Developer: EA Canada / Publisher: EA Sports / Price: $59.99 / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Everyone
Barring a couple of exceptions, I’ve reviewed a version of FIFA every year since the franchise first launched in late 1993. On occasion that’s been twice, even three times a year when World Cup qualifying and actual tournament versions leech more loot from avid soccer fans (and I know very well it’s called football, but it’s soccer in the U.S. and I’m now used to it).
A couple of key AI adjustments had me most excited about the potential for really impacting the on-field play this year. Is it worth the update? We’re providing the insight right ahead.
I can’t imagine too many viewers/readers who haven’t previously played a FIFA game. For most, I guess, it’s a question of whether the latest game iterates enough on the last version purchased to warrant an upgrade. So to those people: the way strikers make diagonal runs across the center-backs so you need to time defense-splitting passes, is something you see every week on TV but have never seen in FIFA. It puts the onus on midfielders to keep possession (aided by the new tight dribbling system) and carefully judge the time and pace of their passes.
Beyond that, the dribbling mechanic (holding both triggers) allows for close control, which is useful in some situations, but needs to be blended with other skill moves on the analog sticks to aid in actually beating a defender. These details separate the best players in the world from the Sunday Leaguers, which means when Barcelona’s Messi is on the ball, if he loses it, it’s probably you.
Still, the finesse of the power of passes and direction really means that you have to make your stars look good. It’s the direction you angle the analog stick that really makes a difference to passes to ensure they hit their intended target. On crosses from the wing (a classic FIFA goal attempt), the amount of curve on the ball really feels excessive, but it’s manageable if you’re careful with the controls. And back to the passes, there’s a significant difference in their effectiveness based on the pace of your pass. Now, even if you get the ideal direction for your pass to a teammate, if you hit it too hard, there’s no guarantee they’ll show instant control. Depending on skill, that ball may bounce off the clod you targeted. It’s a finesse game that impacts the motion in every area of the field, putting you in charge of how well your players perform, almost regardless of their relative skills.
So how do you learn that pacing and those swerves? The new training mechanism is a bit of a revolution. It was always fun while waiting for a game to load to test your shots on goal, but now you have tests that really hone skills. Like crossing the ball: your guy starts on the wing and you cross at a point that uses both pace and analog direction accuracy to hit the target and earn the biggest bonuses. It’s easier than it sounds, and it’s a great way of seeing how the physics engine is actually impacting what might look like a pretty simple pass or cross. These elements build in skill sets that feel ripped from a Tiger Woods PGA Tour game, but they’re implemented with effective simplicity here, and will likely make a layman FIFA player better than he was last year.
FIFA has nailed its menus, breadth of leagues and coverage, and commentary every year for as many as I can remember. Guess what? No change here. Menus are great (including outlining the new options), the players get more scarily realistic with each iteration, and the process to get to the game is smooth to the point you’re nearly one-click from launch to playing a game (nearly…but not quite).
On the field the animations do continue to improve, while not necessarily highlighting any major overhaul. Changes to the controls and passing have impacted how players react to the ball near them, by stretching a leg, or letting it run by, or in those darting runs. Those runs also put the linesman (or assistant referees if you prefer) into play quite often, calling computer-controlled offsides. Getting it wrong is a vagary of the real game that needs to be added here (at minimum as an option to toggle “human linesman”).
Occasionally I’m still shocked by a contextual slide or tackle by a player that I wasn’t controlling, which makes me wonder what button I need to perform that myself. And when that cross to a volley hits the top corner (which is not often, but I keep trying), the pay-off sensation for any soccer fan is fantastic.
The FIFA online options have been established for some years. So for a feature set, you have what any FIFA player would expect, which is leagues, which is playing as a single-player on a team, which is controlling a team across a season. Owning such a broad scope, FIFA 13 has gone a little granular with the Football Club that lets you own up to your affiliation, and help those little guys dominate a few charts. I love the idea as a devout Sheffield United fan we could win one league, one time, even if it is online. The proof of this, obviously, is in how it plays out, which we couldn’t test at press time. But it’s there, it lets you get involved, so if your crappy team needs support, maybe that’s motivation to play along.
I do like the improvements. I can see those runs, the overlaps, those moves to create scoring opportunities. I appreciate the training skill options that make me understand the weaknesses in my game. I relish the time spent in a career both as manager and player, forging a personal story on the way to glory. And while all these pieces are solid, reliable, and improve the product, they won’t set any soccer fans’ pants on fire. So do you upgrade? If you haven’t since FIFA 11, then you’re due. If you’re a new recruit in ’12, then maybe you can wait until ’14.