I've always enjoyed footie games. I never subscribed to the school of thought that you had to own either FIFA or PES, instead I've generally tried to get both iterations each generation (waiting for bargain bucket prices in some cases) as both have always had different things to offer. However, it would be remiss of me to suggest that both have always been peerless sports sims.
The turn of the millennium saw FIFA slide slowly into a slump that was only resurrected with an overhaul for FIFA 08 that has since then seen copious amounts of polishing and refinement to match a fall from grace for the PES series which peaked at 5 before losing the plot a bit. I was astounded by FIFA 10, from the dribbling to the wealth of game modes to its excellent online support and 10 vs. 10 potential.
But it wasn't perfect.
Enter FIFA 11. Running with the tagline 'We Are 11', it boasts a number of refinements, not least the ability to finally pit 11 players against 11 others. That's right, user controlled keepers are coming, and I can't freaking wait! How well it'll work remains to be seen (watch this space for a further appraisal if we manage to snaffle some more time with it later in the week) but, with three levels of computer-assistance from hand-holding to nada, it could be quite a mouth watering prospect.
Manager Mode is out, a 15 season Career Mode is in, and yes you can even spend that time between the sticks should you wish. Other refinements include the ability to import your own song library into the soundtrack the ability to save replays locally, a fully functional creation centre rather than the borked one we have at the moment and a host of gameplay refinements and presentational polish to make matches even more exciting.
Did it work? I took on a fellow presser attendee in a couple of games to find out.
EA have been making lots of noises about the new Personality Plus features that they've integrated into the game. Superficially it's plain to see: players look even more lifelike than usual. Gone are the aesthetic horrors of old, this is the beautiful game at its most beautiful, a line we seem to crank out each year for games like these...but it's true.
However, it goes deeper than a mere veneer: it extends to behavioural traits in-game too. The more temperamental purveyors of the game will argue with the ref or stand and scream at linesmen if a decision goes against them (something Barcelona exhibited a fair bit as I did the same off-screen), dogged players like Rooney will try everything before going over, their more flimsy counterparts like Ronaldo toppling far too easily unless you make good use of their skill and speed.
This new emphasis on keepers seems to have spread into standard matches too. I managed to play 180 minutes, and observed double that, without viewing a single freak goal that came as the result of keeper AI idiocy. The AI has been tightened across the board, the more intelligent players peeling away from their markers, making intuitive runs and, on the higher difficulty settings, taking you on with a dazzling array of skill moves.
I have to say, my hands-on time, though relatively brief, was an utter joy. Everything was so crisp without feeling sterilised. The 360 degree dribbling now has 360 degree jostling to accompany it, making for a much more physical game. You have to fight for every ball, making matches from the lower leagues far scrappier. EA Sports found an excellent in-game balance with 09 and they've stuck to their guns, adding more layers of subtlety, refinement and depth.
Barcelona ebbed and flowed like a team, working far better when you used their exceptional passing and vision talent to craft multi-tiered moves. In contrast, Real Madrid were far more of a counter-attacking threat using the speed and skill of individuals to capitalise on errors. When playing as the latter I found I had to sit back and be patient, whereas with the former I was able to dominate the game, eventually thumping my adversary 4-0.
I won't lie, when hungover on a Sunday morning it probably won't seem all that different to FIFA 10 but, as with that instalment, it's the little things that make the difference here. Play the two back to back and suddenly the discrepancies are readily evident. Frankly, I can't wait to check out some of the new modes and try my hand at playing goalie, but for now this is shaping up very nicely indeed.