Releasing a game every year is a mighty challenge for a developer, especially if it’s a sports game that has no campaign or story to differentiate the annual installment. There’s always the risk that the game will grow stale without any substantial tweaks to the gameplay or modes, but there’s almost an equal risk of disenfranchising devoted fans if a studio goes too far too fast. EA Sports released an outstanding soccer (football for the rest of the world) game in 2010, and this year the studio decided it was time to offer sweeping changes to the core gameplay and include its two-year-in-the-making physics engine. The end result provides as much enjoyment off the ball as you’ll have on offense, a more complete career management system, and a physics system that works quite well, but it will likely need some tweaking.
EA Sports lined up a trinity of new changes to the game’s core, including Precision Dribbling, Tactical Defense, and the Player Impact Engine. Players will automatically notice the new defense mechanics, as this is perhaps one of the most drastic changes to the long-running series ever. No longer can you hold a button and send throngs of defenders to the ball and essentially let the game do all the work for you. It’s replaced with a more realistic contain system that is just as engaging as playing offense. There is a single button to make the defender contain the ball carrier, and a single button to tackle. Timing is crucial as you’ll generally only have milliseconds available to strike. Defense is now all about positioning, forcing players to go even beyond this contain system to take advantage of poor passes. Chase a player from the side or behind, and the tackle button makes your defender grab the opponent’s jersey, attempting to slow him mid-stride. Everything about defense is a struggle to regain possession of the ball in a very deliberate manner.
Defense will likely take some time to get used to, as it is fundamentally different than previous games. But, once you get the hang of holding back tackles until the moment was right, you may be eager to play defense—that’s a first in my tenure as a soccer game fan. It’s complex, and may seem like the action is slower, but it’s just more deliberate. The thing that will likely catch you off guard is that this seems like a completely new FIFA game. That may seem like an odd statement since, well, this is a new game, but as we all know most annual sports games aren’t all that different year-to-year. This year game may piss a lot of fans off, but that’s only if they play it for a few hours, or even a few days. Tactical defense will take some time to control and understand, but once you nail it, you’ll wonder what took EA Sports so long to make the switch. It should be noted that you can switch off tactical defending, but it’s really worth your time to master.
The PSU staff had a chance to check out the new Player Impact Engine at different times throughout the year. It’s safe to say the final version doesn’t seem as substantial as it did when we played it at E3 or Gamescom, but it’s clear to see all of EA Sports’ hard work paid off. Yes, there are some glitches (although, I’ve yet to experience anything terrible), and the actual changes may at first appear subtle, but spend some time and you’ll see how players act more lifelike, if not a bit like ragdolls. It’s also not exaggerated, so if you barely brush against a player, he’ll likely stand his ground. There’s no more running straight through an opponent, and you can see how a player physically reacts when he makes that commitment to tackle and misses—he’s slowed just enough for the offensive player to slide right by. Beyond that ragdoll feel, players often fall into set runs after scoring that, well, can get other players in the way and look terribly romantic—you’ll see what I mean.
The final part of the game’s key changes to the gameplay rests in precision dribbling, which is also subtle but highly effective when used properly. Hold down L1 and your player slows down, protects the ball, and can save just enough time to either make the defender commit to a tackle or get a forward to make a run for the goal. This trinity works extremely well as a complete package, but it’s not completely without its faults. Key to that complaint is the opponent A.I. When playing defense, sometimes you can force your opponent to run from midfield back to his own goal to simply kick the ball out of bounds. Opponent A.I. tends draw a bit of realism away from an otherwise complete package. Play with real-life opponents, and this of course goes away. There are online friendlies and head-to-head online seasons, giving you plenty of chances to take your game to real life opponents.
EA Sports dropped a pretty massive addition to FIFA 12 through Football Club. Everything that you do in the game is measured and tracked and shared online. There wasn’t much for us to see pre-launch, but it’s clear there is a lot here. In addition, the Support Your Club feature allows you to pick your favorite club, and earn points in a virtual league. FIFA Ultimate Team also makes its way to the Blu-ray disc for the first time in the series. Previously available to download, this acts like a virtual league, allowing you to build a team and take it online, and offline, to progress and purchase better players.
When it comes to the standard career, the place most players will spend most of their time, there are some terrific tweaks that give management a bit more depth. You’ll have to pay attention to player morale to make sure everyone is happy, and you can even talk trash in the papers about your rivals. Even the transfer period is more intense, with more headlines and conjured drama. It’s important to manage player injuries, too. You can’t just throw a player who was out for a few months in a training injury back into the starting line-up as he could easily get hurt again. There aren’t huge changes to transfers, but you do get a youth academy and scouting system, which are a bit primitive at this time. All of these small components add-up to a more engaging and deep career mode — it’s truly addictive stuff.
The presentation is as sharp as ever. Lighting is more powerful and even the use of two broadcast teams just adds to the drama. Martin Tyler returns with newcomer Alan Smith calling regular games, while Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend call the tournaments. You can, of course, customize this if you’d like. Meanwhile, the crowds are alive and the stadiums still look amazing.
It’s not very often that a sports game makes such sweeping changes, and does so this well. Yes, this is still FIFA, but it’s progressed so far that it feels like an entirely new game. Put this up against last year’s installment, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. In many ways it is leaps ahead of previous years’ games, but another year in the oven will help EA Sports perfect some of the small annoyances, namely the A.I. and minor physics-related glitches. Soccer (football) fans should set aside plenty of time to re-learn FIFA, because it’s truly worth your money and effort. FIFA Soccer 12 represents the next chapter in sports games, and its beginning is remarkable.