Developer: EA Sports / Publisher: EA Sports / ESRB: Everyone [No Content Descriptors] / Played on: PS3 / Price: $59.99
True story: I’ve been reviewing FIFA on various platforms for numerous magazines and web sites since the very first release back in 1993 (that time on PC). Only a handful of times during those years has a FIFA release shown true revolution over more organic evolution. Yet after a few wilderness years when Konami’s upstart Pro Evolution Soccer franchise threatened EA Sports’ dominance, the most recent releases have iterated in stunning ways. FIFA 12 continues what now feels like a proud tradition. While it’s not the same inspiring leap that, say FIFA 10 was over FIFA 09, it still adds details into the gameplay that result in it playing all the more subtly than FIFA 11. And still, despite odd quirks, this FIFA once again stands out as the best ever in the series, and a must-have for soccer fans worldwide.
Long-time FIFA veterans are certainly going to notice this year’s main tweak to the physics underbelly powering the beautiful game on-screen. A couple of years ago the physics engine added a weight to players so they seemed to bounce off each other (or through each other) with a sense of force more realistic to the bump-and-grind of the real game. That will now feel heavy-handed compared to the recognition of direction and momentum in FIFA 12, where players will stumble or maintain balance, but basically react realistically to whatever collision they encounter. It’s all courtesy of a new Player Impact Engine, and it works. That said, the referees have not been brought up to speed with the FIFA 12 impact system, often blowing for fouls for totally imperceptible contact–and when that happens to your defender in the penalty area, the resulting spot kick may leave you livid.
Now you balance this physics tweak with a new defensive system and the FIFA 12 gameplay takes yet another leap towards reality. Tactical defending isn’t a back-of-box feature likely to spark mass enthusiasm (or engender the sport to persistent naysayers warbling on about soccer being boring) but it changes the flow of the action compared to previous iterations. The ability to jockey an attacker or contain them definitely looks realistic. It’s the safeguard against a marauding attacking force just pounding into danger areas in previous versions, and so long as your defender stays on his feet, and doesn’t dive in (phrases you’ll hear in real match commentary every weekend), you’ll force them to back up, make a few other passes, possibly make mistakes. So in a sense, this addition removes (largely) the ability for smashmouth soccer, and instead infuses it with the greater strategic depth you’d expect in the real world. Fortunately, attacking players appear to recognize when you’re holding L2 to jockey them, and they won’t blindly run by you, but look for a passing outlet. While it does slow down some attacking plays it does make the game look more realistic.
The last significant tweak also blends significantly to craft an attacking scissors to the rock and paper of the other two functions. FIFA veterans will have heard about precision dribbling before, but this time the effect is significant, allowing your player to keep tight control–at the expense of any real pace or momentum–which proves crucial to keeping possession. Moreso than in recent iterations these tweaks had me feeling like I was back at the drawing board to some extent, relearning moves and tactics, and even struggling to keep possession for more than a few passes. That also helped illustrate how much impact these seemingly innocuous tweaks can have on the overall experience.
But while I’m still bugged by occasional AI oddities that have a sprinting teammate suddenly stop his run, or a timed pass go entirely the wrong direction, essentially, FIFA 12 looks more like real soccer than any other previous game in the series, and really, isn’t that what it’s (mostly) about?
Most of the notable FIFA 12 moments occur on the field of play, which really is how it should be, though a couple tweaks to the feature set such as the ability to support your own club in global leaderboards (who’s joining me in support of Sheffield United…the mighty Blades?) One of my favorite, very small additions to the wealth of online leagues and multiplayer offerings is the more casual 10-game season you can play as Online Friendlies. Doesn’t seem much, but it’s more accessible for a broader range of players who may also be put-off by high level players (and even kicked off teams for not performing to expected standards.)
Career Mode, a perennial favorite, has entered the tabloid age. Okay, I didn’t notice stories about the WAGs (Google it), but airing frustrations in public suddenly impacts dressing-room relationships. It seems that your fellow players can get pissy over the smallest diss, and you’ll read about it. As a manager, that’s another hassle to handle, and as a player, that’s another douchebag you may think twice about putting through on goal. The shenanigans of multi-millionaire athletes don’t emerge in the way hardcore management sims like Football Manager explore, but clearly EA is heading deeper into that arena.
As usual FIFA 12 looks amazing. The animations are pretty spectacular, and the additional defensive positioning appears to have introduced a few new moves, like hands going up to try and make a subtle grab of a fleeing attacker. Despite all those years of FIFA playing I’m still always amazed, usually within the first couple of games, by a new move: an attacker sliding at full stretch to reach a low, hard cross along the six yard line or a defender throwing arms and legs in front of a shot, or winger dropping a shoulder to sell a pass, then racing towards the byline. FIFA 12 doesn’t disappoint, and when you pull off one of the new moves, your team executes its pass-and-go perfectly, and you round it off with a slotted, curled shot into the far corner…oh the joy, oh the ecstasy (assuming it’s not consolation and you’re already four down).
One shout-out to the addition of some commentary that puts real world context to the plight of many teams. In my case, fandom of the recently relegated Sheffield United (Up The Blades) is difficult, and the two commentary teams (you can customize who you want) actually make it feel like they’ve been doing their research.
But, as always, it’s about the action on the field, and FIFA 12 has introduced a set of features that imbue deep subtlety, tactics, and skill into every moment, to the point I can’t imagine now going back to previous iterations. For me, playing each match of FIFA 12 requires more concentration and thumb dexterity than any action or platformer game. Every button on the controller can make a difference to your attack or defense at almost any given time; any direction or weight on the analog stick can affect the outcome of that defense-splitting pass or attack stopping tackle, and that in itself proves how thoroughly engaging this beautiful game can be.