If you've got anything more than a passing interest in football - or know anyone who does, the chances are you'll have already been introduced to the FIFA series. Football for the footballing connoisseurs, the FIFA series has refined its gameplay over eighteen years of tweaks, refinements, and changes in direction. Moving from the arcadey gameplay or four years ago, the series has been on a constant march towards realism ever since, buoyed by its fans demands for a realistic recreation of the "beautiful game". But does having a more realistic game really make it all that much fun?
At its core, FIFA is still a fairly simple game of football. With a number of adjustments to the actual gameplay, - all of which have been firmly aimed at the hardcore crowd - most of the adjustments are so insignificant, they'll either just frustrate non-hardcore players, or are so tiny a change, you'll barely even notice. Thankfully, seemingly despite EA's best efforts, you can still have a lot of fun playing FIFA even if you aren't the world's biggest football fan - and that's testament to the strength of the gameplay that lurks underneath the "realistic" sheen.
On the plus side, and possibly the only addition that we really approve of this year, is that FIFA 11 brings with it the much vaunted two button mode from the summer's World Cup game, which gives new players a much simpler option to help ease them into the game. If you don't know your through ball from your volley, playing in two button mode lets the game take care of all that for you, as FIFA 11 will decide, context sensitively, whether you want to pass or cross, and what type of shot would be best. Simplifying passing to pressing A, shooting to pressing B, with a standing tackle assigned to A, and a sliding tackle on B, it effectively lowers the entry barrier for FIFA, making a game your over half, or your family should be able to pick up and get the hang of.
The only problem is, for some reason, for FIFA 11 the two button mode's been somewhat restricted. Whereas before, two button mode was a platform where people could start, and gradually steal control back from the game as and when they felt like it, now, you can only use those two buttons, and you have to make the game make decisions for you. In the World Cup game, if you decided you wanted a through ball, and didn't want to risk the game making the wrong decision, you could press Y and have a through ball. Letting you experiment with the controls at your own speed, it was one of the best parts of 2010 FIFA World Cup - but for some reason, it's been gimped for FIFA 11. And while there are a series of tutorial videos, helping explain the basics of both FIFA, and football, it doesn't really replace a proper, interactive tutorial, that would let you get the hang of things at your own place. After playing the Wii version, with its easily accessible, sensible features, such as offside warnings, or arrows telling you which way to shoot, you begin to realise just how much more... intimidating FIFA 11 can be.
In terms of other changes, they're all things that have been aimed firmly at the hardcore crowd. Delayed offsides, for example, may make the game more realistic, but they serve only to frustrate, as you're given just enough time for the ball to land at your feet, and to turn and break through on goal, before the referee eventually decides to blow his whistle. I'm not entirely sure how getting your hopes up, and then penalising you is meant to make the game any more fun? Tackling too, is still far too difficult, and with no "safe" option, you often find you, or any less experienced friends you're playing with end up giving away foul after foul, despite only ever trying standing tackles, which always used to be the safest option, as the game either chose its timing well, to steal the ball away, or gradually forced the other player off it. It doesn't really make sense that, even on the lowest difficulties, your player seemingly has all the grace and poise of a drunk hippo, and decides willy-nilly to stick their leg out and trip the other guy up. Bringing back some sort of automation to the tackles would make this a lot friendlier - especially as you can't really see where your player's legs are anyway, thanks to the crazily zoomed out camera.
In a similar manner, EA have attempted to turn passing from something that's easy to something more like an "art", where passing is more dependent on the skill level of the player you're controlling. Thankfully, it doesn't seem to have made all that much of a difference - we just hope they don't try to ramp it up for next year's game.
However, one of the best features we've found in this year's game - and one that harks back to the days when football games were more about fun than simulation - is the Creation Centre. Strangely not included on the disk, but instead a website you visit, the creation centre lets you create your own team from scratch, naming and designing everything, from your players, to your kit, and even your stadium, before downloading it into the game itself. So if you want to make a team named after your favourite animals, or even your friends, you can - but, somewhat disappointingly, you can only use created teams in Tournaments, Kick Off (basically a normal match), and Online. With the ability to create your own team, and enter into the real world leagues, this would have been a real game changer - but as it stands, it's still an entertaining diversion.
Speaking of the career mode, everything's been shuffled around here too, with a streamlined experience not really taking things quite far enough. Choosing to play as a manager, player manager, or simply a player (which limits you to only controlling one member of the team - even the goalkeeper!, and, if we're honest, is a bit boring), the Career mode sets you on the path to glory across several seasons. If you want to be able to play through a season of effectively normal FIFA matches, Manager is the way to go, although it's disappointing that the management aspect is still so dull. With menus that could use a bit of streamlining (or at least better signposting), it can take a while to find your way around Career mode, because there's so much in here, but as a mode that lets you get as involved as you'd want, this does its job.
With the right group of people, and the AI scaled to a suitable level, FIFA 11 is still a lot of fun to play - even if the new changes, and march towards realism only serve to make it a more frustrating experience for newcomers. Football is a game most people can at least understand, and, especially in co-op, with a few friends taking on the role of your team mates, it's a game that really comes into its own as you pass the ball around, and help each other out.
But if nothing else, FIFA 11 has left us a bit worried about where the series is going. In the end, with all the changes that have been made further cementing EA's relentless march towards "realism", you're left wondering if they've focus tested this at all. At least, not on the rest of us. While EA are known for asking the "world's best" FIFA players for advice on features, and how to block exploits, we'd be surprised if they've asked a normal person for their opinion.
Maybe there's a reason for this - maybe EA thinks the only market for football games is the hardcore - the season ticket buying, endlessly discussing, armchair fans. But they're wrong. Football is a game with universal appeal - and games like Sensible Soccer have proven that they can have mass market appeal. But FIFA 11 seems like another step towards making a more "realistic" football game, even if most of the changes are at the expense of the gameplay. And in the end, shouldn't that be the priority?