FIFA Soccer 11

PlayStation 3
Released in 2010 by EA Sports
Grade: A

This game offers a fulfilling soccer experience while also being fun, fast-paced, and more high-scoring than the real thing. It’s easy to pick up, it’s great with a group, and yet it has the depth to reward you for improving your skills over time.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the fourth FIFA on PS3, and they’re still releasing new versions on the console, with FIFA 19 coming later this year. I’m no expert on the FIFA series, and it’s hard for me to pinpoint substantial differences between versions. My best point of reference is FIFA 13, which is also great and plays just a bit tighter than this version.

Praises and gripes

Two keys to soccer gameplay are giving you lots of controls and making the action seem organic. This game does both really well.

The controls feel right. Moving your player is intuitive, with enough looseness that you have to stay under control at times. There’s a good amount of difficulty in getting past defenders or unleashing an accurate shot. You can deliver a wide range of passes, you can do all kinds of moves, you can speed up and slow down and turn and cut and stop like a human soccer player, and somehow it’s intuitive.

For example, L1 sends a nearby player on a run, which works for a give-and-go play, but if you hold L1 while passing, it modifies the pass to be lofted in the air. This is the type of thing that seems complicated when you read it, but it becomes second nature after you do it a couple times.

The action is fluid and lifelike. It feels fair and consistent, but there’s also the possibility of something unusual happening, like a weird bounce or an awkward pileup of players. This helps avoid the repetitiveness that plagues a lot of sports games. Each moment is unique.

This game also does a great job of capturing the depth of soccer without making you play 90 minutes to get realistic final scores. I play with 9-minute halves and there’s usually at least a couple goals per game, but cheap tactics don’t generate surefire chances.

The graphics and sound are top notch for its time and they hold up fine today. I like the varying looks of players, fields, and stadiums. I like switching to Spanish announcers, since they add enthusiasm to big plays and I don’t care to know what they’re actually saying.

I can’t confidently recommend one version over another, but I know that this game is a ton of fun.

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NHL Legacy Edition

PlayStation 3
Released in 2015 by EA Sports
Grade: A+

This is genuine simulation hockey, fine-tuned and polished.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the last of nine NHL games on PS3 (and last of 10 on Xbox 360). I suppose it’s called Legacy Edition because it comes 25 years after the original NHL Hockey on Sega Genesis. It aligns with NHL 16 on PS4 and Xbox One, where the game has a new engine.

Everybody complained when Legacy Edition came out, calling it a $60 roster update of NHL 15. Luckily, you can get it for under $10 today. It’s like NHL 14 without the bouncy puck, and it’s like NHL 15 without guys knocking into the goalie, but there’s also some hard-to-pinpoint improvements that help make this the best of the bunch.

Praises and gripes

The skating control can be tough to learn, but it’s worth the effort. Skaters very naturally turn and side-step and skate backwards when you want them to. You can speed up, slow down, stop, go, turn, spin, cut, and dart like a real player.

The skill stick is tuned to perfection. Shots and dekes require touch and precision, making the learning curve that much longer and more rewarding.

Physical contact is realistic. In some hockey games you can blast dudes off the puck no matter what angle you come from, but here you’ve got to line up hits just right. I love how many different ways players collide, how many ways the puck can pop loose or be picked up. Hockey’s chaotic nature is well depicted.

Scoring is a tactical and skill-based challenge as you ramp up the difficulty. Scoring methods are aplenty, and you need to get crafty with how you set up your attacks. The frequency of “ugly goals” seems right; the puck deflects naturally and occasionally squirts past the goalie.

The AI is very natural. Teammates know where to go. The CPU is tenacious and savvy. There are a lot of strategy options, which you don’t need to fiddle with, but are great to have. (If you want the CPU’s coaching help, there’s a handy slider to determine how aggressively it makes changes.)

There are a ton of options in general, but I like how there’s a simple slider for difficulty. Once you can beat the CPU on “superstar” difficulty, just dial that slider up one click for a tougher challenge. Speaking of which, the CPU makes for a very genuine, human-like opponent.

