FIFA 11 iPhone Impressions

Posted October 26th, 2010 at 3:30 pm

By: Brian Sipple
Ask any soccer (or fútbol) fan what’s so special about the world’s most popular sport and they’ll immediately delve into the passion they have for their club, the allure of the teamwork and skill demonstrated by the players, and the feeling of excitement you get after a goal that’s sometimes best summed up in Andres Cantor’s famous “GOOOOOOOOLLLLL!!” calls.

For the better part of its 17 year history Electronic Arts’ FIFA franchise has been the top choice of console gamers looking to re-create everything they love about their sport in a video game. The release of FIFA 11 on the iPhone shows us that, while it’s not there yet, FIFA has the capacity to become a mainstay on the App Store as well.

It is worth noting that the game is only compatible with the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and iPad. A quick glance at the iTunes user reviews reveals a slew of angry one star ratings from 3G owners who spent $5 on an incompatible app message. That said, with a $4.99 price point, it’s the cheapest soccer title on the App Store.

While the price is very reasonable I wouldn’t exactly call it a bargain; the list of game modes is fleeting to say the least. It’s obvious that the developers chose to consolidate their efforts into gameplay and graphics rather than an expansive feature set. There’s a league mode where you pick a team and play through their league’s season, a cup mode that lets you jump right into a cup tournament and, of course, the good old fashioned quick match or “kick-off” for when you want the U.S. National team to play K.F.C. Germinal Beerschot.

Both modes have basic layouts consisting of stats, standings, and roster and strategy management. There’s also the option to customize uniforms, stadiums, and time of day. With over 500 teams from 30 leagues and authentic rosters, league and cup modes are quite fun and offer substantial replay value. However the absence of features like last years “Be a Pro” mode or a manager mode can’t be discounted. There’s also the issue of multiplayer which has been delayed from the game’s launch and is marked on the main menu with a “coming soon” sign.

Where FIFA 11 truly shines is in the graphical department. Without a doubt this is one of the best looking sports games on the App Store. Stadiums are beautifully rendered while colors and textures have a fresh, crisp look that jumps right off the screen on the iPhone 4. Player models look very real and a lot of faces are spot on. I don’t want to say Wayne Rooney looks more accurate than 2K10 Kobe, but it wouldn’t be a huge stretch if I did.

With a game that makes for such fine eye candy you would hope it was equally as satisfying to listen to. Sounds effects are well done, but weak crowd noise and pedestrian commentary don’t do the game any favors. Cheers only tend to be noticeable during shots on goal and the crowd is fairly inactive otherwise. Most of the time a packed house at Wembley Stadium during an Arsenal / Chelsea F.A. Cup Final could have been mistaken for Tampa Bay Rays home game in July.

In keeping with the console version’s tradition of not having Ian Darke commentate the matches, Clive Tyldesley gets the play-by-play duties of all the pitch action while Andy Gray adds some decent, albeit scarce color analysis. Tyldesley’s calls are surprisingly punctual and accurate, but they lack a larger sense of depth or variation. The commentary, like elevator music or Keanu Reeves, accomplishes its job of simply being there and keeping the flow going but doesn’t contribute much in the way of substance.

Gameplay is a big part of what this year’s game focuses on, and for a the most part, a game of FIFA 11 comes off as an entertaining and authentic experience. Frame rate slows occasionally during cut scenes, but the game speed is profoundly sharp. The AI executes assignments intelligently on both sides of the ball, making it rewarding for players who employ the right strategy. The ball also moves fluidly across the pitch and responds well whatever touch you put on it. Referees can be hit or miss at times with some questionable offside and handball calls/no calls, but they still call a fair game otherwise.

The most curious gameplay feature is the control setup for this year and the result of FIFA’s changes are decidedly mixed. The d-pad on the left controls player direction and ball movement as well as your speed. Instead of a dedicated button, sprinting is done by dragging the d-pad harder than normal in the desired direction. If this sounds a little tedious, that’s because it is. Your finger sometimes drags out towards the middle of the screen, creating a challenge for bringing it back to the d-pad once a new player has the ball.

Movement can also be a little unresponsive when it comes to changing speed and evading defenders. You just don’t get the level of ball control and quick cutting action that’s crucial once a player is contested, but hey, we are talking about a touch screen game here. There’s a learning curve to be sure, but it’s manageable and fun once you get a handle on it.

So what do you with the ball once you achieve movement? Buttons on the right of the screen are labeled with actions of “shoot,” “pass,” and “through” on offense and “slide,” “tackle,” and “switch” on defense. These one-touch mechanics work well and are an easy way for casual players to hit the ground running.

More advanced controls are also available such as touching players on the screen to pass to, dragging a player to get him running open downfield, or double tapping your player when he has the ball for a “skill move.” All of these will take a little more time to incorporate into your play style, but they add an extra dimension for control that utilizes the iPhone’s touchscreen well.

FIFA 11 delivers some of the best graphics of any sports game yet, while offering some fun, solid gameplay to boot. The new control setup shows flashes of potential but lacks the refinement necessary for a true soccer feel. This, combined with the absence of several key game modes prevents FIFA from being an elite title just yet. However the effort put into the game is fantastic and there’s enormous potential for FIFA 12. At a low price of $4.99, casual and hardcore soccer players alike will still find plenty to enjoy here, and much to look forward to in the future.

Thanks to Brian Sipple for taking the time to contribute these impressions! -PP