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First Impressions: FIFA11 and the Problem With FIFA
by Chris Hawke

I'm still amazed by the FIFA series. Not in a good way. I've stuck with it and played it all these years just because it's the best of a bad bunch. But if PES, or any other competitor, upped their game, I'd check it out right away. Why? Because FIFA doesn't have playoffs.

There's no way I can fully explain how shocking this is to those unacquainted with 'The Gentleman's Game', but readers who support feisty Championship clubs or enjoy the thrills of the fast-moving League 1 table will understand. This is an official FIFA product, backed by the international governing body of football. And yet it doesn't have end-of-season playoffs; the most joyous, heartbreaking, and frankly, the best part of football.

It was after a good month or so of an (admittedly slow) Manager Season with Preston North End. It was all down to the last in-game match, with the plucky Northerners resting at 7th. I'm pretty sure I dominated the match, but that doesn't matter; we were up to 4th in the Championship, and that meant, once again, we were in the playoffs - the gateway to £60 million and a place in the best football league in the world, the Premiership. Except, FIFA 10 doesn't have playoffs. It literally just ignores them. I'd finished 4th, and then had to play another season in the Championship.

I was livid.

Thus, I never really got back into FIFA 10. Everything felt very awkward afterwards, like when someone walks in on you in the toilet and you then have to chat to them afterwards and pretend nothing happened. Except instead of pretending, FIFA 10 was jeering at me and calling me names. Every game I played seemed more and more deadly: I had to be first place, or it would be no different than coming 17th. FIFA 11, I hoped, would salvage my shattered hopes and dreams, piece them together and finally deliver the true footballing experience I'd longed for.

Did it? Short answer: no. It has mangled my fragile wishes and aspirations faster than Antonio Valencia's leg.

Oh yeah, I went there.

Of course, it didn't push me away to begin with. Oh no, that would be too easy; instead, it ensnared me in its sticky web of lies, building me up before watching me fall. I was greeted by a volley of much faster loading screens - no longer does it ask you to save something every 3 seconds ("Are you sure you'd like to save your save?"). Also, blissfully, the soundtrack has been improved upon; not really a difficult task after FIFA 10's horrible audio abuse, but some inspired Gorillaz and Black Keys make the Arena a much more delightful place. Menus have also been given a visual overhaul, and while it's not major, it's certainly welcome.

Then I got into a match. Chelsea vs. Barca. And I was blown away. I was stunned. I was open mouthed. It was just that disappointing.

Let's run down the quick list of improvements that FIFA 11 brings. The passing is great. The new system is very deft, but allows some wonderful through balls to be played and removes that old "it passed to the wrong player" excuse. Messi and Drogba look a little bit more like Messi and Drogba, and the actual balls seem much more dynamic (never thought I'd say that), with realistic spin and curve. One very nice touch is the AI using tricks; it's implemented well, and adds a great deal of spice to proceedings.

And then there's the bad. And the ugly. And the downright depressing. Old problems still appear in force: there are odd and clumsy mix-ups at the back when the game turns into a mosh pit of players running into each other and the ball bounces round like a pinball. No player seems able to take decent touch, and the keeper doesn't really think to come out and collect it, making these moments as terrifying as they are ridiculous. Another thing not resolved from previous FIFAs is that players still stubbornly refuse to go toward the ball, instead demanding that the ball go to them. It's like watching a very slow car crash, as you just know the opposition will jump in and nab it while Joe Cole stands there, forlorn. The referee still gets in the way a startling number of times - sure, it's interesting the first time, but after a while you just think that he's out to get you and cause as much chaos as possible. On top of these, goalkeepers still prefer to blindly throw a fist at the ball instead of calmly collect it, and the AI remains both infinitely stupid, and incredibly easy. You can go 2-0 up within the first 20 minutes on World Class if you just pass across the goal; and AI attackers, even when one-on-one, prefer to jog straight at the keeper instead of... I don't know, scoring.

But those aren't the largest problems. Because FIFA has one problem it has failed to overcome in over a decade, even with all this modern technology. FIFA is not football. It's almost like a scientist's impression of football: you have all the components, and you have 'things that happen', and all the factors and all the equations, but it's an incredibly sterile environment - there's no love or passion to be found anywhere.

Stadiums are horribly generic, with smaller ones displaying awful backdrops and the bigger ones seemingly detached from the real world, as if Juventus just popped into the Matrix for a quick friendly. It also doesn't help that the game is full of aggressive primary colours, like a 6-year-old's Crayola fantasy. The commentary is, to put it bluntly, a shambles. Little team/player-specific comments that could have been considered 'innovative' a good three years ago sound pathetically shoe-horned and infrequent now. Gray and Tyler lurch from odd, repetitive rambles about days gone by to overexcited screams of "OHH, HE'S DONE A FOOTKICK!". Often, they'll say something completely incorrect, or fail to mention anything important, like a goal being scored, instead deciding to remain silent. But once again, these are overshadowed by the greatest insult - the people.

Frank Lampard takes a free kick from 37 yards away. It clears the wall, flies over the defence, smacks the crossbar and shoots into the air for a goal kick. That, in a real game of football, would be amazing. Frank would be head-in-hands, the commentator would be up-in-arms, the crowd would shriek and scream at a deafening volume. In FIFA, the crowd doesn't react, the commentators say nothing, and Frank jogs backwards calmly. It's unbelievably disheartening. The crowd are all the exact same person with the same colour shirt, and they never react to anything at all; even directly behind the goal when a 90th-minute penalty is scored, they sit stock still or, if you're lucky, stand up in perfect unison and then remain stock still. The crowd doesn't make noise like they should, either - the same tepid half-cheers haunt you for 90 minutes, and even a winning hat-trick in front of the home stand just prompts a meagre murmur. It reminds me a lot of the Sims; y'know, the way your Sim will never do anything unpredictable and will put everything back in the exact same place? FIFA is the most lifeless series I've ever played.

Of course, there's more to the whole game than that. Personality+ vastly improves lower-league games and adds a much needed dash of realism, while leaps and bounds in the Career Mode could finally make it worthy of a prolonged managerial playthrough. And, yes, they fixed play-offs. The Pride Of The North can now get promoted through the 'Promotion Trophy'. But still, is there a whiff of the £60 million pounds a team gets for progressing into the best league on Earth? Nope. In fact, I had £3.5 million in transfers and £7,000 in wages. When teams like Manchester City bought Anelka with their new payments, I doubt it was with seven grand and a polite 'Oh, please!'.

Slowly, but possibly surely, FIFA is making timid steps toward realism. But with so many obvious and glaring errors - administrative inaccuracy far surpassed by Football Manager, and an environment far surpassed by... anything - the leading football game is a sluggish and lethargic fish in a swampy and minuscule pond.

Exercise those fingers! Put your thoughts on the gentleman's game below.

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- Chris Hawke

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