Central Line, Bond Street station: a humid afternoon inevitably descends into a furnace underground. Days after the World Cup has ended, it seems the mass of fans have all inexplicably left South Africa to gather in Central London and deny me oxygen on my ride home. The day started so much brighter.
Hours earlier, Guildford: I stand in front of the vertical prism that is the entrance to EA's studio, and I'm very excited. I'm always excited to play and see a new game, but there's something particularly intriguing about FIFA 11. After years of second fiddling to Konami's swashbuckling Pro Evo series, FIFA is now undoubtedly ahead of its rival thanks to superlative recent efforts. If FIFA 09 swung the pendulum, than conclusively triumphant FIFA 10 stole it and ran away. So what will EA Canada do now that it's in front? How do you follow up such success, especially with a World Cup game released just months prior?
One way, the studio says, is to listen to feedback. It has spent the last year gathering feedback from reviews, focus sessions, and forum posts. The comprehensive verdict: get rid of the ping-pong passing.
The ease of pinball-like short first-touch passes has negated recent FIFA games' increased realism. To combat this, EA is introducing Pro Passing to FIFA 11, a feature designed to add skill to shifting the ball around. Firstly, there's now a bar that indicates power and fills depending on how long the pass button is held. Under-hitting and over-hitting passes is now much more of a reality, making sweeping moves up the pitch less undemanding.
Secondly, Pro Passing integrated with another new feature, Personality Plus, this being to do with how good the play you're controlling actually is at passing - kind of important. If you get Gary Neville, say, to try and pull off a neat 180 swivel followed by an instant lofted through ball, he'll probably knock the hot dog out of some unsuspecting front-rower while falling over, butt first. Andreas Iniesta, however, might just make it. The limiting combination should make it harder to pinball passes all the way to the goal.
Pro Passing takes me a bit of getting used to. The bar fills quite quickly, and a little imperceptibly at the bottom left of the screen, so it's tough to judge initially. More than a few passes go astray, especially when I bring defenders up the pitch. When I get it right - a perfectly weighted cross-field ball from van Persie that fizzes across the area, past two defenders, through the legs of Diaby, and into the welcoming embrace of Fabregas' right foot - it's indeed satisfying. But how unrealistic is that - Fabregas at Arsenal?
Pro Passing will be optional - a wise move on EA Canada's part - as will the much-loved mainstay of manual passing. There are plenty of other incremental passing changes to get wrapped around too, like swerve passes and backspin-lofted through balls. In better hands than mine, I feel.
Fabregas' jink into the box provides a neat example of Personality Plus. The new feature - not a self-motivational course - is about adding more individualism to players. There's the visual side: EA Canada has implemented as many "star heads" as possible with FIFA 11 to provide a multitude of detailed, true-to-self expressive animations. It's not that easy to dissect from my play session, but judging from the range of (guiltily amusing) emotions we see England's Brave John Terry go through in a demo, there's certainly scope for some scarily accurate replications.
The more interesting side to Personality Plus relates to how it affects play. As hinted at above, the feature introduces more depth to how good a player is at certain elements of the game, and this plays into what you can and cannot do with him. Peter Crouch will win you headers but don't expect him to spray it across the park. Fernando Torres will be great at those long mazy runs, but his ability to stop players in the other direction won't be so hot. You're still going to have to do the work yourself, but expect individual stats - not all visible - to come more into play in FIFA 11.
This is probably too deep a feature to truly appreciate in seven or eight matches worth, at least in my control, but it's much more obvious when the AI is in control because specific player traits are elicited readily. Carlos Puyol, for example, comes crashing into one of my victims at breakneck speed, shrugging it off afterwards with his head down. Later against Liverpool, Torres sells my defence a couple of dummies before rushing into the box and executing a perfect slide rule finish. It goes further than that, too. Michael Essien has a box-to-box trait, meaning he'll run from one end to the other like a madman. Wayne Rooney will nip at opponents' ankles all over the pitch. As a cohesive image of traits, skills, and player-specific animations put together, it's striking - when you notice it.
What impresses most of all, though, is the added dimension to what EA calls the 360-degree Fight for Possession. This is the most palpable change in FIFA 11: when players get close to one another, they are pushing, shoving, and shielding from one another much more than before. Players will now shield the ball before it comes to them. When chasing another player, you might find if you tussle enough you'll end up shoving him in the back - again, Personality Plus comes into play here. Visually, though, it's these changes that are so visually evident in FIFA 11. The range of ways and directions players fight with each other for the ball makes is very technically impressive. Does it look that different from before? Yes and no. The changes in FIFA 11, at least on the pitch, do not seem as dramatic as recent incarnations. But it's difficult to be sure from the session today. After all, EA Canada say today's build is at 75%.
Off the pitch, the major upheaval is in the new Career Mode, which houses a brand new engine that assimilates Be a Pro and Manager Modes into a cohesive approach. Now players can enjoy a career as a Player, Player-Manager, or Manager, and progress from one to the other. You can start off as a real-life or made-up player, then move to Player Manager or Manager. Either way, the career lasts a maximum of 15 years. It makes sense to bring all the modes together, but I don't see it in practice today. EA Canada promises, though, improved searches, better player comparisons, more authentic results and more depth to the transfer and leagues in the Manager Mode. We will wait and see.
The day is coming to a close, and it's starting to drizzle outside the large windows in the hallway. There's just time to reflect on the customization features coming to FIFA 11. Players will be able to assign mp3s to events, like creating chants for goals, players, etc. Meanwhile, there's the Creation Centre, where players, teams, their crests and their jerseys can be created and edited. Just to my left, a peer has created what can only be described as a mix of Croatia's Euro '96 strip and a rave. My eyes blinded by the green and blue chequered number dancing across the turf, I stumble and take my leave.
As with any new FIFA, it's very much a personal choice and outlook that will have already gone some way to defining your decision to get on board with this yearly iteration now, later, or not at all. But with many sports games, some of them EA's, much more willing to stand still, one can at least appreciate that EA Canada remains unafraid to try new things once again with in its hunt to perfect the series' formula.
But some things will always the same, I think to myself as I shuffle down the Bond Street platform. Just like in FIFA 10 and now in FIFA 11, the trick to getting through the crowds is to have a few, well, tricks up your sleeve. I get to the end, let a train pass, and a minute later an empty carriage awaits. Skills.
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