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FIFA 11 Review: Most Fun Sports Game Has Some Flaws

Quick, easy question: Who’s the best player currently on Aston Villa?

Ashley Young is probably the first name that pops to mind. Maybe you’d say youngster Marc Albrighton. You’d be laughed at but Emile Heskey is proving, yes, there’s still some worth in his 32-year-old carcass.

If the world of FIFA 11 is to be believed, the answer to said question is Welsh defender James Collins, who the game rates as an 81 overall, one whole rating point ahead of Young, as well as other Villa standouts like Brad Friedel, Richard Dunne, Stewart Downing, Stephen Ireland, Stylian Petrov and Gabby Agbonlahor.

Therein lays the tricky spot FIFA 11 finds itself.

It’s the best-playing soccer game on the market, yet it falls wide of the target when it comes to creating an authentic footballing experience inside a video game console. Still, it’s miles ahead of its only other competitive – Pro Evolution Soccer – which despite adding the Champions League and Copa Libertadores licenses lacks many national league licenses, notably the Premier League.

Part of my long-ranging personal problem with the “FIFA” series is it tries to appeal to a worldwide collection of soccer fans, yet in the end leaves everyone feeling a little empty. Nothing against these leagues, but how many gamers are actually use the Polish, Czech or Irish Leagues or the various other secondary or tertiary leagues? Hate to say it, but also how many global gamers are every going to queue up a FC Dallas/Colorado Rapids match?

As it is already, it seems 95 percent of online players always select Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester United, to begin with.

It’s nice to have nearly 30 leagues to select from, but in the end, aside from the club colors and badges, there’s not a lot to separate a team from the Danish Superliga from the Swiss Super League.

On the plus side, EA finally added the Russian Premier League to the next-gen consoles adding appealing teams like Zenit, Rubin Kazan, Dinamo Moscow and CSKA into the mix, although its “Rest of the World” option remains bare bones, with glaring omissions like any of the top Ukrainian, Romanian or even an choice from the Asian Champions League sorely lacking.

EA might be better served to beef up the presentation for the big leagues, such as the EPL, Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and La Liga, to create a more accurate game experience. Add some more unique stadiums instead of the generic Ivy Lanes of the world. Render a few more faces to make players look like they really do, not just the superstars. Any good reason Clint Dempsey once again gets a generic digital avatar? Both ?ukasz Fabia?ski and Vito Mannone get unique renderings. So at least Arsene Wenger has one less thing to complain about.

To its credit, the EA’s other flagship — “Madden NFL” — makes you feel like you’re inside an actual NFL game when you play it. Same thing for Visual Concepts “NBA 2K11″ which take realism to another level. Granted this is much more difficult when you’re dealing with around 30 different leagues, there’s only so much memory space on the disc itself.

That said, this year’s FIFA does add a full-blown creation center via its website for folks who used to go crazy with the old PES “edit” file. You’re able to import custom songs and chants to trigger during introductions and goals. So yeah, that’s pretty cool to play against Manchester City and hear “Blue Moon” when your players walk onto the field, assuming you have that much free time on your hands to actually put it into the game. Hey, adding “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to digital Anfield might be the only way to cheer up some Liverpool fans at this point.

Single player in FIFA 11 remains hit-or-miss. The computer AI is now a little less generic, with teams playing slightly differently and they’ll even pull off skill moves, which is a nice wrinkle. Yet at higher levels the computer rarely makes a wrong pass or moves a player out of position, making it a challenge, albeit not a very exciting one as most games play out like late 1990s Serie A games. EA is touting it’s “Personality Plus” system so players play like their real-life equivalents, but it’s hardly noticeable as a team like Grimsby Town still doesn’t play all that differently than Real Madrid.

Career mode has once again been tweaked by EA allowing you to play as a single player, coach or player-manager. The developers apparently have heard the outcry from fans, so the fixture list is a little more realistic — I even saw an early season mid-week Championship game with my Portsmouth career pushed back to January because of a clash with a Carling Cup match. Transfers, too, have been tweaked to be more accurate, so you’ll no longer see Manchester United selling off Wayne Rooney to Palmeiras.

In short, career mode isn’t all that compressive or engrossing as it could be, since in the end playing upwards of 50 to 100 matches vs. the computer AI gets boring.

Now you’re probably thinking by this point, this guy must hate FIFA 11. Well, that’s not the case at all.

For everything it lacks in making you feel like you’re in an authentic soccer experience, the game makes up for in sterling game play and variety.

Ever since FIFA 09, EA appears to have found a fluid game engine, an almost eerie precision. Take a guy with enough skill, say a Cristiano Ronaldo, and you can basically do whatever you want on the field. The game does a great job getting the “feel” of its controls right. Power up a shot to the upper corner from the right distance and watch it fly. There’s just a sense of knowing you hit it right, albeit in videogame form, that’s very satisfying.

If there’s a change from last season, it’s that FIFA 11 feels much looser than last year. You’re no longer able to ping-pong one-touch passes across the field like a fleet of Xavi’s.

The biggest gimmick EA added to this year’s game is the “Be a Goalkeeper” mode. For a couple years now you’ve been able to create a digital version of yourself and suit up anywhere on the field, except in goal. Now you can and it’s surprisingly a whole lot of fun. You’ll definitely gain a new appreciation for goalies learning the right angles once you step into their shoes.

Through it all, the core of the game, for me at least, is online play whether it be as my virtual pro in a match alongside 11 other players or in a 1-v-1 scenario against another gamer. In this area FIFA 11 belts another cracker, even if the EA servers have been a little touch-and-go through the first week. Aside from the fact almost everyone seems to use the same five-star teams, there’s few better tests of skill in sports gaming. It gets even better playing alongside a friend on the same side and taking down the opposition.

Is FIFA 11 perfect? Not really.

Does it make you feel like you’re walking out of the tunnel and onto an EPL pitch? Nah.

But is it the most fun to play sports game currently on the market? You bet.

Call it the Tottenham of video games. Flawed and inconsistent, but thoroughly entertaining.

Order FIFA 11 today online via Amazon.

Editor’s note: You can read more of Mike Cardillo’s articles on his blog, That’s On Point. Plus, you can follow Mike on Twitter @thatsonpoint


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