At a recent EA showcase in New York City, the publisher trotted out just one PlayStation Vita title -- a bit surprising, since the handheld is set to launch in North America, Europe, and Latin America relatively soon, on February 22, 2012. It happened to be a sports game, which, in light of the lackluster Madden title that was rushed to meet the Nintendo 3DS's launch, momentarily gave me pause.
But then I saw that the title in question was a FIFA game, and one developed in-house at EA Canada, no less. That gave me a measure of confidence. Then I got my hands on the Vita to play the game, which producer Matt Prior bills as "the most complex and complete handheld game EA has ever produced," and my faith in the studio -- home to EA's perennially outstanding FIFA and NHL franchises -- was reaffirmed.
FIFA Soccer (PlayStation Vita)
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Release: February 22, 2012
Sony is marketing the Vita as a device that essentially puts the power of the PlayStation 3 in your hands. Obviously, that's an exaggeration, but in the case of FIFA Soccer, it's only a mild one. The Vita can't handle the complexity of the physics-based collision system that EA Canada introduced in FIFA 12, but in nearly every other respect, FIFA Soccer is a remarkably feature-complete representation of the console FIFA game. It includes the series' revered Be A Pro career mode and head-to-head online play, and the screenshots here don't entirely convey how stunning it looks in motion on the Vita.
EA Canada used that front touchscreen for one of the two major gameplay innovations in FIFA on Vita. After all, what good is a launch title if it doesn't showcase the hardware? The game is played from the usual zoomed-out broadcast-style camera angle, and here, you can tap on the front touchscreen to pass. It's as simple as tapping on a teammate to send the ball over to him, and you can also pass the ball into space to lead players. I wasn't in love with this mechanic -- maybe it's because I have small hands, but I couldn't extend my thumbs inward (i.e., toward the center of the screen) far enough for this mechanic to be ideal. And removing my right hand from the face buttons to execute a touch pass, even for a second, seemed to harm my game more than it helped.
On the other hand, FIFA Soccer puts the Vita's rear touchpad to great use. The pad is a rectangle, so it's only logical for it to serve as an approximation of the goal. When you're near the net, you can tap a particular spot on the touchpad to fire a shot in that location. Holding down will add more power to the shot, but if you do that too long, you'll miss the net. It's a rare example of non-button controls offering a better way to play, rather than a mere gimmick. (If you're concerned that this method will make it too easy to score, don't be: a shot's accuracy will still depend on numerous factors, including a shooter's skills and momentum, so the touchpad doesn't automatically provide pinpoint control.) FIFA Soccer's touchscreen passing and touchpad shooting give players a "level of control that they've never had," said Prior.
It's impressive that EA Canada will be delivering all of this at launch. The team has had their hands full bringing the FIFA gameplay engine to the Vita. The game doesn't make use of many other Vita features, such as the location-based Near functionality or gyroscope control, but Prior was hopeful for the future. If this game does well enough at launch, EA Canada will likely be developing FIFA for Vita on an annual basis, just like on other platforms. Future iterations of the game, he told me, would only take further advantage of the robust hardware; for now, the studio is focusing on delivering a reasonable facsimile of the console experience on the Vita. They're well on their way.