EA’s sports games always focus on getting the details right, and FIFA 11 for iPhone is no exception. The game requires 858 MB of space on your device, but all that data is put to good use: the graphics, gameplay, play-by-play commentary, and in-game audio all work well to make a fun, highly-replayable soccer simulation.
As has become the norm in touchscreen gaming, FIFA 11 uses a virtual d-pad on the left, with context-aware action buttons on the right. (Lefties can swap those controls around.) On offense, you get Pass, Through, and Shoot buttons, and on defense you get Switch (player), Slide, and Tackle buttons. (These are the Casual controls. Players can switch to Advanced controls, which employ A, B, and C buttons for passing, shooting, and “combo” moves. I preferred the Casual option.)
On offense, pressing and holding on a button starts a power meter; the longer you hold, the harder you kick. That power control is important: aiming to make every pass and shot as powerful as possible won’t work; you need a gentler touch in shorter situations.
If the controls ended there, that would be fine. Instead, EA cleverly added several more nuanced controls to the game. Double-tapping the screen performs a skill move, like an evasive maneuver. You can tap and drag other players on the team to guide their running, without losing control of the player you’re already handling. And you can tap directly on the player you’d like to pass to.
On defense, FIFA 11 automatically switches the defensive player your controlling on occasion, in an attempt to put you closer to the action. I initially found the effect of that mechanic a bit disconcerting, but quickly came to appreciate it. You can adjust the automatic player switching feature’s sensitivity, although I ended up putting it right back at the default setting.
I did encounter one unfortunate bug, a fix for which I can only assume will be forthcoming. The rare times I was able to pull off a rapid steal shortly after losing possession, my action buttons wouldn’t properly reset back into offensive mode: I’d have control of the ball, but get stuck with buttons to slide, tackle, and switch players.
You can customize FIFA 11 to your liking. The game sports five difficulty levels, ranging from Beginner to All-Pro. I’m only moderately embarrassed to report that, at least at this writing, I find even Beginner mode rather challenging. My very best match ended in a 2-2 tie.
The impressive part is, however, that even when I’m losing, I’m having fun. When you’re dominated in Madden, it feels like the CPU can complete every pass or successfully blitz your quarterback on every snap. When you’re dominated in FIFA, you’re still only losing by a goal or two.
You can also control the length of the game, toggle injuries on and off, control the audio, the camera angles and zoom level, and more. I preferred a zoom level slightly closer than FIFA 11’s default. (If you try to zoom out too much—which leads to including more players on the screen at once—lag can become an issue.)
The game smartly employs cut scenes with graphics that I find truly impressive for the iPhone. The in-game action is clear, and FIFA 11 smartly lets you choose custom balls, including a highly-visible bright yellow one that’s a bit easier to spot on the small screen. The in-game camera work is well-done, too.
We’re not all virtual Peles. Amateurs like me can take advantage of a detailed practice mode built into the game, where you can try out numerous game situations ad infinitum.
There’s a grayed-out option for multiplayer gaming, which EA promises is coming soon.
Console sports gamers know that the mobile versions of titles like FIFA 11 are forced to punt on some features and fine-grained controls. What FIFA 11 keeps, though, is tremendously impressive, and truly shows off some of the best sports gaming the iPhone can offer.
FIFA 11 is compatible with iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPod touch (3rd and 4th generation) and iPad, and requires iOS 3.0 or later.
[Lex Friedman is a frequent contributor to Macworld.]