Fifa 11 hands-on: “I didn't know Football Manager.”

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“I was at an event recently”, said Ian Jarvis when I had a chance to interview him last week, “and Sports Interactive were there, talking about Football Manager. I'd not seen the game before – it was mindblowing.”

That's Fifa 11's PC Producer talking, the man in charge of granting us PC gamers a proper Fifa with the same engine the consoles get, admitting he's not familiar with the world's best football management game. He is a brave man. Does that mean his game – the first self-confessed 'next-gen' Fifa not on Xbox 360 or PS3 – is out of touch?

Thankfully, no. I got a good, long go on the PC's version of Fifa 11, and while it should be stressed that it's still not reached a parity with the series console iterations, it easily betters last year's well-received console version of Fifa 10, incorporating the best bits from the stopgap World Cup South Africa 2010 release to keep the game relevant. The action is zippy and responsive, players taking, shielding, and passing the ball realistically. Battling for possession is one of the game's strengths, the shoulder-barging before a contested ball is picked up tweaked and fixed after Fifa 10's more arbitrary setup. Crosses and shots feel potent – lethal in comparison with the PC's last few games. In essence, it feels like Fifa proper: with the same engine and the same obvious love lavished on the title from a team who understand the sport – and the PC.

This is a most welcome relief. Fifa's last few PC releases have been dismal ports of woefully anachronistic versions, handing us a poorly optimised engine designed for the last generation of consoles. I mentioned this to Ian as we played, and he nodded vehemently. Why did it take so long for the PC to get a proper version of the planet's best football game? Was it the hardware? "Yeah - everyone's got a different PC, different video cards. It was basically us wanting to build from something great already.”

EA's previous PC Fifa model was aimed at an average consumer, one they had to speculate had a basic PC. Ian argued that trying to optimise a game with such broad appeal for Joey Joe Joe McFootballfannington off the street was damn near impossible. So instead, EA have refocused: “this year we're targeting the hardcore PC gamer and the hardcore football fan. In terms of why this year: the big reason is the success of Fifa 10 on console.”

Console football fans will look into middle distance and smile if you ask them about Fifa's shift from jaunty Pro Evolution Soccer tribute to unquestionably the best option for electronic sphere-kicking. It came thanks to a genuine drive within the company, and the same looks to be happening here. I asked Ian if the aim was to release the same game on PC as console after Fifa 11: “I'm not sure what the future holds. Obviously that's the thinking and the vision." Sounds like this version could well be the final stopgap before full parity.

Why then, does our PC Fifa 11 not hit the same advanced targets as the console crew's? Specific features touted in that version of the game include an increased reliance on personality and specific skill that we won't get. The marquee system is 'pro-passing' - the example I was shown was Sol Campbell, taking a pass before trying to spin and knock it away at a 180 degree angle. Big Sol's not known for his agility or pinpoint passing, and as such, spent most of the demonstration sat on his behind.

Couldn't these innovations have been shoehorned in? “The way the dev cycle worked out for this game – we think of the console guys as a moving target – they're still developing features like that now as we've really focused on bringing this next-gen engine and making it work on PC.” Ian explained that the team needed a cutoff point, some line in the sand that could be drawn to avoid stringing development out forever. And he argued it's not just a case of adding to a foundation like the console versions: "a big misconception is people thinking 'why not just copy and paste the codebase'?" He smiled wryly: "It's really not that simple." The PC team is semi-amorphous – there's a hardcore that always work on the title, but others are drafted in when necessary, and they all sit together: meaning any innovations the console team dream up have to be considered for PC inclusion based on time and man (or lady) power.

But for now, this is a monumental forward step. The room in which I demonstrated the game rang with the cheers and gripes of console journalists, bemoaning and praising tiny little changes in a game they already know. We can appreciate the game properly – the experience for PC gamers is going to be entirely new, and a jet-propelled leap above our previous Fifas.

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