With FIFA Football, EA harnesses the PlayStation Vita's many inputs to revolutionise a franchise and create the best portable game of footie ever
Maybe we've become a bit complacent with EA's ever-better refinements of its super-selling footie sim each year, but the lack of a yearly number at the end of the Sony PS Vita's first run-out - FIFA Football - whacked us round the head with a feeling of year zero, suggesting revolution rather than mere evolution.
Just a few matches in and it's pretty much confirmed - this is FIFA but not as we know it, handheld or otherwise. In a world where console launch line-ups tend to be made up of mostly uninspiring, testing-out-the-technology filler, we continue to be impressed at the depth of Vita's store cupboard. So we were eager to see just how far down the revolutionary rabbit hole FIFA goes.
FIFA Football: Features
Based on FIFA 11 rather than 12, presumably because of the latter's increasingly complex button combinations and collision detection, this gets the basics as close to its home-console brethren as we possibly hoped - the graphics glorious, the frame rate fluid, the controls familiar, the presentation glitzy.
All the controls you'd expect have been included, cleverly reordered around the Vita's lack of a second set of shoulder buttons, although this obviously takes a little getting used to (holding down both shoulder buttons together with an action button is a typical get-out).
Online multiplayer is basic compared to the home console versions, as you'd expect, but lag was thankfully minor over Wi-Fi.
FIFA's dizzying game modes and option bells and whistles have been toned down (we have to admit we didn't tend to use half of them anyway, so they're not missed), but full career mode in manager, player manager or player is there, as is Be A Pro, Virtual Pro and the usual exhibition options.
Unfortunately, the front-end selection screens make it feel initially like a lazy port, as touch-screen integration is notable by its absence and X-ing through pages feels counter-intuitive. Yet once into a match, Vita-specific flourishes come to the fore. Most surprisingly, a fair few of them are game-changingly ace.
FIFA Football: Gameplay
You can whack as many options in as you like (and EA frequently does), but the test of any great football game is how it plays, pure and simple and FIFA Football for the PS Vita is a dream. What really makes this work is the one-two of dual analogue sticks and the massive OLED screen, giving you total control of possession and the expanse of the pitch.
The smaller PS Vita sticks almost seem to aid control, so easy are they to manipulate, especially when skill moves are concerned, and we were soon putting together the kind of Barcelona-esque build-ups we could only dream of on the PS3.
Yet the standout is rear-panel shooting, which takes a while to master - you have to grip the Vita in a whole new way to stop your big, grubby mitts rendering its useless - but is so good once you do you'll soon wonder how you did without it.
It feels perfectly natural - and, importantly, is much quicker - to find the corners of the goal with a flowing flick of the console's back rather than having to refocus the stick and depress and repress front buttons.
You soon feel in complete control of your attacking powers, allowing for snap shots on the turn as well as considered, tactical approaches, picking your method of shooting dependent on opportunity like we imagine a real player does.
Also commendable is the Flick Kick Football-inspired free kicks, which have you drawing a trajectory on the front touchscreen. Unfortunately in an effort to make it harder than the iOS classic (good) it's been rendered crushingly hard to predict where your effort will actually end up (bad).
At present it's a sound idea poorly executed, but then we've always found free-kicks on home-console FIFA a bit of a lottery, so the status quo hasn't changed much.
More disappointing is the lack of thought on the rest of the front-touchscreen implementation. It's crying out for the ability to pull lung-busting, overlapping runs out of your wing backs, Pro-Evo-on-the-Wii style.
Alas the choice of selecting players and passing is so overly basic - not to mention highly impractical mid-game - that you just never use it. All PS Vita touch extras can, of course, be turned off if you just hate them wholesale - it plays a very good game without anyway.
The amount of stats and options it's crunching can mean loading times are a tad on the long side. If you're booting the Vita up from scratch, for example, you can be a fair few stops on your Tube commute before you're kicking a ball in anger, so we suggest keeping it in sleep mode.
The downside to this is we found that if you pause mid-game, rather than on the menu screen, the battery life can drain fairly dramatically.
FIFA Football: Verdict
FIFA Football on the Vita is undoubtedly better than we hoped - we haven't been off it since it fell into our inbox - yet our excitement is tempered with an expectation of what could still come.
At times, it's almost humbling to have a fully fledged FIFA in your pocket, even if it's last year's breed, after making do with heavy smartphone compromises for so long. Many will moan that, at £45, it's more than seven times as expensive as the iOS iteration, but we'd argue it plays 50 times as well, so by that logic it's a bargain.
In fact, so instinctive is the rear-pad shooting and so well handled the career mode, we can't bring ourselves to head back to its home-console big brother yet for fears of our control being diminished. That's quite an accolade - and if this is what Vita is capable of at launch, just imagine where we'll be by the end of the year.
FIFA Football availability: Available now on PS Vita
FIFA Football price: £45