So one thing’s probably on every PlayStation Vita-owning, football fan’s mind: is this year’s handheld FIFA game any good, or is it just another broken, under-developed port of its exemplary console brethren? Well, lucky for you, I have some good news. FIFA Football is quite possibly the most polished game of soccer you’ll ever play on a small screen, thanks in no small part to its ability to imprint the console mechanics onto the Vita. Even though Vita’s FIFA box art has been guised as a FIFA 12 port, both the Player Impact Engine and Tactical Defending features have been stripped from this game. This is more FIFA 11. And for this game and I, that’s good news.
Despite the FIFA series continually evolving into a more realistic simulation of football, some players (like me) haven’t really had the time to adapt and perfect the new defense mechanics like everyone else. If you’re familiar with the franchise at all, you’ll know that defense for the last few years has been holding two buttons down to pressure the other team into coughing up the ball. You hold “X” to magnetize your player to the ball, and you hold Square to call another teammate to do your dirty work to nab it from the opposing team. Simple. While it portrays two homing missiles chasing a ball better than it does real life defense strategies, some players (again, like me) do prefer to press the opposition. For Law school students without very much console FIFA 12 time, this iteration is as good as it gets. It works in my favour, as I loved FIFA 11. Other than the aforementioned discrepancies (plus the omission of Ultimate Trading) with FIFA 12, there’s not much else to complain about. The crucial thing to get here is not what’s missing, but what’s intact in this portable football game.
There are a hell of a lot of things EA did get right, the most vital being the feel of the game itself. For the first time since God knows when, I felt like I was playing a console FIFA on a handheld. This may not seem like such a big deal, but when dribbling feels this fluid, passing this direct, shooting having a tinge of unpredictability to it and pulling off a dicey through ball feels as gratifying as ever, you’ll know this is the football foray you’ve always wanted to take to your toilet break. And, alas, we finally have a second analog stick to work with alongside other input methods like the front touchscreen and back touchpad. This time, you’ll be able to pull off all sorts of Ronaldinho, 2005-era footwork trickery thanks to dual analog sticks. The PSV also lets you pass the ball directly to your designated teammate with the touchscreen, so giving up the ball because “that pass wasn’t meant for that player” isn’t really a valid excuse anymore. While clever in idea, constantly prodding your dear OLED screen not only smudges it, but also notably blocks the view and can interrupt whatever momentum you had going. A better addition, though, is the use of the back touchpad, which acts as a goal. Hold your finger on the bottom right corner long enough during a good attack and you’ll feel like van Persie at the Emirates Stadium when you slot the ball into that exact spot in the goal. This is probably the more impressive “Vita-exclusive” feature I’ve encountered yet. Unlike some of Uncharted’s shoe-horned, gimmicky controls on the Vita, FIFA Football’s back touchpad enhances gameplay by making your shots more lethal. That said, if none of these new shenanigans impress you, EA has courteously given you the option to get rid of it altogether.
Unfortunately, while FIFA Football feels just like its big brother, the same can’t be said of its visuals. Character models, while facially accurate, look more like the Football League Championship than the English Premiere League. This isn’t to say that the game isn’t a looker, but it sure as hell doesn’t push the Vita’s hardware. During all the matches I’ve played, I couldn’t help but notice how aliasing has hurt the eye candy EA usually has on display for this franchise. I doubt there was a looming expectation that this game had to resemble the PS3 version, and no one really imagined pixel perfect presentation, but for a sports title this big, I’m afraid palpability counts for something. While the frame rate occasionally drops and jagged edges do hurt the overall package, FIFA Football is still a handsome game and one that shows off the potential of what the PSV can bring to the next FIFA entry. Perhaps the strongest testament to this is when one zooms in on players’ faces during slow motion replays, where almost every football face you know has been faithfully recreated. Kudos should be given to EA, as it does best earlier PS3 character models like the ones seen in FIFA 08.
This launch title might not be one you’ll love if you’re familiar with FIFA 12, but every football fan will at least find something to like. If not for its brilliant running commentary that puts its competitors to shame, a deep enough Career Mode and top-tiered presentation, you’ll still appreciate its endless supply of online matches (that admittedly still needs matchmaking tweaks) and PSN Trophy support. This is a handheld game that feels very much like its PS3 counterpart. For the first time ever, the Vita has allowed a portable FIFA entry to feel open-ended. It’s not an isolated experience, but one full of the tings of unlocked trophies and twangs of online friends. While FIFA Football isn’t the marque sports game many have come to both love and revere, on the PSV, it’s a mighty good kick-off. This is a strong indicator for how the rest of EA’s football season will pan out on Sony's small powerhouse; it looks the part, sounds just right, and more importantly – for the first time on a handheld – feels like home.
This review is based on a retail copy of FIFA Football for the PlayStation Vita.