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