is transfer listed, and even then, you’re actually going to have to pay more in some cases than the player’s listed rate. There’s a way to negotiate contracts, but the process is time-absorbing, and the logic the computer uses to determine numbers is inconsistent: they’ll often go down to a number, have you accept something very close to it, jack the price back up to a previous number, and then go back to the other number like nothing had ever happened. Finally, this is nitpicking, but the transfer window is the only time you can do anything relating to transfers. In a game like Football Manager, you can prepare transfers, which will go into effect when the window opens, but if you try that in this game, you’re just told that the transfer window is closed and to try again when it’s open. Also unfortunate is that you can’t sign free agents away from the window, either. In most European leagues “” or at least in England and Ireland, where I spend most of my time playing “” there’s a freeze on free transfers for a few weeks just before the opening of the January window, and also just before the end of the season. It doesn’t affect bigger teams in the top two tiers of England much “” any free agent that would help them isn’t a free agent for long “” but it’s significant for smaller teams, who can plug a leak on their smaller, less effective rosters with a quick free agent signing. At least transfers work much, much better than last year, and to the point where it’s almost realistic.

One thing they did get rid of for managers is the one thing I wish they didn’t touch: the different levels of training, scouting, etc. That’s gone now, and after trying a few different manager modes, I don’t see it anywhere, meaning that each team has the same ability to train, scout, etc. In fact, a player’s growth is determined by their age and potential, which is pointed out to you by your assistant coach in the player growth area. I typically don’t like “gamey” elements like a 1-10 scale of how well a team trains goalkeepers in my sports simulations, but this was one area where a gamey element worked, because it separated the really large teams from the smaller ones. If I’m managing Bray Wanderers, I shouldn’t have the resources that a team like Liverpool has, but other than transfer numbers, money isn’t even reflected for your team one bit. I’d like to be able to use my money to improve things like the youth academy… oh, wait, they got rid of that, too. In fact, I still don’t really know how to either scout for or develop young players, and even when I’m told that a player has high potential, the results don’t show in how they develop at all. Development for younger players is horribly scattershot, almost random. The best I can really do with a high-potential kid is to send him out on loan, but what if I’m already a smaller team? There are still no reserve teams, so that’s out. There are a few things I wish they’d kept, though overall, Manager Mode is an improvement, and a step in the right direction.

Be a Pro mode isn’t as gamey as past instances, which limited you to four years and gave you the goal of playing for your international side, if you were from a country that featured internationally. This time, it’s about having a full career, which is much better. It works the same way as manager mode, though your only job is to play well. Unfortunately, simulating in that time takes a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG time, which can annoy people that just want to play a few games. In my time playing the mode, I was unable to see if I was the rumour of transfers, nor did I play poorly enough to get let go, so I can’t really simulate what being transferred is like, or even if it’s possible in-season. But what I do know is that with an entire season happening around you, it’s a lot more fulfilling to play this year’s game as a pro than it has been in previous years.

The one common element of both managing and playing is that your success is measured by a reputation meter. Simply put, the better you do, the better your reputation is, and the better chances you have of being able to move up to bigger and better teams. Most of my play experience was taken up as a player-manager, where only managerial experience counted, but one thing I noticed was that all reputation was the same. A win in the lowly Irish Premier League means the same as beating Barcelona in terms of how the game views your reputation, and by the end of one season in a low league, you could have really big teams clamouring for your services. There needs to be a sliding scale, but other than that, EA’s onto something.

The Virtual Pro makes a comeback this year, and it’s tweaked for better balance this time around. You can’t get most gold awards without playing on World Class or above, or playing online, and the rewards are much more applicable. I like how it makes your player decent to start out, instead of making him pants like in other similar modes such as NBA 2K11’s My Player mode. What this mode does is it encourages you to take your player onto a smaller team to build up your stats, which then allows him to be more competitive in the top leagues. I also really appreciate that EA doesn’t sell Virtual Pro boosts online, like they do with NHL. This makes for a level playing field, allowing better players to improve. If there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s that some of the goaltender boosts can be a bit unfair, such as being the man of the match as a goalkeeper or being a 9 rated goalkeeper. If you’re getting that much action in a game, something went horribly wrong. Other than that, Virtual Pro was the best addition to last year’s game, and it’s no worse this time around.

