EA Sports has been on something like a quality rocket over the last few years, particularly when it comes to its ever-popular FIFA football franchise. Once jostling for sports sim supremacy against Pro Evolution Soccer, FIFA 09 and 10 brought the thunder and made everything else seem like watching your kid play in the youth league on a Sunday morning.
It will be especially difficult for the Montreal team to surpass the critical acclaim of last year's title, but FIFA 11
is proof that when you're at the top of your game, there are always things that you can tweak and improve. I was able to sit down and play a few exhibition matches to see how these changes have affected gameplay.
After kick-off, you start to notice differences immediately. AI players are running closer to their marks, sticking closer to the selected team formation and grouping together when on the back foot. In general, it feels like the AI is more receptive to the changing situations on the pitch. And it's largely down to the new Personality Plus system.
With Personality Plus, the skill and competence of every AI character can be read by the player with the help of visual cues. If a midfielder's body language is rather passive, it wouldn't be a good idea to initiate a pass to him, lest you risk the receiver missing the ball with a lack of perception of his surroundings. You can also tell whether players are about to get aggressive, whether they're slow or if they're otherwise a good (or bad) team player.
Line Producer David Rutter describes the feature as “a holistic umbrella” of various elements to create a rounded whole. “There are three pillars to this. The first is in the visuals - the look of the players and the body types. We have three times as many body types in the game this year, and a whole heap of faces and heads to represent what's going on.
“The second is in the animation – the way the players move on pitch with and without the ball, as well as celebrations when they score a goal,” Rutter explained. “The third is actual player attributes, determining how good the players are in a technical sense and in the sense of their their tendencies and how they play.”
Some of the other improvements to the game are much less about reading other players as it is the ability of the players themselves – new chest traps allow you to chest the ball and push it in the direction you want it to go, rather than having to take mid-air touches after a chest. A lot of the tweaks made in FIFA's 2010 World Cup South Africa
game have appeared here too, such as chest passes in general and the introduction of the 2-button controller configuration.
The 360-degree dribbling and modified crosses and passes will probably be the biggest change that you notice, as it helps your actions flow much better than in past FIFA
titles. The power meter for shoots and crosses has been altered to a degree that you have to be very precise and careful in your aim. The challenge that EA Sports set for itself was to make FIFA 11
more difficult to pull off skill shots, without sacrificing accessibility. As a result, I found myself happily practicing against what I felt were more realistic physics.
To pull all of this off must have been a challenge. But when asked if that was the case, Rutter admits he doesn't really know how to answer. “It kind of comes around naturally for me – I've been working on football games for 15 years, it's a process that I get into without really thinking about it these days. Everyone on the team is a huge football fan, and we're also video gamers to boot, so that combination makes us very competitive people. By nature we all want to do a brilliant job and make a fantastic game.”
While I wasn't able to play beyond a standard 90-minute match, Rutter tells me that there are major changes being made to the single-player career mode. Specifically, the team has ripped out the Be A Pro and Manager mode. I wasn't told whether those past favourites will return in another form or being kept alive spiritually in the revamped Career mode, but I did learn that there will be a new sim engine, along with a two-tier transfer system and an improved player comparisons feature.
Beyond this, there was a lot of talk about customisation in FIFA 11
. This would appear to be where EA Sports really wants to differentiate itself between games like Pro Evolution Soccer in advancing the online capabilities and personable feature-set of the franchise. Online game imports, the creation of an entire team and the ability to use custom audio and chants for local matches are all great sounding additions.
There will be time to see all of these in action when the game is closer to release. In the meantime, from what I have played, it's fair to say that FIFA 11
is on the cusp of advancing the football genre in many different ways – again.