The pitch in the palm of your hand.
That headline might sound like some kind of advertising call-out from Electronic Arts, the publisher of the hugely successful FIFA franchise, but in reality, I wrote that one myself. I'm not normally entertained or even interested in football (I'm an American, so it's "soccer"), but I've just put down the game's port to Sony's new PlayStation Vita, and I can only say one thing:
No other game to date has impressed me with the PlayStation Vita's power like FIFA Soccer has. It is truly a portable console-quality experience. Everything from the graphics, to the sound, to the gameplay, to the presentation proves that the experiences you have at home on your couch can be taken on the go with you.
While I've been told that much has been taken from last year's FIFA, little of those nuances made an effect on me. When you first start up the game, you'll notice that you've loaded up The Arena, an interactive menu screen where you can kick the ball around and try out FIFA Soccer's first piece of Vita genius: rear touch-panel goal shooting.
Essentially, the rear panel of the Vita is turned into the goal, so if you tap the back of the handheld in the upper right corner, the ball handler will shoot for that point in the goal box. This is the biggest improvement made on the game in its transition to handheld. Instead of guessing where you're going to shoot, you have full control over exactly where the ball is headed, and how hard you shoot. Holding your finger on the point you're aiming for longer will increase the force you put behind the ball.
Another ingenius improvement made by this portable footballer is in touchscreen passing. Tapping on a player will send the ball to him directly, while tapping in an open area of the field will pass the ball to that point. This makes through-passing an absolute breeze and scoring opportunities that much more successful.
Full disclosure? I typically hate sim sports games. I recognize them for what they are and appreciate what they do, but I am not the target audience. It speaks to FIFA Soccer's strength on the Vita that I am incredibly fond of the game. It's easy to pick up and play an exhibition match. It's easy to shoot around, learn the mechanics, and control the entire team on the pitch.
What's more, FIFA Soccer is the hands-down best use of the Vita's touch panels. These mechanics don't get in the way of the rest of the controls, which rely heavily on the game's analog sticks and face buttons, and actually adds to the core experience.
There are still exhibition matches to play, career modes to delve into, and online multiplayer, but the remaining positive marks come from the game's presentation and high-production values.
The field and players look drop-dead gorgeous on the Vita's 5-inch screen. Models have been scaled appropriately and the crowd in the stands doesn't move (which can be absolutely painful when the camera zooms in on a celebrating player), but the sound, commentary, and fluidity of movement are absolutely beautiful.
It's the roaring crowd and the frame rate that especially sell this port as a console-equivalent experience on the go. Something about the rise and fall of the crowd as you near the opposing goal just makes the heart flutter, making that shot (which you have direct control over) all the more meaningful. It's more immersion and enjoyment than I've ever taken from a sports game.
That said, career mode makes zero sense on a portable like this. I have no on-the-go time to dedicate to full 90-minute matches and the hardcore experience offered in deeper gamplay options available. I also found the online play to be a bit wanting, notably in the difficulty I had finding another match. The few I did find were plagued with lag and players dropping the match prematurely.
I assume that's not entirely EA's fault, what with this being a portable game and the fact that I distinctly heard one of my few successfully matched opponents telling his mom he was coming to set the table for dinner. Still, it leaves players of FIFA Soccer to enjoy exhibitions or... exhibitions.
FIFA Soccer is a rare first-outing for a newly launched device that actually acts a strong addition to the library of any gamer. Much of the depth of the FIFA experience is wasted here, but the new touch controls and the production values more than make up for it. Even if you're not into soccer, you might learn a thing or two and have fun playing on the run. You might also start calling it football like the rest of the crazy world.