Football games on consoles. FIFA vs Pro Evolution Soccer. There was a time when it was all so much easier than it is now. EA Sports had spent all of the money for FIFA on the licences and seemed to have very little left over for the game itself. Konami, on the other hand, knew that with Pro Evolution Soccer, if you wanted something that felt like the real thing, you would put up with Merseyside Blue playing against Connaught. With the seventh generation – the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 – of consoles, however, the balance tipped dramatically in the other direction. Pro Evolution Soccer stood still, while FIFA 2008, FIFA 2009 and FIFA 10 made quantum leaps in terms of the actual game-playing experience itself.
FIFA 11 was released today, but this will not be a gamers’ review of the game. This is not a gaming site. This review is looking at FIFA 11 from a footballing point of view. In recent years, the one of the biggest selling points of the FIFA series of games is that they have started to feel as if they are written by people that actually understand football. You can play as the manager or a player from any of the ninety-two clubs of the Premier and Football Leagues, and this is present and correct in this year’s edition and, while the rendering of the players’ faces might not be quite as detailed for, say, Adam El-Abd of Brighton & Hove Albion as it is for Wayne Rooney, it is clear from the start that somebody has spent a lot of time inputting the attributes of the players into the game in order to make it as realistic as possible.
For the purposes of taking it for a spin, first up come a handful of matches between top clubs playing on various surfaces. Chelsea vs Arsenal on a snow covered pitch is a splendidly pinball-esque affair. Control of the players themselves seems to have been tweaked a little to make them slightly clumsier (which is no bad thing – imperfection is part of what makes football so great), and they become clumsier still on a pitch covered in a thin layer of snow. These two teams retain their key characteristics. Chelsea are still the footballing equivalent of a herd of bison, while the delicate little flowers of Arsenal are bundled off the ball at every opportunity. Cesc Fabregas has never looked as ineffectual, and we are even spared five minutes of complaining by Arsene Wenger after the match.
A Manchester derby comes next, and the individual attibutes of the players are even more pronounced than in the previous match. Wayne Rooney stands around looking vaguely disinterested before lashing the ball into the top corner from twenty yards while Dimitar Berbatov, ever an extra in a film that starred Alain Delon, drops his shoulder and lopes with the ball at a speed that might be as much as twice the pace of walking. City win 2-1 without too many worries (which spoils the realism a little), but normality is restored when they lose their next match 1-0 against Middlesbrough, thanks to a magnificently flamboyant own goal from Vincent Kompany, who momentarily decides that the best way to defend a cross into the six yard area is to throw himself at the ball and power it past Joe Hart as hard as he can.
What is different about this version of the game is that the players feel a little more awkward than they did before. Even the very best players take half a second to control the ball, and the passing is more difficult than in previous games. Some people, used to the arcade style of previous games, may not like this, but it gives even top Premier League matches a more realistic and gritty feel. Similarly, this version of the game seems to stop you from throwing yourself into a ridiculously over the top tackle in error to a greater extent to previous versions of the game – bad news for psychopaths, good news for those amongst us that occasionally press the wrong button because we’ve got monkey paws instead of hands.
You also have the option to be a manager (which will probably not compare to such a career in Football Manager) or to start a career as a player. Less excitingly, you get the opportunity for the first time to play an entire match as a goalkeeper, which involves quite a lot of time standing around and, although you do get the opportunity to shout at your defenders a lot, it seems unlikely that many are going to spend days or weeks attempting to become the next Casper Ankergren. This, however, is mere bagatelle in comparison with what we’re really interested in. The devil is in the detail. What have they added to FIFA 11 which wasn’t in previous versions that wasn’t in previous versions of the game? In other words… what have they done to satisfy the football geeks?
Well, the kits and the players are as perfectly rendered as you would expect from this series of games. There are no new grounds added this year but EA have made the welcome addition of a 1950s style brown leather ball, although this is only cosmetic and no players are likely to collapse with colossal spinal injuries as a result of heading it. The game really hits its stride, however, with custom chants and songs. For the purpose of this game, I had chosen Brighton & Hove Albion as my default team and, to my absolute delight, it took no longer than a minute or so to install an MP3 of “Sussex By The Sea” as the piece of music that played as the teams ran out onto the pitch. This can be done for every team, so the perfectionist levels can be ratchetted up to eleven.
The custom chants settings allow for even greater creativity. I managed to record an MP3 of our copyrighted chant which starts with the unforgettable rhyming couplet, “That man’s name is Stevie Cotterill, he’s got legs just like a cockerel” (we are available for cabaret) and set it to hum away in the background while Portsmouth are playing. It’s a gimmick, of course it is, but it hits just the right spot. The potential for groups of people standing around a microphone and singing the most offensive thing that they could possibly think of about, say, Gary Neville is almost endless.
This single feature arguably sums up FIFA 11, and the recent set of games in the series. The common perception five or six years ago was that FIFA was all about the licences while Pro-Evolution Soccer was all about the football. Since then, however, EA Sports have gotten to grips with the engine of the game and written a football game that has dirt under its fingernails. It feels, for all of the flashiness (which still abounds) as if it was written and designed by enthusiasts – people that understand our culture and the way that we enjoy our game. FIFA 11 is a game that has evolved away from being arcade game towards being something approaching a simulation and the new Pro-Evolution Soccer game, which is released next Friday, is going to have its work cut out to hang onto its coat-tails. The demo version, which was made available a couple of weeks ago, suggested that it was improved on recent editions, but can this be enough? It’s difficult to see how it can be.