The breadth and depth of available software at the launch of Sony’s PS Vita is superior to any console that has come before it. Sony no doubt observed with great interest the release of Nintendo’s 3DS and the aftermath (price reductions and advanced mascot title releases in Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7) and put extra effort into ensuring they did as much as was possible to avoid such results. A key part of the line-up is FIFA Football Vita, a brand as well known amongst gamers as Call of Duty and something for the casual population as much as the hardcore. More appeal than Sackboy can provide, then.
What Electronic Arts have delivered is effectively FIFA 11. Why they haven’t ported FIFA 12 is unclear but given that iteration’s inclusion of tactical defending and the impact engine, one guess would be that the time required to deliver a great portable FIFA would have been too tight as FIFA 12 itself will have likely gone gold only last summer. This all puts us in a peculiar position. Anyone who is a regular FIFA player will upgrade to the latest version and move the other one on. If you then ever try and go back it feels awkward and usually is an experiment ended very quickly. But then it is still FIFA and it is the only football game to date on the Vita. The end result is a surprisingly pleasant one despite this.
As is becoming customary even at this embryonic stage of the Vita’s life, this game is just like its bigger brother on the PS3. It’s frankly amazing that it can look as good, play as well and be as slick as it can when powered by a much smaller machine. The software engineering here is immensely good and given this is first generation Vita FIFA, the coming years’ iterations will likely beggar belief. Everything that is in FIFA 11 is in this. That means you have career mode where you can be a player, player manager or if so inclined just a manager. You can create and nurture a Virtual Pro and can play as them only throughout the season whether outfield or goalkeeper. You can go online in ranked or unranked matches and get absolutely destroyed by players the world over and also have a few rage quit on you when you score a goal after 3 minutes. Alas, the advent of a new handheld does not remove the annoyances.
The game actually plays fantastically well. The two analogue sticks feel better under the thumbs than those on the Dualshock 3 thanks to the smooth rubbery texture rather than dimpled plastic. There’s less movement outside of your control meaning deft manoeuvres - if you have the skills - are easier to pull off. The feel of the Vita in hand during a long play session doesn’t cause any issue as it sits very comfortably and ergonomically. The screen itself makes the game look superb with deep greens emanating from the grass and bright vibrant reds and blues coming from player’s shirts. The game looks and sounds the same as on the home consoles, which is to say it’s fantastic.
Where the game diverts from the well-trodden path is in its attempts to integrate touch controls given the Vita’s front and rear touch capabilities. The results are a mixed bag but at least the developers are demonstrating innovative thoughts from the outset. During a game it is possible to pass or send a through ball using the touchscreen. This is fun but impractical. You still need to move your players and also your hand will get in the way of the action, probably leading to the loss of any defensive solidity you are normally able to muster given you’ll have no idea where your defenders are! You can shoot, take throw-ins and take penalties all via the touchscreen. It is a much more beneficial control method in dead ball situations when all you have to focus on is moving the ball from A to goal.
However, the best novel input is that of the rear touchpad. If you think of it as the goal, when approaching your opponent’s end, or taking a free kick, you can press in the upper-right and shoot into the upper-right of the goal. The longer you press for, the more power delivered in the shot. This is fabulously simple and ensures a massive grin will appear across your face when you score your first long-range thunderbolt (from the left foot of Andy Carroll here in case anyone is interested). It is something that will be used regularly although the system is imperfect. The rear touchpad is on all the time. That means you can either accidentally tap it and cause your avatar to shoot when you really don’t want it, or you keep your fingers on the rear at all times meaning a tap will not be recognised as the game has set that input to off in its mind. If you’re quick and nimble you can take your hands off the rear when approaching goal ready to tap it and strike. This isn’t always possible however, especially not when up against it. The time it can take the average brain to work out how to shoot with the rear touchpad is often too long and a face button press would have been a better option. Despite this, the method has legs and will be used a lot as it just feels so much more natural and right. In case they infuriate you, all touch controls can be switched off so that you don’t have to suffer!
Online gaming is of course a key part of FIFA’s appeal. Here is no different. The whole experience is the one you’ll be used to. It all works just about and you still suffer lag depending on the connections at either end. This was over wireless - it was not possible to test online matches via 3G. It is surprising though, given the wonderful netcode around (specifically that found in beat ‘em ups where every frame is important) that no company has developed a piece of code and licensed it a la the Unreal engine, or Havok. Maybe it’s not possible and this is far too simplistic a view of how to build online games but given the quality of netcode in Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, for example, it would be nice to have the same in FIFA.
So what we have here is a faithful representation of FIFA 11 with some additions thanks to the touch capabilities of the PS Vita. We also have updated squad lists to ensure the data are as you would expect right now. The lack of tactical defending is a shame, as is the missing impact engine. Neither really breaks the game though. When released FIFA 11 was the best football simulation around. FIFA Football Vita is the best handheld football simulation around. It is still therefore a great football game, one that any discerning Vita owning football fan should own and will play regularly from now until the next one’s released. Hopefully with that we will also see platform cross-play and agnostic gameplay. But it doesn’t matter. This is football. You can play it anywhere. Just do it.