It’s no small feat to deliver a launch title on new hardware, and EA Sports FIFA Soccer comes at an interesting time for the franchise. You see, there’s a reason that the title is “FIFA Soccer” and not “FIFA Soccer 12.” It plays as an adaptation of FIFA 11, with that game’s final rendition of the engine that drove four years of EA success. However, if you’ve logged in several hours with FIFA 12’s new defense, it feels like a step backwards. It’s a wonderful proof of concept for what EA can do in the future, but don’t expect the full console experience.
FIFA for Vita offers a gorgeous experience that capitalizes on the elements that defined the series on consoles this generation—the practice arena menus, Be a Pro, Manager Mode—and converts them to the new handheld. The transition, button-wise, feels well-adapted. If you’re on the face buttons, it won’t feel dramatically different from the PS3 or PSP games. If you’re looking for massive revamps, they’re not in this version.
Also, if you’ve mentally moved on from the moves and tactics that defined FIFA 11 and are deeply ensconced within FIFA 12’s numerous nuances, FIFA Soccer is going to feel a bit behind. That means you won’t have the “stop on a dime” dribbles, and your defensive tactics are moving back to the team’s “heat-seeking missiles.” Again, if you’re someone who looks at the new FIFA engine with some disdain, you’ll love the fact that this game retains FIFA 11’s style, if only for another year or less. Love or hate the step back, it’s still a sound translation of a 16 month-old game, and the excellent gameplay of FIFA 11 drives this experience.
The touchscreen controls feel like a test run more than a useful game mechanic. You can tap the touchscreen to pass the ball, but odds are, teammate AI is not going to be in the place where you need it when you want to thread a ball past defenders. Also, in the middle of a fast-paced game, the action of tapping a touchscreen and the unintended consequences—blocking your view of the opposition’s backline, for example—is tactically counterproductive. It works somewhat well for throw-ins and free kicks, but you'll be more effective with buttons.
The rear touchpad shooting mechanic, when it works, is a fantastic addition, especially in one-on-ones during Be a Pro and training arena. However, it’s too sensitive, so if your hands normally rest on the back of the machine, you’ll accidentally trigger shots on goal. In future iterations, it’ll be great if there’s a way to rest your hands, but also indicate to the game that you’re ready to take a shot. Keep in mind that these are optional mechanics, and if you can turn them off, if you desire.
Mode-wise, FIFA Soccer is rather spartan. You’ll have the series staples—practice arena, Be a Pro, Manager Mode—but few of the quirks that define current FIFA games, from popular modes like Ultimate Team and EA Sports Football Club to small features like custom soundtracks. The online is a simple 2 player head-to-head. None of the features are dysfunctional, but keep your expectations subdued.
FIFA Soccer occupies a strange place in the series canon. Without making any unfair judgment calls on the development time, it feels like last year’s game translated wonderfully to fledgling hardware. That’s a good thing if you really hate FIFA 12’s engine reboot, but stale if you’re in love with the latest console experience. It’s got enough content for you to get through a few career mode seasons while you wait for a likely iteration timed for the 2013 season that’s loaded with features. But make no mistake, it’s not FIFA 12, and despite the cover athletes, you’ll be disappointed if you dive into this one with expectations of the latest console experience.