You want some gripes? The menus are clumsy; customizing teams and players would seem more appealing if it didn’t take forever. The sound isn’t great. Mike Emrick does play-by-play, but he’s repetitive. Local two-player games are messy because the controls are hard to handle when shooting at the net at the bottom of the screen. But that’s pretty much it. It doesn’t stop this game from getting my highest recommendation.

NHL 15

PlayStation 3
Released in 2014 by EA Sports
Grade: A

This is as true a hockey simulation as you could want, with deep AI and amazing controls.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the whopping eighth installment on PS3, and it coincides with the first releases on PS4 and Xbox One. It was slightly improved upon for NHL Legacy Edition, the last on PS3 and Xbox 360.

Praises and gripes

Since EA was busy taking this series up to the next generation, you might be worried they didn’t pay much attention to the PS3 version. Luckily, NHL 14 was already great, and this version just smooths out a couple kinks and makes subtle improvements to the gameplay.

That means you’ve got some kickass hockey action with intricate controls using the right thumbstick to deke and shoot. The deke control is slightly re-tuned from NHL 14, and I initially lofted weak shots when I meant to deke, but I made the adjustment quickly.

The AI is a bit more tenacious than before, forcing more passing and allowing fewer 1-on-1 scoring chances. There’s a healthy mix of scoring methods, but if I gotta nitpick, I’d say there are too many goals right off faceoffs. Despite that, the “hardcore simulation” setting offers a pretty darn realistic depiction of NHL action.

The thumbstick is also used on defense for checking, and players collide with lifelike realism, only connecting on big hits when defenders line up their man just right.

One big improvement is that the detested “moon puck” from NHL 14 is fixed. When someone dumps the puck into the corner, it no longer bounces around like it’s made of flubber. I notice the CPU opponent doesn’t dump it quite as often either, and in general gives you a very genuine challenge, along with plenty of gameplay sliders to tweak.

Unfortunately, one odd quirk is replaced with another, and now you’ve got skaters plowing into the goalie way too often, and it’s regularly ignored by the refs. Somehow this doesn’t result in unfair goals, but it’s unsightly to say the least.

The graphics look fantastic again, although some of the menus are a bit of a pain. They added the play-by-play stylings of Mike Emrick, who’s famous for the hockey thesaurus in his head, but unfortunately he’s not too impressive here, awkwardly repeating the same fancy words.

If I had to make an argument for NHL 14, I’d say maybe its control is more user friendly, but both games are complicated and deep. They’re not meant to just pick up and play. Even the simplified NHL ’94 throwback mode is probably too tricky for casual gamers.

To keep you coming back for more, this game is fleshed out with an entire minor league system and European pro leagues, a ton of coaching strategies, create-a-team, create-a-player, and create a play.

MLB 09: The Show

PlayStation 3
Released in 2009 by Sony Computer Entertainment
Grade: A

This is an outstanding baseball simulation that looks great, plays smooth, and has enough depth to make a baseball dork obsessed.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the third Show on PS3. As far as I can tell, once they got to this point, every Show game is fantastic, there are only minor cosmetic upgrades and small additions to the gameplay and features each year. For some reason, 09 was a favorite among online dorks years after it came out, but I don’t know why it might be better than 10 or 11 or 12 or 13. I imagine there are slight changes to the pitching and hitting logic, but discovering them would take more time than I’m giving to this series.

Praises and gripes

This game feels like baseball, it moves at a good pace, it has just the right controls, and it’s challenging for the right reasons. The pitching and hitting systems are well engineered. When you hit, you choose contact swing or power swing and aim for the ball, and it’s intuitive to watch the pitch from the catcher’s eye view. When you pitch, you’ve got the classic three-press pitching meter, which determines accuracy and power. Everything is quick and responsive.

