Soccer is not wildly popular in the United States as compared to the rest of the known world. Our Major League Soccer, the first matches of which were played in 1996, doesn’t garner the same fanatical supporters that football leagues in England or Germany do. Even though many of us play soccer growing up, that schoolyard activity rarely translates to a love of the modern sport. U.S. audiences show a glimmer of interest every four years when the World Cup is held, but that spark quickly dies. When was the last time soccer was mentioned in your office or school? Probably when someone said that FIFA 11 was coming out.

Any lack of interest in the sport itself shouldn’t preclude you from enjoying a well-made videogame. And FIFA 11 is just that, a good game, but it doesn’t push the boundaries into masterpiece. It builds off the success of the series, especially the well-received FIFA 10, and further modernizes the game with slick animations, more responsive controls and a plethora of gameplay formats.

The controls remain largely unchanged from previous FIFAs. Passing depends more on the player’s skill; pressing and holding the pass button makes your kick that much stronger. This allows a finely tuned offensive attack, but it can backfire when you want to make a quick but strong pass. If you hold the button for a longer kick, you might miss the passing opportunity.

There was a lot of hype made about how different soccer stars behave in the game, as opposed to the general mooks who play for lesser known teams, or in the U.S. (Zang!) But if you’re not a fan, and don’t know Fabregas from your fart gas, the feature falls a bit flat. I’m waiting for the inevitable update from EA which will allow you to kit out your Virtual Pro with one of the personality types like Finisher or Playmaker. Otherwise, it feels like a wasted feature for those who don’t follow soccer religiously.

I enjoyed crafting my Virtual Pro, giving him a huge afro and the name Bob Jingle. In the career mode, you can be a player, a manager or, new to FIFA 11, a player-manager for any soccer team in the world. Your pro gets hired and signs a contract with certain demands. These demands, for the player, are all performance based and are not necessarily easy. For example, when I was signed as a reserve to a good team, I only played 1 in 3 games and was eventually let go at the end of the season because I didn’t perform very well.

Thankfully, that didn’t end Bob Jingle’s career. I had several lesser teams offer me a contract; I signed as a key player for the Norwegian Kongsvinger team and I’m currently leading them in scoring. It’s cool that I want to play well in order to try to secure a more lucrative contract in a better league. It feels like I’m roleplaying as a sports professional.

I was impressed with the ease of online multiplayer in FIFA 11. Searching for a ranked match sets up a game with up to 11 players on a side, including the goalkeeper, and each player needs to perform their position well in order to win. That can get boring when the ball doesn’t seem to bounce your way, but I could see it being cool when you have a core group of friends that you play with together.

The online matchmaking could use a huge revamp, though. Like any online multiplayer, you seem to always be playing against guys who are way better than you. If EA can do matchmaking in shooters, why can’t they get it right for FIFA?

If playing against random people isn’t your bag, FIFA 11 expands the Lounge Mode introduced last year. This feature reminds me of nothing more than a virtual dorm floor, where each guy has a team and you play against each other for bragging rights. It’s awesome that FIFA 11 tracks stats in lounge matches; claiming that you are the best overall scorer is more convincing when you can prove it with numbers.

In the career mode, you have the option to play just your position, but honestly that gets a little monotonous. But, thankfully, if you’re playing offline or by yourself, the AI of the other players seems more intelligent. In the past, your teammates would idly watch a striker dribbling past them or never break towards open ground, but in FIFA 11, I was surprised by how often the player that I wasn’t controlling made a tackle or got open. You’re still forced to switch players often, in a control relegated to the difficult to reach left bumper, but you can also force your teammates to press the ball on defense or send them on a run. It’s much more fun to play as a team in FIFA 11 instead of one star outshining them all.

These are just bells and whistles to the actual gameplay of kicking a ball around on a field of grass. Thanks to the fluid animations and responsive controls, just dribbling the ball or performing fakes and tricks feels great. Perhaps the greatest testament to the success of FIFA is the loading screens, which ports you to the “Arena” with just your player and a goalkeeper. It’s so incredibly fun and natural trying to score as many goals as possible that I often forgot that I was loading anything.

The Arena is easily accessible from the main menu at any time, and there are “Accomplishments” that you can unlock to give your virtual pro extra points in shooting or passing. So there is a game element to the Arena, but that’s just icing on the cake of the best loading screen ever.

I’ve already had fun playing FIFA 11 and I will likely get more out of it in the months to come. It does what every sports game is meant to do: set up situations where playing the basic game element, like kicking a round ball into a net, is as enjoyable as possible.

Bottom Line: FIFA 11 is a well-made soccer game, but it doesn’t make any huge leaps in game design or feel. The added features like more sensitive passing and the famous stars’ individuality are great on paper, but don’t add a lot of value.

Recommendation: If you dig soccer, you’ve probably already got a copy. But if you’re short on cash, you can probably get away with waiting a bit until the price drops.

[rating=4]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: FIFA 11
Genre: Sports
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: September 28, 2010
Platforms: PC, MAC, Nintendo DS, PS2, PS3, PSP, Wii, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon (360), Amazon (PS3)

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