FIFA Football Vita Review
A game of two panels?
In 1966, Alf Ramsey invented the 4-4-2 formation and his England team conquered the world, but just four years later he saw his defending champions dumped out in the quarter finals - the "wingless wonders" that claimed the World Cup defeated by a West Germany side masterminded by Franz Beckenbauer. There wasn't much wrong with Ramsey's original approach - save perhaps its reliance on a Russian linesman at one point - but in hindsight his critics felt he didn't adapt. The lesson was simple: football doesn't let you stand still.
The same is true in football video games. While there are some who pine for various older vintages of Pro Evolution Soccer (PES5! WE7 International!), it's rare to find someone who has settled down with the current version of PES, or EA's FIFA series, and feels like picking up last year's instalment again instead. If you're playing FIFA 12 every day, the idea of unlearning the tactical defending system or living without the Impact Engine would be unthinkable. And yet here we are. For whatever reason, FIFA Football on Vita is based on FIFA 11.
This puts us in a strange situation. On the one hand, nobody has ever been able to devote this much processing power and sophistication in control to a football simulation on a handheld device before, and this is a very good conversion. The thinking going on beneath the surface of the average FIFA simulation is more complex than most people appreciate, and previous handheld FIFA titles have often been lobotomised to cope, resulting in dull goalfests with little of the drama and variety evident in the home versions. So the fact that this is exceptional in that regard - delivering an experience that stands up very strongly to its source material - is not to be understated.
On the other hand, FIFA 11 marked a slight dip in the series' consistent form. Overreacting to the comical potency of shots from the halfway line and arcade-style passing in FIFA 10, the developers reined everything in and introduced more bitty fouls and deflections, leaving us with a solid simulation that wasn't as much fun. FIFA 12 rebalanced those things, introduced superior physics and new ideas in defence, and added all sorts of other barely perceptible refinements that we can't now do without. As a result, any FIFA fan's first impression of FIFA Football will be that it feels out of date and wasn't at its best to begin with, and given that we are likely to play this and FIFA 12 in tandem - one at home and one on the road - it's not an impression that is likely to be dulled by time.
If you're still game, then there is at least a hell of a lot of value in this release, which includes every feature from the home version released in late 2010 as well as a few Vita-specific refinements. That means you have a very hearty Career mode, allowing you to manage and control a team, build a career as a single player or even act as player-manager, handling your team's affairs and playing a specific role on the pitch. FIFA 12's Head to Head Seasons and EA Sports Football Club are understandably absent, but you can still play head-to-head online and the lag seems no worse than it does at home. (Good to see the rage-quitters are still out in force, too. Pricks!)
There are Vita-specific control options as well, taking in the front and rear touch panels, but despite my best efforts to do what Ramsey did not and actually adapt, I've found no benefit in their stodgy, awkward concepts. Tapping the screen to pass, holding the screen for a through-ball, and using the rear-touch panel as a sort of 'virtual goal' to direct your shots all sound like good ideas on paper. Except I'm actually lying and they don't: they sound like rubbish ideas dreamed up to make use of the touch controls for the sake of it. Context-switching between the perfectly adequate and robust button controls and the touch options is never comfortable, and the fact that EA felt the need to include a special on-screen indicator to tell you when you're accidentally tapping the rear panel says it all.
Fortunately, you can turn them off. Unfortunately, you can't turn on a new front-end interface, and for some reason this one hasn't been simplified or designed to use the touch functions at all, so you're stuck with annoyingly long load times, endless confirmation screens and buried menu options. If your commute is short and you're playing Career mode, you may find that by the time you progress from the end of your last game to loading up your next one you've got to where you're going and have to hit the sleep button again and go do some work, such is the obtuse level of interference that goes on in between any two discrete activities and the insane amount of time even basic things consume.
Then again, this is a game that has already been superseded, and we shouldn't be too mean to the people who were responsible for porting it, however much we reserve the right to be mean about their paymasters. For them, there is the faint praise with which we'll end up damning FIFA Football: this is the best handheld football simulation ever produced. It will also undoubtedly be beaten into the turf by its own successor in less than a year's time.
We shouldn't end on that, though, because despite its age and despite the many things that are annoying about the way FIFA 11, and therefore FIFA Football, play out, this is a game we once happily played for 12 months before it was replaced. The old-style defending, rushing players by holding X and square, now feels rather simplistic, and close control is a bit unresponsive next to what we're now used to. But if what you love is football then the reasonable truth sneaking through our mild disappointment is that you and your opponent compete by thinking like footballers - dragging people out of position, exploiting space, and occasionally doing something the other guy didn't think of - and so the results are also sometimes magical. If you are in the middle of the Venn diagram of Vita owners who know FIFA inside out, then you already know if that's enough, and fair play to you either way.