The game is realistic in that real pitching strategies are justly rewarded. Savvy baseball fans who understand why you should throw a certain pitch in a certain situation will have a distinct advantage over the casual fan. The tough thing about the Show is that you’ve got to learn this stuff the hard way. If you force a harmless ground-out, the game doesn’t tell you why. It doesn’t say, “Nice job, you threw high and mixed speeds to get the hitter off balance, and when you threw a fastball low, he didn’t see the pitch well and desperately poked at it for a lousy grounder.” Also, each pitch has its own confidence meter, so your fastball might be on point, but you can’t get a handle on your curve. It adds dynamics and makes each outing different.

In addition to basic difficulty settings, there are sliders to adjust the difficulty of individual aspects of the game. There’s a ton of options in general. You can view the strike zone marker, have the catcher suggest pitches, speed up the pace of play, turn the “guess pitch” system on or off, all kinds of stuff. It’s all situated nicely in the menus, and it’s also easy to check out diagrams of pitches from earlier at-bats, see where a hitter’s hot and cold zones are, see the speed and running ability of guys on-base, almost anything that helps inform your strategy during the game.

The action in the field feels great. It’s smooth and lifelike and just feels like baseball. Baserunning can be a problem in some baseball games, but there’s a nice, easy system here. Fielding is simple, just run after balls and press a button to throw. You can switch to auto-fielding or “assisted,” where your player automatically runs and all you do is throw.

If you want nitpicks, it would be great if every pitcher had a unique delivery, because the lower-tier guys who use the generic delivery are much easier to face, since you’ve seen the same delivery so many times. Likewise, it would be great if hitters all had unique stances and swings, but that’s just cosmetic.

The game looked amazing in its time, but I can admit it looks a bit dated now. I tend to hold baseball graphics to higher standards than other sports games, because you’re going to spend a lot of time looking at the same thing. If the grass looks like plastic, but I can play The Show 13 and it looks like grass, I might figure I want to play The Show 13, you know? The players look mostly the same in this version, and the daytime/nighttime transition isn’t as spiffy as it became later in the series.

The sound is fantastic. The three-man commentary is impressive, but if you play for a long time, you’ll probably turn it off and enjoy the sounds of the ballpark.

Franchise mode is as deep as you want it to be. You can go all out, managing trades and free agency and playing minor league games, but just doing the basic stuff like making the lineup and calling a guy up when someone’s injured, that’s pretty rewarding too.

This is a great game. Once they put together a game that looks great, is easy to play, and has such deep pitching/hitting logic, they really didn’t need to change much.

NBA 2K13

Like butter, baby.

PlayStation 3
Released in 2012 by 2K Sports
Grade: A+

This game is a masterful basketball simulation experience. It’s fun, challenging, and deep. I haven’t yet played later 2K games enough to give them a proper review, but until further notice, this is my favorite basketball video game.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the seventh NBA 2K game on PS3, and it’s the last one before the series moved up to PS4 and Xbox One. NBA 2K11 is the version that really shot 2K basketball into elite status; NBA 2K12 is a slight step down.

Praises and gripes

The shooting animations are picture perfect and intuitive to control — not just the standard jump shots, but fadeaways, leaners, runners, all kinds of layups and dunks, it’s all here. Dribbling, posting up, and using screens are done really well too. There are a gazillion tricks to learn.

The logic favors deliberate offense, but also allows plenty of freewheeling. Shooting off the dribble and shooting in transition blend well into the flow of the game. Compared to NBA 2K11, the movements seem more smooth and lifelike here, less mechanical.

Players are so well crafted to play like unique, real players with unique skills and tendencies. When you control Allen Iverson, for example, you’re not just controlling a little guy who’s fast and makes outside shots and wears number 3. You’re controlling Allen Damn Iverson. At least that’s how it feels.

The more you play with real basketball instincts, the better off you’ll be. That’s a lot of basketball logic baked into a video game. The AI is deep all around. Even the little things, like going over or under a screen, or showing help defense to let your teammate catch up, have their place in this game.

