For years, we sports gamers had very little to go on in the world of soccer. Sega Master System's Great Soccer really didn't live up to the presumptuous use of the adjective, and after fun old Nintendo Soccer, NES gamers had Tecmo World Cup, which was basically a limited port of the arcade game Tekhan World Soccer. Then, in 1993, Electronic Arts broke the mould of lacklustre soccer games.
Fifa International Soccer for the Panasonic 3DO revolutioned video game soccer as we knew it, and with that, the new leader in sports gaming took over the North American soccer market. Fast forward 15 years, and though a few soccer franchises exist and threaten once in a while, FIFA remains arguably the definitive soccer franchise. That is, every year except for years following the World Cup.
FIFA games seem to have have a tendency to drop off in overall quality in years where a World Cup release accompanies. World Cup 1998 and 2006, for example, are two of the greatest arcade style soccer games ever made, but the FIFA followups have been nothing spectacular. FIFA '99 was a one sided, average soccer game with a fantastic soundtrack too good for the product it was supporting, and FIFA 07 fell flat after bursting into the current generation with two great games. World Cup 2002 was garbage, and FIFA 2003 fell into that year's EA sports game trap of fantastic presentation with mediocre gameplay that all of that year's annual releases were prone to. So, I will admit that after spending the summer playing World Cup South Africa, a soccer game that was so well done that I didn't believe anything could top it, I did not know how to approach this year's FIFA release.
My hopes were middling. Low because of the streak of bad followup games, and high because NHL, Madden and Tiger Woods 11 were so well done. Still, the dev teams are always different folks working on different games, so this one could go either way, which you will see very quickly on. The game hits you with its options before you even get to the main menu. Before the game even starts, it checks your list of Fifa 10 achievements to determine skill level, and imports any settings you may have from World Cup South Africa. These are great, and always helpful features.
Once you enter the game, you quickly see that it is unlike any other soccer game out there. You are hit with teams and players from 30 leagues, and enough gameplay modes to keep you busy until FIFA 12. The separate Pro and Managerial modes have been combined into the new Career Mode, which allows you to be a player, manager or general manager over the course of an entire career. Everything is almost the same as before, but to add a bit more to the sense of realism, you have to balance your budgets and pay transfer fees for players.
Then there's a Creation Widget within the game that adds the ability to customize all facets of the game - Players, kits and even teams. Sadly, no ability to make a soundproof 9 million seat stadium yet with each fan blaring a vuvuzela. An endless element of cheap fun to create the worst possible soccer player, name him after your best friend and stick him out in Norway Tippeligaen playing for Strømsgodset IF. If that wasn't enough, the game allows you to build your own soundtrack and customize your CDs into creating a more unique game experience. This feature will be most helpful to those who have spent more than 5 minutes listening to the soundtrack.
My mother told me that if I didn't have anything nice to say, I should say nothing. My mother doesn't read these reviews, so she'll never know I told Electronic Arts, and you gamers that FIFA has the worst soundtrack of all of the EA games this year. This soundtrack is so unspectacular that Michael Jackson's estate should have to pay Electronic Arts to borrow the term "bad" for any future re-releases of the 1987 album, because this collection of music corners the market of that word's use. The soundtrack, however, can easily be disposed of and doesn't take away from the game.
Once you do get into the game itself, you see quickly that there have been many mechanical improvements over not just the last few FIFAs, but even World Cup South Africa. The goalies move faster and smarter and the controls have vastly improved. The players move down to the exactly precisioned direction of your game pad and a smarter passing system means that gone are the days of passing in the wrong direction and it reaching the sideline official before it reaches your player. Ther's also much better collision detection and collision animation between players, who shove each other and bump into each other much more realistically than before.
Calling the action through these new changes are the "dynamic" team of Martin Tyler and Andy Grey. Tyler, an extremely distinguished football play by play man sounds less than happy with this gig, and comes off as monotone, disinterested and quite honestly, boring. Andy Grey's color commentary falls just as flat. This is a huge disappointment, given that Clyde Tilsley and Andy Townsend did such a great job just months before for the South Africa game. I'd be much happier if EA just got those two back for every game.
