Last years quality game firmly put FIFA back on top over their Konami rival, so what next? A tougher challenge and enough off the pitch enhancements to last you till well after the end of the season and beyond is what.
The tougher challenge is made evident by smarter AI that closes you down mercilessly and some questionable refereeing. Last year’s problem of players constantly wondering offside has been fixed. Unfortunately it has been replaced with them constantly giving free kicks. While getting flagged offside was annoying the replays always proved that you were. It was never wrong and EA explained they couldn’t show officials to be making mistakes because of the official FIFA branding, fair enough. Shame they couldn’t extend the courtesy to fouling as the replays will leave you baffled as to why you’ve given away yet another free kick as the slightest nudge is penalised.
Those crazy dribbling skills are back again using the L2 button and the right stick to try and dazzle your way out of trouble. The extensive list of them can be a little daunting at first, but ignoring them would be like playing Street fighter 4 without ever looking at the moves list. It’s important to remember that not all footballers can do these tricks, but they can be useful with decent players if you want to take on defenders.
Sometimes it’s just easier to resort to a passing game though as you’ll get closed down by the opposition before you can remember how to perform the skill moves. They won’t wait around all day for you to please the crowd, they’ll take the ball and leave you to sit on the grass and sulk like Ronaldo.
It’s all very well going for a passing game, but there are times when the passing feels unresponsive and slow. The charged power bar which is also used for shooting can also be a faff too when you just want an instant shot / pass. Often the player will ignore the command altogether despite the bar appearing on-screen. It’s like he’s not quite ready to shoot yet and is trying to get himself set up just right, which, of course leaves plenty of time for a defender to poke it away. It should be up to you when the player takes the shot, if he’s not got the ideal footing and the shot will be unpredictable that should be your choice. It also seems very difficult to shrug off defenders’ challenges too as most of the strikers seem to be much weaker, a point the commentary constantly mentions too.
As has been the way of every football game ever though, the kick-off is still a goal scoring opportunity with the other team spread out into position when you kick off, and hesitant to pass it more than once or twice when it’s their turn, meaning you can slide in there no problem. I’d be annoyed if it wasn’t the best chance I get in some matches.
This year’s new feature ‘360 movement’ isn’t really that noticeable as it only really comes into effect when you’re travelling slowly with the ball as sprinting still feels like it’s on an eight-way directional system. That doesn’t mean the animations don’t look superb though. You can also customise your team’s actions for free kicks now too, but surely you just want to hammer it into the top corner?
The keepers’ shot-stopping has been improved and they pluck most corners out of the air with ease but they have a new flaw. The eager sods can’t help but come storming off their line whenever you get near. So once you master the chip shot you’re guaranteed goals. You might even get bored of lobbing them. Can you imagine? Jeez.
The award for best improvement this year goes to Virtual Pro. Like the Be a Pro mode, you can create a player from scratch but this time you can use him in everything: Exhibition matches, tournaments, leagues, Manager Mode and Be a Pro Seasons. Starting off with average stats you can play in all the above modes to improve your skills. You have to play on the Semi-Pro or higher difficulty to earn anything though. There are special accomplishments such as complete ten passes in a match, score a chipped goal, that unlock sections of a sticker book and give you slight stat boosts. The more you play across the different game modes the more you’ll unlock. Plus there are perk-style unlockables to be won (power headers, better through balls etc). Also, like in Dirt 2, there’s a massive list of audio surnames recorded for you to select from so you can be included in the match commentary, this is frankly awesome.
Playing in manager modes and leagues plays like normal matches but with the option of putting your created player in the team, whereas Be a Pro is the option where you only control the one player and run around demanding the ball for 90 minutes, which if you tried it last year, you’ll know is more fun than it sounds.
Once you’ve levelled yourself up enough a safe distance from the embarrassment that you start as, you can take your Virtual Pro online and play as a part of team amongst a pitch of created avatars, hopefully not just ten strikers.
Virtual Pro is the reason you’ll keep playing despite some new annoyances that have crept into the game since last year. It does take quite a while to build yourself up though as you don’t pick up experience points for all areas in any mode for your Virtual Pro to spend as you will, just the required accomplishments of the sticker book. You can earn traditional experience in Be a Pro with a newly created player but not with the new Virtual Pro ones. This is a bit of a letdown as you might go a match or two with no stat boosts at all, at least last years model let you grow with every match.
The Manager mode itself is surprisingly deep, with options of paying staff to go off on scouting trips, or to dedicate training funds to defence, midfield, forwards, fitness and so on, and even the chance to vary ticket prices. Sure, it’s not matching the PC management sims, but it adds enough depth to the game to make it more than a gimmick and makes it more interesting than the standard league option. You can play the matches as normal or just sim them which is quicker but takes control away from you.
There’s a couple of quirks here though, such as despite turning the assistant coach off he still changes your starting eleven around behind your back and any players you send off on loan often completely disappear, sometimes with the loan team selling them on! Patch please EA!
Virtual Pro is a fantastic addition to FIFA, even though it can be a bit of a slog to turn him into a superstar. Using him in all modes is a great design decision. The new, meaner AI (and refs) take a bit of getting used to, but it’s better than just having last year’s game with Virtual Pro added I suppose. Even most of the Trophies are tougher to earn this time around. All this, plus the reliable online matches make this the strongest contender for gaming’s footy crown this year. Over to you Pro Evo.