For example, your point guard will run toward the ball so he can set up the offense, but if you don’t pass it to him, he’ll eventually scram and find another place to go. If there’s not much movement going on, a teammate might cut to the basket, but not so often that it’s predictable. If you end up with a bad mismatch on defense, your players may switch, but only when it’s safe.

The playcalling system is solid, with helpful designs on the court if you choose. There are simple quick plays — isolation, post-up, get your best player open — and a deep list of multi-action set plays. All the coaching options you could want are here too.

The CPU puts up one of the most genuine challenges I’ve experienced in a video game. Not only can you make the game difficult, but it seems impossible to be “cheap.” You’ve got to outplay and outsmart the CPU.

With uniquely skilled players, and teams that have unique systems, every matchup is new and different. If you’ve learned to dominate with one team, start playing with another team for a whole new experience. As usual in the 2K series, there’s an impressive lineup of past teams, with (almost) full rosters. Seriously, look at this list:

  • Milwuakee Bucks (1971, 1985)
  • Chicago Bulls (1986, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 1998)
  • Cleveland Cavaliers (1990)
  • Boston Celtics (1965, 1986)
  • Atlanta Hawks (1971, 1986)
  • New Orleans Hornets (1993)
  • Utah Jazz (1998)
  • Sacramento Kings (2002) (without Chris Webber)
  • New York Knicks (1972, 1995)
  • Los Angeles Lakers (1965, 1971, 1972, 1987, 1991, 1998)
  • Orlando Magic (1995)
  • Denver Nuggets (1994)
  • Detriot Pistons (1989)
  • Houston Rockets (1994)
  • Philadelphia 76ers (1977, 1985, 2002)
  • San Antonio Spurs (1998)
  • Seattle SuperSonics (1996)
  • Portland Trail Blazers (1991)
  • Golden State Warriors (1991)
  • 1992 USA Basketball Team (The Dream Team)
  • 2012 USA Basketball Team

If that’s not enough to keep you going, there’s of course a crazy involved franchise mode, a My Player mode (not really my cup of tea), and a streetball mini-game.

Any gripes about the gameplay would be extremely minor: maybe certain passes could be little faster, and maybe certain actions make you feel “stuck in an animation,” but even those usually end up with the player doing something a player would normally do.

Presentation-wise, the game is “executive produced by Jay-Z,” which means there are some fancy intros, more flair to the menu designs, and trendy music, but they don’t get in the way. The stupid endorsements make their ugly return. Even with replays turned off, you’re force-fed a replay with a Sprite ad splashing across the screen. Also, the crowd sounds realistic, except they never go nuts for big shots near the end of the game.

These are things I can happily accept given how great this game is, especially since developers struggled with basketball sims for so long up until 2K finally put it all together.

FIFA Street

Maybe street soccer just sucks ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

PlayStation 3
Released in 2012 by EA Sports
Grade: C+

This game seems to be just what it wants to be. But man, I don’t like it.

Where it falls in the series

In one of the more confusing titling conventions, this is actually the fourth FIFA Street game. Here’s the breakdown:

  • FIFA Street: Released in 2005 on PS2, Xbox, Gamecube
  • FIFA Street 2: Released in 2006 on PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, Nintendo DS, and PSP
  • FIFA Street 3: Released in 2008 on PS3, Xbox 360, Nintendo DS
  • FIFA Street: Released in 2012 on PS3, Xbox 360

Praises and gripes

This is, theoretically, an “arcade” style soccer game, in the spirit of NBA Jam and NFL Blitz. Like those games, it whittles the rosters down, makes the playing surface small, and makes scoring frequent. But don’t be fooled, because unlike those games, it’s slower, less violent, and more reliant on crafty skills than its “simulation” counterparts.

This game is all about one-on-one soccer. Re-using the FIFA 12 engine, it has a plethora of fancy dribbling moves to help you get by your defender and sneak the ball into the undersized nets. Passing hardly matters, and in fact, the arsenal of pass types from the normal FIFA games is simplified drastically here.