Graphically, it's surprising to see FIFA's graphics don't stack up against past games. Player animations are great. Every slide tackle, shove and strong tackle are captured in immense detail, and teammates even celebrate with you after goals now. This is still a work in progress, as the limited animation sequences mean that 5 or 6 players could be doing the exact same fist pump over again while you play the world's smallest violin, but still, a neat addition. The rest of the presentation, however, suffers. The fields don't look that great, especially in the weather elements, and the stadiums feel a tad dreary as well. South Africa captured the beautiful game well, but FIFA makes it look, well, a little less beautiful.
Still, there's very little that should stand in the way of whether or not this is a purchase. Overall, while it breaks the streak of poor followups to World Cup games, it feels like this game is missing something. It's a fairly complete soccer experience, but it might be hindered by a somewhat lacking presentation. Popping the World Cup South Africa every day was like taking a hit of fresh oxygen. The game was jubilant from the second Clyde Tilsley welcomed you. The colors, the energy, the soundtrack, the way the crowd dances in their nation's colors - Everything. This game's energy feels a fair bit more dreary. Martin Tyler's often uninterested play by play takes away from the game itself, and Andy Grey provides even less in the way of insight by way of his color commentary.
The amount of in-game options and modes will continue to bring the avid FIFA and soccer fan back time and again. Never have I encountered a game with so many teams that they needed a "miscellaneous" section to fit them all. Much like its NHL and Madden brothers, there are so many game modes that you feel like you may have ripped the store off and purchased 4 games for the price of one. However, if I were approached by the casual player looking for that one great soccer game this year, World Cup South Africa would win out over FIFA, which doesn't quite envelope you in its atmosphere as much.
It seems the best graphics are reserved for the tournament games. World Cup 2006 and Euro 2008's graphics were night and day in comparison to their Fifa followups, and while it isn't quite as drastic between this and South Africa, the graphics of the World Cup game were much better. You could easily believe you were playing on a torn up field in the middle of St. Kitts, or in front of 90,000 people at Nelson Mandela stadium.
FIFA's biggest weakness with graphics is within the in-game presentation. The player animations are great, and some of the mechanics (like how far the players slide in the snow) are spot on. However, when you start to add things like weather hazards to the game, the graphics look almost PS1-like in their execution. The falling snow looks very canned, and the snow covered fields look like players sliding around in wet cotton rather than something ravaged by the elements. It would be nice if the Madden team and FIFA teams could share graphic and behavioral sets, since Madden has been doing such a great job with its snow since Madden 64 nearly 15 years ago.
For what it could be, the sound is a bit disappointing. Fans don't quite have the same unique bite as the World Cup game, nor do you see as much of them. Martin Tyler's monotone and uninspired play by play might be the worst in modern video game history. Playing an exhibition match in a rainy stadium with Tyler's play by play is depressing enough to make you want to cry halfway through. The in-game sound effects, however, are great, the most bone jarring occurring when you hit the crossbar or posts. The unforgiving noise, followed by the controller shaking so violently it nearly falls out of your hands is simultaneously one of the best and most disappointing feelings.
No doubt about it; the game's controls continue to be one of its best assets. Button crisp passing, pressure sensitive shooting, and they have even improved player control and the arcs and angles in which you can take your player depending on how you're pressing down on the left stick. Even the hardest of the controls are very easy to pick up, and don't leave you scrambling for the instruction manual every time you do something wrong. I tested as much on somebody who had never played a current gen-soccer game, and he was scoring goals and using custom celebrations with 10 minutes. That is definitely the mark of a good control scheme. The game does get just a half mark off, however, for the one thing that continues to be a thorn in the side of new and intermediate gamers alike - Button caching. Nothing is worse than accidentally pressing the wrong button and being unable to do it when the ball lands at your feet.
Replayabilty; something EA's done really well with all their sports games is provide you a return on investment, something that really matters nowadays more than ever to folks in a financial crunch. Your $60 is going much farther these days with EA games, more than almost any other gaming franchise out there. There are so many modes, and so many ways to modify your game that I dare say it's unparalleled in what it brings to the table. Some of the greatest video games put out there had fundamental flaws in their graphics, sound and presentation, but are remembered fondly for what they brought outside of that. FIFA brings it, and although I wouldn't put this game up with the best EA Soccer games of all time, your money will still be well spent if you go home with it.
Suggestions: This game is so highly customizable that all it lacks is a stadium builder. That would be cool, as would a Canadian or American announce team you could select for the MLS games.