As always, the latest version of FIFA brings with it a number of refinements and new features. One of these is the ability to add your own custom music, and even football chants. Providing you can record an audio file of your favourite terrace masterpiece (or find one on the Internet) and rip it to the Xbox, the in-game crowd can be made to chant anything.
And there are some classic terrace anthems to pick from. One of our personal favourites – one that’s printable, that is – even though it’s a bit of an oldie, was sung to Rangers’ keeper Andy Goram after it was made public that he suffered from a mild form of schizophrenia. “Two Andy Gorams, there’s only two Andy Gorams.”
Speaking of goalkeepers, one of the major new additions for this incarnation of EA’s beautiful game is the ability to play the man between the sticks. Yes, you can take on the Be a Pro mode (which allows you to control a single player as opposed to the whole team) in the boots of the keeper. Which will doubtless sound like a turn-off to some people with visions of standing around bored and shivering on a frosty winter’s day, or leaning up against the goalpost having a cheeky drag of a Marlboro Light.
EA has of course considered this, and when the action is in the other half, you can press a button to zoom over and watch the attacking play up close. You can also hit buttons to help direct passes to open players (or to suggest passes if you’re playing online with real people, who will probably ignore you, but you can call nonetheless). Even so, the keeper mode isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, as you’re still essentially not doing a lot when the ball’s in the other half.
When the action does come towards your penalty box, then it’s time to steel your nerves and attempt to get into position to best cover the angles. There’s a helpful indicator to show that optimum position and a number of other visual aids, yet goalkeeping is still a tricky business. Timing the nudge of the right analogue stick to dive the correct way at just the right moment takes some getting the hang of. In our first few matches in the nets, the defenders were staring swords at us, never mind daggers, and our sheets were so far from clean they were probably a serious health hazard.
The good news is our timing did improve after the initial baptism of fire, and it wasn’t long before that first clean sheet finally came. Goalkeeping is actually pretty satisfying once you get into the zone somewhat, and it plays quite realistically. Coming out off your line too keenly or getting slightly out of position will be punished, particularly by perceptive human players when you’re partaking of an Xbox Live team match.
However, having a real person in the nets during a full eleven versus eleven teamplay match (where every player is human controlled) can be a double-edged sword, certainly when it comes to pick-up play. While these sort of matches can be quite messy anyway, the sight of the keeper dashing out towards the centre spot while the opposition striker coolly sidesteps him and fires a goal home from the halfway line is predictably annoying. Still, not everyone plays the keeper like a complete plum, but it’s certainly a crucial position.
Another change for FIFA 11 is the career mode, which now has the manager section rolled up along with Be a Pro. This means you can join a team for a Be a Pro player career, or opt to be manager while playing the whole team. Alternatively, there’s a third choice, a player-manager mode where you’re at the helm of the finances and transfers, and you can also take to the pitch yourself in Be a Pro style. These are welcome changes, and we particularly enjoyed the latter (although you can still play as the whole team when player-managing, if you prefer). The management duties remain fairly simple, as they’ve always been, although nuances have been added such as agreeing transfer terms with a player as well as his club.
In terms of the actual football engine, EA has tightened up the realism this year. When making a pass, as the neat new tutorial videos for basic and advanced tactics point out, your player is affected by all manner of things such as his balance (whether he’s just turned quickly), the pressure of nearby opponents, and of course the footballer’s own skill level. Plus the player now has to weight the pass more accurately with a meter, and the net result of all this is that passing is trickier to get right, particularly if you’re playing the ball around traffic; which is as it should be, really.
This sharpens the game’s sense of authenticity and means you have to work harder to pull off impressive chained connections between your players. If anything, the new passing system makes the flow of a match seem even more realistic and natural, imitating the pace of a real fixture. Probing and clever build-up play, along with vision for the likes of incisive through balls, is necessary to really school your opponents. The computer defenders are a bit more aggressive and tackling is more effective in general, which again helps guard against unrealistic and inflated score lines.
Some neat pieces of fine tuning have been added to FIFA 11, such as the ability to turn on automatic player switching for balls which are in the air. This means you can keep manual switching for the majority of the time, avoiding the risk of having CPU interference messing up your defending, yet still have the artificial intelligence step in when a big looping cross comes over the box to make that trickier switch for a defensive clearing header.
Online play was very smooth and highly enjoyable – apart from some of the aforementioned daft keeper antics in teamplay mode – with only the occasional sporadic stutter of lag making itself known. There are plenty of players to challenge and with some quarter of a million or so matches happening every day, you’re never waiting for a game in the lobby for long. One thing to bear in mind is that if you’re buying FIFA 11 second hand, you’ll need to purchase a code (costing around £6) to access the full online features, assuming the original owner has already used the serial key.