Defensively, you’re limited as well, which becomes extremely frustrating. There’s no slide tackle; instead, there’s just a standing tackle and some jockey-ing for the ball. Usually, arcade sports games boast “no fouls” or “no penalties” by allowing players to get away with whatever dirty play they want; in this game, there are no fouls because the players aren’t physically able to commit one.

Your defensive team tactics are limited as well. In normal FIFA games, for example, you can call for a double team. That option would be pretty useful here, but instead, you’re left to fend for yourself, one on one, constantly. The AI really comes up short when the opponent is clearly ready to score, and your teammates don’t do a damn thing about it.

Offensively, your only tactic is to master the art of keeping the ball away from defenders and getting past them. Good passing can help generate scoring chances, but not nearly as much as you would hope.

What’s crazy about all that is that this game is full of cool options. There are many different fields, which not only look different, but have different dimensions and types of nets. There are fields with and without walls. In the career mode, you start off playing 4-on-4, then switch to 5-on-5. There’s a 2-on-2 game and a game where you lose a player every time you score a goal, until you win the game with just one guy. There are a bunch of pro and international teams, with four different uniforms each. It’s a nicely fleshed out game. The graphics are pretty, and there’s even audible field chatter in different languages. They went all out for this game. But it’s the most repetitive game ever, because all you’re ever doing is trying to get by your defender, or stopping the other guy with just one friggin’ button that you can press to steal the ball.

This should be a mini-game on FIFA 12, if you ask me. But of course, I’m not the one making money off it.

College Hoops 2K8

PlayStation 3
Released in 2007 by 2K Sports
Grade: C+

I am frankly shocked this game is remembered so fondly. It’s got many significant flaws. It’s 2K’s last college basketball game, and it’s often compared to EA’s last college basketball game, NCAA Basketball 10. The 2K series became the undisputed king of video basketball in time, but as far as college ball goes, I strongly prefer EA’s final offering.

Where it falls in the series

2K basketball started with NBA 2K, then added college installments with NCAA College Basketball 2K3 on PS2, Xbox, and GameCube. This is the second on PS3, and the last ever. Of course, 2K continued its NBA games and has been putting EA to shame year after year for a while now.

Praises

The basic controls are crisp. It’s easy to get around, easy to pass, and easy to shoot.

Defensive controls are pretty intuitive too. It’s a good challenge staying in good defensive position, and intuitive to react with a block or rebound command.

One piece of logic this game gets right is the shooting percentages on jumpshots, and how the defense affects the likelihood of a shot going in.

This is one of the few basketball games that I find easier to play with the TV-style sideline camera than with a vertical camera.

The graphics aren’t beautiful, but they are certainly very clear and make it easy to tell what’s going on.

The sound is solid, with an especially raucous crowd sound to help emphasize the game’s “sixth man” feature, giving the home team a boost at times.

Gripes

To shoot free throws, you tilt the controller up and then down. A simple “hold the button” system would have been fine.

The jumpshot animation looks awkward, so it can be difficult to time right.

Players start and stop on a dime. When they bump into each other, they don’t absorb each other’s contact.

The steal command is slow and awkward, often causing a foul. You can use the right thumbstick for steals and putting your hands up, but it doesn’t work well like it does in later 2K games.

The basketball logic comes up short. You may discover tricks that generate baskets, but they have little resemblance to actual basketball plays. With one certain play, I learned to sneak a pass to a guy under the basket and quickly flip it in, a play that would be stopped by any competent team.

It seems like nobody can ever drive to the basket in a realistic way, yet you can still clumsily end up near the hoop and make a floater, which just feels lucky when it happens.

The plays you can call on the fly are pretty hit and miss, and they don’t have much continuous motion. Without calling plays constantly, your players literally stand in place.

The zone defenses don’t look right. The players are often very bunched up. In general, the players also seem large compared to the amount of space on the court.

There are an awful lot of putbacks, which seems to be a problem going all the way back to NBA 2K.

The action overall just seems to lack the intensity of college basketball. Whatever chaos is happening out there isn’t the “good chaos” I’m looking for.