As usual, I can’t even review the whole package, because it’s either not out or I’m not willing to spend money. FIFA ’11 is going to have the Ultimate Team again this year, and like last year, the DLC will be free, but like the other Ultimate Team modes that EA’s games have, it’s going to end up costing money to be competitive in it online. Still, the sheer scope of international football, compared to that of a singular league like the NFL or even the comparatively small amount of teams and players that are in NHL ’11 makes Ultimate Team a blast to play, if you have the time and the money to invest. There’s also Live Season, which is a great but ultimately futile idea because, while it’s nice to be able to replay matches, with your team’s form during a week, other games (NBA 2K11) have the same option for free. You can’t even demo Live Season anymore; you have to buy it, and trust me, it’s not worth the money. With that said, Live Season will not be reflected in my ratings of the game due to the fact that I have not played it.

Graphically speaking, I’ve mentioned the framerate. That’s all I really care about, to be honest. The stadiums look the same as they have before, the well-known players look great but I can’t say the same about lower-tier players; it’s all basically the same as last year’s game in that regard, but I don’t care. The game flies at 60FPS unless you’re online and lagging (which is frequent, unfortunately), and animations are sharp and plentiful. This feels like a football game, and there’s never an instance where something happens that you don’t want to happen, unless you make a mistake. I attribute the solid running engine to that. Sound-wise, they really need to do something with the analysis. The play by play by Martin Tyler is acceptable, because play by play in a football match is usually not exciting, but I’ve been listening to the same canned lines from Andy Gray for three years now. In retrospect, I think I was a little bit easy on them last year, and am not going to be so kind this time around. Other audible sounds “” like an unimpressive crowd that doesn’t change based on the scope of a stadium or attendance “” are also unchanged, for better or worse. The only truly positive thing I can say is that the soundtrack “” an eclectic soundtrack that features some great songs from good bands “” is awesome, containing almost no misses and a lot of hits (Gorillaz!). The only misses come from censoring the damned songs AGAIN. I don’t know why EA does this, and especially with these songs, because there’s a song on this soundtrack that is also on the MLB 10: The Show soundtrack, and the version that’s on this one is butchered. MLB 10: The Show earned an E rating, so it wasn’t to keep it away from higher ratings, so why censor? That only happens with one or two songs that I know of, but it’s disconcerting. With that said, it’s a lot better than listening to a butchered version of Welcome to the Jungle over and over again.

I’ll finish this review off with a reiteration: the bugs are INEXCUSABLE. This is not a timely review, but a large reason for this is because playing online is so hit or miss… emphasis on miss. I said in my NHL ’11 demo impressions that EA is usually very good with post-patch support. The issues relating to NHL ’11 and now this game blow that statement completely to shit, and make me look foolish in the process. Burn me once, shame on you, burn me twice, shame on me. Due to the massive online issues and some of the career mode issues “” player progression is more broken than I initially thought “” I am going to assign our lowest possible score to the Miscellaneous section.

The Scores
Modes: Above Average
Graphics: Very Good
Sound: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Good
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Worthless

Short Attention Span Summary

FIFA ’11 is my kind of FIFA game. It plays gorgeously in offline modes, has an addictive career mode, and Be a Goalkeeper mode is like catnip to my inner defender.

But if you play online a lot, or don’t care about things like a revamped career/franchise mode, hold off at least until patches come out and are confirmed as fixing this game’s myriad of bugs. The bugs are plentiful, and make online play a gamble. This is the second straight EA Sports game I’ve reviewed that virtually came to me in beta form, and I’m getting sick of it.

I will play FIFA all year. Other people who don’t like playing online much will do the same. Everyone else, if they spend the money, is going to be frustrated.