Last year, we thought it was all over. FIFA 10 was excellent and its advantage over rival Pro Evolution Soccer seemed greater than ever. Developer EA Canada still had a lot of work to do - Manager Mode was broken in places, keepers could be idiots and there was a clockwork precision to passing and moving that grated over time - but with a year of development and all the momentum, a sudden turnaround in fortunes looked about as likely as a Northampton win at Anfield in the Carling Cup.
Big changes this year have come in response to fan feedback, and the result is a game where your mileage will vary almost second to second. Spend a few minutes mucking around with a player in Arena mode - the interactive load screen where you're one-on-one with a goalkeeper - and you realise that no two shots are the same. Successful passing sequences used to be about movement, timing and very little else, but now they are also beholden to a player's inherent skill, the speed they're moving at, whether they're off-balance and all sorts of other quiet stats.
Passes also need to be better timed and weighted by you using a new passing meter, and you will need to be aware that the ball is more likely to deflect or be intercepted than in FIFA 10. Ball trajectory and pace have become wild cards, and so Wayne Bridge is not going to fluke a goal from the halfway line when you're 3-0 up any more, and there isn't as much point going short at a goal kick, because you won't be able to zigzag the ball past the centre circle without running into trouble or losing your composure. The crazy videogame stuff has virtually disappeared.
Heading has also changed, as you have more direct movement control of players on the receiving end. In our early multiplayer games this led to a flood of goals from crosses, but with practice you can often overcome this by positioning your defender more carefully. It also means you can do some interesting things in open play - when a goal kick is soaring upfield, a smart striker can sometimes muscle a hapless centre-half under the flight of the ball and attempt to run onto it.
Goalkeepers have also had some work done - or at least some work done for them. FIFA 10 was eventually pilloried for the ease with which charging goalkeepers could be lobbed, so this summer's World Cup release glued them to their six-yard boxes with double-edged results - most of our goals would eventually be scored by breaking into the box and using the through-ball button to roll the ball left or right to a team-mate for a tap-in. FIFA 11's solution is to make lobs rubbish. We've yet to score one. EA says it has also given goalies more distinctive personalities and better perception, although that one's going to be hard to call for a while.
Off the pitch, EA has condensed Be A Pro and Manager Mode into a single, all-encompassing Career Mode, where you choose to be a player, player-manager or manager across 15 seasons. Transfers now involve separate fee and wage negotiations, coaching feedback is more detailed and relevant, and if you opt for player or player-manager roles you can choose to play as an individual or the whole team when you take manual control. Management is a bit light on detail if you decide not to play the matches yourself, but there's always Football Manager 2011 if you're that way inclined, and FIFA 11 hardly pretends to compete with that.
The changes made may be logical, and Career Mode is perfectly playable and occasionally tense as the end of a transfer window rolls around, but it's also pretty dull in some respects. You're never going to see a Career Mode in a FIFA game where someone can't play in midweek because he's depressed that his super-injunction didn't go through, or where you have to wrestle with the morality of employing a convicted sex offender who's just left prison. But getting emails telling you that so-and-so isn't available because of a "medium injury" is so far down the other end of the scale it's depressing, not to mention off-putting.
At least you can still get away with silly transfers. We used to wonder why EA didn't hard-code barriers against unlikely deals, but the answer dawned on us when Liverpool lined up for their season opener with Patrice Evra in defence and Van Persie leading the line with Torres. It's fantasy football. Of course it is. Add a bit more personality to the rest of Career Mode and it could be a great hit.
FIFA 11 also introduces the option to play 11-versus-11 online - and yes, that means you can play as the goalkeeper. Your range of abilities between the sticks is much as you would expect, and there are various stabilisers to help you on your way, although goalkeeping can be extremely boring - trust me, some of us used to do it. Overall, the online experience is largely consistent with FIFA 10, although there are changes to Clubs mode which mean you won't end up with five-foot AI-controlled centre-backs if your team is short of a few human players.
There's fan service elsewhere too, with different-shaped nets (we always wanted this but thought we were being petty - turns out everyone agreed!), the ability to save replays locally (hurrah, welcome to 1999), and the option to turn on handballs or record your own crowd chants. You weirdo. Celebrations are more ridiculous than ever, too, although you still can't beat the dead fish. L2/LT and hold left on the right analogue stick, kids.
These changes are all welcome, then, but - to borrow one of EA Sports' favourite phrases - they are not game-changers. Heading back to the pitch, it also feels as though FIFA 11 has taken a natural step forward in a lot of areas, but has lost a bit of its heart in the process. The gameplay changes sound as though they make for a subtler game where knowledge of your players and mastery of the controls are the ultimate currency, but the reality for some players is that matches are a slog.
FIFA 10 may have had zippy sci-fi passing, moments of madness and goals from the halfway line, but you felt like you knew the rules and quirks and the latter gave it a likeable personality. FIFA 11 is more realistic and less predictable than ever, but it turns out this doesn't make it much more fun - instead it results in more situations where the game's margins of error determine the outcome rather than your instinct and logic, where midfield feels clogged up a lot of the time, and where the many genuine improvements EA has made are lost in frustration.
At its best FIFA 11 is enormous fun and brilliantly engineered, but in its battle to be more varied and realistic it has lost some of its momentum, and off the pitch returns are starting to diminish too. Looking ahead, it will be very interesting to see whether the wholesale changes Konami has made for this year's Pro Evolution Soccer bed down quickly enough to close what seemed like a huge gap just 12 months ago - because, against all odds, this one now looks like it could go to extra time.
8 / 10