Well, it’s here. The long awaited FIFA 12, with its handful of new and potentially game changing features. Words like revolution have been thrown around, with promises that this won’t play anything like the FIFAs of old. Does it deliver on the promise? Yes. But is it a much better experience, overall? Oh yeah.
First of all, FIFA 12 is a beautiful game about the beautiful game. It has the customary EA sheen all over it. Menus — especially the ones in career mode — are tidy and slick. Stadiums and pitches look true to their real life counterparts and animations are silky smooth.
If I were to find fault, it would be that, very rarely, in certain close-ups, fans in the background resemble graphics from the Sega Genesis days. While this is incredibly jarring, I’ve only seen them once in a blue moon. Also, player faces are hit and miss, even for those just a step below superstar calibre. Some, like Chicharito and Mikel, are instantly recognizable, but others, like Suarez and De Gea, got absolutely butchered.
The game presents you with seven quick tutorials on the basics of Tactical Defending, before it even gets to the main menu. When it does that, you better believe Tactical Defending will change the way you play the game. Basically, this new concept addresses one of the main complaints from FIFAs of years past — the pressure button, or more colorfully, the “homing missile." It took any meaningful play away from the center of the park and forced everything down the wings, because players had no room to manoeuvre before the opposition would snap into a tackle.
Well, this year’s a whole different story. There’s no more pressure button, and it’s replaced by the contain and standing tackle buttons. This basically means you can no longer hold a button and have your player automatically chase your opponent around. Basically, dive in at your own peril, because the new key to winning the ball back is patience.
Tactical defending brings a world of good to the game. In addition to giving matches a more methodical pace, it’s also just a lot more realistic. Real defenders don’t go flying in full steam the moment the opposition touches the ball, they contain and jockey until the attacker takes a bad touch, or when he's forced into an unfavorable part of the pitch (e.g. the byline, or towards another helping defender.) Tactical Defending now makes defending like a chess match, where you have to decide which side to show a player and when to go in for that tackle. But if you miss, beware. The AI will tear you to shreds, which is of course, also very realistic. The lesson here? Think like a real life defender.
There are drawbacks too, for this new scheme. The biggest of which is your AI teammate’s defending. While they’re not as clueless as they were in the demo, I find them still to be overly conservative in closing down opponents. This is a problem especially in your defensive third, when they give opposition forwards a head start by letting them turn before pressuring them — a big no no. Therefore, sometimes it’s a fruitless exercise shepherding players to make a pass and expecting your AI teammate to snap in with an interception, because they’re just not on the same wavelength as you are. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen every possession, but unfortunately, it happens more than enough times to be annoying. In this new scheme where it already takes a lot more brain power than before when controlling your own defender, you really don’t want to have to play defense for your teammates too.
On that note, the control scheme is also a bit bothersome. Whereas legacy defending was usually a three button sequence (turbo, jockey and one of the tackle options), Tactical Defending now involves four, or sometimes five buttons. It’s not such a big deal at first, but after your sixth or seventh match, your hands may feel the workout.
Real Time Physics
The good news is that most of the unrealistic, comedic and mildly erotic collisions have been fixed for the final version. The bad news is that they still exist, though not as frequent and definitely not as over the top. I’ve played about fifteen matches now, with six minute halves, and there usually is one weird collision per game — some more noticeable than others.
When the new physics engine work like it’s supposed to, it’s some of the most realistic collision animations I’ve seen in a video game. One of my favorites is when a defender goes sliding in with one foot and tangles with the ball carrier. By all means it’s a very short sequence, but it shows off the engine perfectly. Gone are the canned animations, every limb is accounted for and behaves realistically.
When it doesn’t work, however, it's frustrating. Usually it’s just a visually jarring, but other times, they affect the gameplay. More than one instance I’ve had a CPU attacker go tumbling and then taking out two of my defenders with him, when clearly his momentum wasn’t enough to do so. And of course, they scored on those possessions. Essentially, the real time physics is still a work in progress.
