It's the world's favourite pastime. Not football, but playing FIFA every single year, as the franchise continues to outsell its rivals and provide the most authentic football experience available. The ongoing success of the FIFA series is well documented and with the game already grossing $2.6 million during its first few days on sale, EA Sports must be rubbing its hands together with glee. Question is, does FIFA 11 continue to deliver on the series' high watermark or is it a ham fisted mess like a bungled Robert Green save?
First impressions of FIFA are invariably good, as you're greeted with EA's consistently high quality presentation with a buoyant licensed soundtrack on the menus and the practice arena returning to allow you to run a few drills, make a set piece or simply sharpen your shooting or goalkeeping skills to your heart's content before hitting the numerous modes and options at your disposal. So far, so predictable maybe, but there's a host of new back-of-the-box stuff to take into account for FIFA 11, not least the potential longevity of the sprawling new Career Mode, which is split into three sections.
FIFA 11's Creation Centre too is a notable new addition, which enables you to assemble a bespoke team of custom players from scratch using the web-based application. It's a fantastic extra creative tool, that puts a wealth of added options to fiddle with when you're not even playing the game. There's still the full complement of customisation stuff in the game of course and you can create your own fledgling footballing superstar to take into FIFA's Be A Pro mode, which is now joined by Be A Goalkeeper.
Like Be A Pro, Be A Goalkeeper offers 15 seasons of football stuck inside the goal mouth waiting for some action so that you can spring into action make spectacular dives and perhaps a few saves if your reactions are sharp enough. It sounds interesting on paper - and it'll likely hold some appeal for those experiencing a match from the perspective of a goalie - but in practice, it can feel like a somewhat lonely and often slightly boring affair.
Sure, you can issue suggestions to your teammates out on the pitch, but the default camera view makes the action almost impossible to make out when the match is unfolding at the opposite end. Consequently, it sometimes feels like you're randomly mashing buttons for no reason. Thankfully, you can hold the Back/Select button to have the camera zone in on the play, so you can always draw a bead on where the ball is and shout orders to the rest of the team accordingly. If that still seems a bit too uneventful though, you can always sprint off the goal line like a mad man and try and score a goal, which we found ourself doing on several occasions just to make things a bit more exciting.
Be A Goalkeeper is a neat new addition nevertheless and at the very least it's a distraction that you might consider dipping into if you happen to grow weary of the other modes all vying for your attention. The majority of your time is likely to be spent in FIFA 11's substantial Career Mode though, which is split into three sub-modes that see your created Virtual Pro embarking upon up to 15 seasons of football with your favourite club.
The Player part of Career Mode is pretty self-explanatory and as such, you'll be competing for a place on the team, which can mean some protracted slogs through the season calendar if you're resigned to the bench or reserve team, simulating matches until you get your big chance. During a match you're constantly graded on how your created player performs and every action can have an adverse or positive effect on your overall grade. Positive actions are rewarded with stat boosts , which sometimes rewards you with unlocks like a new celebration, some ankle tape, winter gloves, untucked shirts, longer socks or maybe even a stupid-looking barnet for your custom player.
Manager and Player Manager career paths round out the rest of FIFA 11's Career Mode and again, they're quite self-explanatory. Manager gives you complete control over the inner workings of your team, making adjustments, transfers and planning strategies and so forth, very much like FIFA 10's standalone Manager Mode. Player Manager meanwhile offers the full, undiluted career enabling you to get your hands dirty in all aspects of a full 15 season FIFA 11 career.
In Player Manager Mode you can do all the work behind the scenes as a manager and then go out and put your strategy into action as a player. Obviously. There's hours upon hours of matches and dull calendar watching to indulge in for Career Mode and you'll find yourself moving between clubs, negotiating deals and getting deep into all of the ins and outs that come with being a player or manager. You'll be playing for months on end if it gets its hooks into you, and that's before even considering FIFA 11's full 11 vs. 11 online multiplayer matches, which lets a player take control of the keeper for the first time.
On the pitch, distinguishing the gameplay refinements for FIFA 11 is almost impossible, as it plays remarkably like FIFA 10. What few changes there are turn out to be rather subtle and the new 'Personality+' feature - which is meant to imbue each player with a distinctive set of traits and behaviour routines - goes straight over our heads. We'll be damned if we could single out anything that stood out as a result of Personality+, but no doubt die-hard football aficionados will appreciate the differences it's supposedly brings.
Playing FIFA 11 is still as good as it has been in recent years then, although those hoping for a huge leap since FIFA 10 will be sorely disappointed. There's still a clear, if incremental improvement over FIFA World Cup 2010 however and indeed it incorporates the tweaks and penalty-taking system introduced in that game. FIFA 11 still looks unparalleled, mimicking a TV broadcast proficiently and takes the solid foundations of FIFA 10 and this year's World Cup tie-in to continue building and refining what is fast becoming a near perfect football title that proceeds in making the competition increasingly irrelevant.
Ultimately however, it's pretty much business as usual for FIFA, although the breadth and depth of the Career Mode and Creation Centre go a long way towards making FIFA 11 a worthwhile iteration. EA Sports Canada, more than ever this year is edging gradually closer to the holy grail of footballing perfection, but a few niggles with its Career Mode and slightly flabby team AI in both Be A Pro and Career means it falls slightly short. The new passing system on the other hand makes accuracy and a deftness of touch more important than ever, which can initially be frustrating. Stick with it though, and it'll start to pay off when you're putting in beautifully placed through balls and pivotal short passes.
For now, FIFA 11 is as close to footballing nirvana as you can currently get and it almost manages to get all of the fundamentals spot on. It feels and handles unlike any other football game currently available and it's about as close to the beautiful game as you can get. Some of the gameplay refinements might not be apparent when you play, so it's not the huge leap forward you might want, but there's enough new modes and features to make FIFA 11 a tempting prospect for yet another year. It's getting harder and harder to review FIFA every year, as it's possibly the most reliable goal scorer around, hitting the target again and again. FIFA 11 is happily no different.