I'm still a little shocked. I mean, I love my football and I generally love my FIFA, but if you'd told me two months ago that the single best game available at the Vita's launch would be this, a handheld port of a game that's just in time for the end of the European season, I'd have slapped you in the mouth.
But I won't. Because it is.
FIFA Football on the Vita isn't, despite the recycled cover art, actually FIFA 12. At least, not as you know it from the PS3 and 360. For some reason, it's FIFA 11. It has the new menu of last year's game, and the latest roster updates and kits, but everything else is straight out of 2010.
Which is good news for this game.
WHAT I LIKED
Viva Vita! For the most part, FIFA Football makes the best use of the range of the Vita's capabilities of any game available at launch. You control the bulk of the game using the dual thumbsticks and buttons, as you would on the console version, but at certain points (almost always for through-balls, something FIFA is normally woeful at) you can use the touch-screen to manually direct a pass. Just tap on the screen and that's where the ball goes. Same goes for shooting. There's the option to use the rear touch panel to guide where the ball goes. So tap the top-right of the rear panel and your shot will head for the top-right.
Both these options are a revelation for this game. Console FIFA titles have traditionally fallen over in the attacking third of the pitch, with poor through-ball AI and haphazard shooting making scoring more of a grind than a joy. With the touch-screen passing (which you should only use for through-balls or putting the ball into space, not for regular passing) and precision shot aiming, suddenly you're free to really probe at your opponent's defences. The sheer joy of sliding a ball into open space, seeing a strike run onto it then slamming the ball into the opposite top corner is a delight, made more memorable by the fact it's almost impossible to achieve using a control pad on the home versions.
FIFA 11. FIFA 12 tried three new things: a new online hub, a new player collision system and a new defensive system. Because this is basically FIFA 11, you don't get them here. Considering the latter two were actually steps backward for the series, that is a good thing. Despite FIFA 11 being a 2010 game, it was a better game than the 2011 edition, so you're getting a better deal.
So Pretty. Play a game like Uncharted and it takes about three seconds to see that the Vita isn't as powerful as a PlayStation 3. FIFA is a lot smarter. It's almost indistinguishable visually from the PS3 version of the game, with full commentary (at least the Martin Tyler/Alan Smith stuff, as Andy Townsend and Clive Tyldesley's contributions seem to be missing), full options, all the teams, all the modes and, most important of all, all the looks. There's only really one area, player texturing, that's not up to console standards on the Vita's giant screen, so the developers smartly cut right back on the player close-ups. Final result? Unless you're looking for that stuff, you'll really think you're holding the console version in your hands.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE
Ouch. If you're going to use the new touch controls - you don't have to, but you really should - you need to get your hands in a certain crab-like position, where your thumbs can reach both sticks, the buttons and the front screen, while your middle fingers aren't touching the rear touch panel (or you'll accidentally shoot) but can slide over to them when need be. It's effective, but also uncomfortable; I'd get thumb cramping after 2-3 games, so long-haul tournaments will cause problems.
Slow Burn. If you're playing this on a commute, don't have any kind of network turned on. And don't play the career mode. Or you'll just be kicking off by the time you're at your destination.
THE FINAL WORD
FIFA Football on Vita has, I think, not only the most tasteful employment of the Vita's new features, but they're also the most beneficial to the user's experience of any game available at launch, because they make this game the best version of FIFA available. Seriously. This is more fun to play than the home console versions. And for a handheld game to be able to say, especially given FIFA's position as the premier console sports game franchise, is one hell of an achievement.