So much for the days of sprinting down the wings and whipping in a cross, in classic FIFA style.
I suppose you still can, but the build up is going to take more time than usual. Thanks to Tactical Defending, the AI also has no option but to relax on the pressure since the midfield is a much more open place that rewards patient, methodical build ups. Sending through balls now involves a lot more risk benefit analysis — as it should — because you’re either much less likely to catch defenders being overly aggressive, or it’s that much harder to win the ball back this year.
On the ball dribbling is a treat. The feints and skill dribbles are still there, and with the right players you can embarrass a defender pretty quickly. The one thing that makes it even better is the introduction of precision dribbling, which offers the ball carrier much better control of the ball in exchange for pace. Essentially, it lets crafty center midfielders in on the dribbling fun too. Whereas in years past, when the only people who held onto the ball for longer than three seconds were your wingers, now it's just as possible to see your creative midfielder hang onto the ball by deftly jinking away from challenges. As you can imagine, this is very valuable in tight areas, usually anywhere between the top of the opposing 18 yard box to the goal itself. It gives your playmaker those valuable extra seconds to pick out a pass for your teammates.
On the subject of AI teammates, it is true that they now make more runs than before, especially if you employ the appropriate tactics. They also seem to be much smarter than the AI of years past in terms of recognizing space and running to it. This is especially evident with fullbacks, who will maraud forward and link up with your wingers, and in many occasions try to break behind the opposition defender. I know that this year’s game tried to de-emphasize wing play to a certain extent, but it’s still one of the more satisfying parts of the game to see my winger and full back team up and run rampant down the flanks.
CPU playing style
The CPU has become a lot more patient in keeping the ball. Imagine my astonishment when I saw my CPU opposition make back passes because I was holding my shape, and then do it again and again. Now that both the human and CPU have to put some thought into building an attack, as opposed to mindlessly sprinting and crossing, I can say that this is the first time where I felt the pace of the FIFA game finally feels realistic, and without modifying the game speed to boot.
But the CPU play has its weakness too. First of all, it doesn't make anywhere near enough mistakes. Fouls are rare, and even when they happen, it’s more a case of me being clever, like changing directions at the last second, than them having a momentary lapse in judgment. They also don’t misplace passes very often, either. I have yet to see the CPU botch a pass because it misread a teammate’s run. In short, the computer opposition plays too much as a team. I know these sort of things are hard to program, but once in a while I would like to see them being beaten by making a wrong decision — the mental side of the game, if you will — rather than on the physical or technical side. To be fair, I'm now criticizing what is a more advanced part of the game, when in years past there would probably have been more than enough basic gameplay issues to document. It shows just how big of a step FIFA 12 has taken.
Our executive editor, Chris Sanner, in addition to being an all-around nice guy, is a huge proponent of sliders and generally just more customization options in sports games. I’ll confess that I’ve never understood his reasons for beating that drum so loudly … until now.
A good set of customization options can hide all manners of sins, and for FIFA 12, it helps turn the spotlight away from many of the aforementioned weaknesses. I will admit that I haven’t tinkered with all of the slider settings yet, but I’ve adjusted enough — namely the CPU passing accuracy, the player runs and the marking intensity — to lessen the occurrence of many of my aforementioned gripes. The marking intensity one comes in especially handy, because it eliminates many instances of your AI defenders being overly timid, and makes tactical defending a dramatically less difficult endeavour. If FIFA 12 is a very good game out of the box, just the existence of sliders itself makes it a great one.
Another confession: I wasn’t the biggest FIFA fan out there. Not after many years being had by a great demo and a great first few games before realizing, about a month in, that every game involves the same sequences over and over again. Will matches in FIFA 12 end up like that? Only time will tell. But gameplay really does feel a whole lot different in FIFA 12, and it’s the first time in a FIFA game where, when attacking, I can react to what the defense is doing rather than having to force the issue every possession downfield. And just that, in itself, is a game changer for me.