FIFA 12 hands-on preview: Man City vs. Chelsea

Over the past few years, the FIFA franchise has nudged ever closer to creating a true simulation of the beautiful game through a series of important refinements on the pitch. In FIFA 12, player tracking, dribble control and physics have once again been tweaked by the development team, who admit they are always looking at new ways to create that realism. Following hands-on time with the game at Gamescom last week, I’m confident that fans, who may be initially frustrated with the new changes, will see just how drastically they actually improve the game. Indeed, FIFA 12 is poised to be the best game in the series so far.

Location: EA’s private FIFA booth at GamesCom

Present: Sebastian Enrique from FIFA 12’s development team and a Chelsea-loving journalist who fancied himself as a bit of a player

The match: Manchester City vs. Chelsea

At Gamescom, EA Sports just let the journalists get on with it. There was no messing around with fancy presentations or news of FIFA 12’s new game modes and streamlined online component – it was straight on with the action. Sebastian set up the match for us and it was clear to see that FIFA 12 sports a new, dynamic and smooth-looking interface. Sebastian told me that EA Sports wanted to make everything feel less cluttered and more visually appealing in this iteration; and it really has worked a treat. Colours are bolder, fonts are bigger and everything is so much easier to find and get to quickly than in previous games. Within the blink of an eye though, it’s time for kick off as I take on Jose, a journalist from Spain. Already I don’t like his confident demeanour and wry smile. That competitive edge kicks in and I instantly decide that I’ll be taking no prisoners on the pitch.

As the match kicks off, I don’t immediately feel any changes from FIFA 11, but within two minutes of stepping into the boots of Manchester City, I’d conceded a goal to a screamer by Frank Lampard, who then proceeded to cluck like a chicken toward the corner flag as our fellow Chelsea fan journalist grinned like a Cheshire cat. I play FIFA 11 religiously and concede very few goals, so an early goal – in which Lampard dummied my right midfielder creating a ton of space before cracking it into the bottom right-hand corner from 30 yards – was a little out of character. I was fuming, but contained it well with a nod to my opponent. “Well done,” I muttered through clenched teeth.

I spent the next five minutes working out what these subtle changes were because something was most definitely different. First up, I noticed it’s harder to press your attackers because the dribbling system is much more intuitive to use, therefore giving you the confidence to take on players rather than pass and move so frequently like you would do in FIFA 11. Sebastian could see that I was still adopting my usual FIFA 11 tactics of pass and move, so told me to try and create space by using the dribbling mechanic more, but also warned us not to dive in as much.

He was right. We love playing really aggressively in FIFA 11 and timing challenges to dive in and take the ball from the foot of an opponent is a tactic we use quite frequently. In FIFA 12, however, I was far more successful by keeping on my feet and tracking runs rather than diving in. When lunging for the ball in FIFA 12 I was often left looking foolish as the opposition dragged the ball back or simply side-stepped around me. FIFA 12 still feels very aggressive, especially when you’re shoulder barging and jostling for the ball, but diving is something you’ll really only consider as a last resort; otherwise dribblers will make rings around you.

This hasn’t eliminated the pass and move play style that I’ve enjoyed in FIFA 11, but because the dribbling mechanic is so much easier to use you do feel the urge to take on players more, watching their movements for the slightest mistake so you can capitalize. FIFA 12 is actually a clever balance of pass, move and dribble tactics that gives you a more rounded, realistic football experience.

Other changes in the game seem more subtle. Graphically, FIFA 12 looks no different to FIFA 11, but animations have definitely improved. The arrival of the impact engine means that real-world physicality is played out on the pitch. Trip over a player’s trailing leg and your player realistically tumbles to the ground and anyone around who has built up momentum running toward you comes crashing over you, in a natural manner. Goalkeepers also react more realistically, spilling the ball when they should have caught it. It could get a little annoying when players start to capitalize on your sausage-fingered goalie’s mistakes, but it does show how FIFA is moving ever closer to the real world game.

Free-kicks, corners and shooting appear to have been untouched, though subtle tweaks may be more visible in a more extensive play session. It’s really the confidence that the redefined dribble system gives you that paves the way for more variety than ever before. In FIFA 11 we’ve rarely scored an identical goal, apart from via free-kicks or corners, and FIFA 12 looks to bring even more variety with an unprecedented amount of skills and goal types you could rack up thanks to the freedom that the enhanced dribble system brings.

So, what happened in the match I hear you ask? Well, the journalist we played against had already been playing FIFA 12 on the show floor and was showing off with his new dribbling skills at every opportunity. However, I can honestly say I’ve never tried so hard in a game of FIFA in my life. With my own and PSU’s reputation at stake, I punched the air with delight when I scored a FIFA 11-inspired goal in the 78th minute to equalize. Via a swift pass and move routine, I knocked a through ball down the left wing and then crossed it directly right onto the head of Teves who nodded it home with some style. Some things never change, but there’s no doubt that FIFA 12 is going to offer a new challenge to those who have become accustom to the FIFA 11 way of playing.

With the match ending 1-1 and a polite handshake with my fellow journalist, the only disappointment of the day was not beating my smug-looking opponent, and being chucked out the booth because Gamescom was about to shut its doors. After this short taster though, we’ve been dreaming of a re-match ever since.

FIFA 12 is due for release on September 30, 2011.