These are the facts: our FIFA 11 is not as good as the FIFA 11 on consoles – it's more like FIFA 10.5. But FIFA 11 on PC is still excellent. Orders of magnitude above last year's sloppy version. Its game is beautiful even on average PCs, with an AI that contests and scraps as hard as any human.
Its strength is its responsiveness. A button-jab (Xbox 360 gamepad heartily recommended) elicits an immediate reaction: a leg stuck out or a toe extended. Sports game frustration invariably comes as a result of missed cues, when computer people don't do what flesh-andblood humans would in the same situation. But FIFA 's behind-thescenes magic generally pulls the correct response out of its grab bag of skills. Passes are zippy, throughballs weighted with risk but lethal when deployed at a carved-up defence. My thoughts became entwined with the matches I was playing. I spent games chuckling madly at my own ingenuity, like an omnipotent Martin O'Neill.
Frustration isn't entirely excised. Several times I found my charges pulling moves more suited to the other end of the pitch. I had Emile Heskey barrel toward a perfectly bouncing ball, smelling his first goal since the invention of fire, before leaping sadly and caressing it into a waiting goalkeeper's mitts with a pathetic header. I would've screamed, had I not been giggling.
Crossing is toothless: ponderous box-bound balls take far too long to find a receiving head. Momentum is most important with wing-play – delivering a ball at the end of a storming 40-yard run will sometimes see it slam off the forehead of a striker who's been keeping pace – but even when I picked a Stoke or a Sunderland, teams based around aerial domination, I rarely connected with solid headers. Fine control, too, is far from reality: stick the ball to Messi's boot and the deft tricks and touches he deploys in the real world require the same convoluted button-presses as for a League One player.
Also missing are the innovations of the console version: we get none of the new personality simulation, and the game feels less connected with actual teams and recognisable players because of it.
But these are the exceptions. FIFA 11 takes the uncertainty from real football and appropriates it, giving you the ability to deal with emergent scenarios creatively. The ball is a big part of that: it behaves like a ball. Other football sims seem to follow preset courses, but not here. I fired a shot at a keeper who dived the right way, the ball apparently sailing into his grasp – just as his defender extended a boot. It flicked up, over the keeper's head and into the net, a scene as ridiculous and real as the football on television and in parks around the country.
FIFA 11 is a mildly disappointing Christmas present. It's the best game of football we've seen on the PC, but sitting next to us is our younger sibling Johnny Consolegamer – and his present does more stuff.