Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: EA Vancouver
Publisher: EA Sports
Somewhat surprisingly, given their recent dominance in both sales and critical reception, EA Sports have felt comfortable enough to quite radically alter the gameplay in this year’s iteration with a new defensive system that is a complete overhaul of previous years. No longer is it possible to simply run directly at a player and mash the ‘a’ button to steal the ball. Doing so in FIFA 12 when you’re not near the player causes your defender to lose pace and make it easy for the attacking player to leave him in the dust. Instead there is a far greater emphasis placed on shadowing the place and picking your moment. While this higher degree of finesse makes defending more difficult, there is also the ability to auto-track the attacking players movements by holding down the ‘a’ button. Players can then leverage the assistance of a secondary defender with the push of a shoulder button and use this technique to force the attacking player out of position. As you can imagine, it’s a lot more involved than just pressing ‘a’. This new defensive system takes quite a while to get used to but its worth persisting. I came to enjoy the extra dimension of tackling options it brought to the game and I hope they keep it in future versions.
FIFA also introduces a new physics engine with mixed results. When it works, there is a far greater physicality to the tackling and the animations are done on the fly so that each individual tackle looks unique. While this is a step up over seeing the same canned animation for losing the ball, the physics engine still requires a lot of work. There are plenty of times where the players go flying around with unintentionally comical ragdoll animations. With a bit of tweaking though, I think this can only help to the feel of the game.
As usual, the vast range of licenses remains a key strength with the FIFA series. There are tons of leagues all with real player names and accurate jerseys. I took a particular interest in the A-League and was impressed to see that the new uniforms that were rolled out mid-September, made it into the game which was released only two weeks later. Equally, the squads were entirely up to date which is pleasing. The only downside is that EA didn’t shell out for stadium licenses which was a shame. There are plenty of look-a-like stadiums but I would have liked the option to manually edit in their names to add Hindmarsh Stadium and Suncorp etc. Of course, all the major ones like Old Trafford make it in.
In terms of the commentary team, Andry Gray is no longer in the game for the first time in over a decade as his remarks on-air about a female linesman ended up costing him his spot. The new team of Smith and Tyler are pretty decent and aren’t too repetitive. When it comes to tailoring commentary for local leagues, it was a mixed bag. Its nice to play through an A-League season as Brisbane Roar and have the commentators acknowledge them as defending champions and have sensible predictions on who they should and shouldn’t find challenging to beat. However the game also has some weird mistakes such as confusing Central Coast Mariners as being derby rivals for Brisbane Roar instead of Gold Coast United. Not sure how that slipped through the cracks.
I found the AI in this game to be pretty decent on Pro mode. In the season I played with the Roar, I won about fifteen games and either lost or drew ten. It can be difficult for developers to find a sweet spot with computer player difficulty that isn’t either too easy or impossibly hard and I think they pretty much nailed it.
The season mode was fun to play through and I like the flexibility of options in terms of whether you want to manage the whole team or play as an individual. There is a Football Manager-lite mode where you can get involved with transfers, dealing with the player’s moods and so on which adds some extra depth to the manager mode.
In terms of multiplayer, I played a few games online against other Aussies over Xbox Live and it ran like a dream. No lag whatsoever. Whether you’re playing local or online, playing against another person remains the most enjoyable way to play FIFA.
Unfortunately, I did find the frontend of the game, where you are required to log into ‘EA Servers’ a bit unweildy. It sometimes takes up to thirty seconds to connect to the damn thing and even then, it often timed out and disconnected for me. I wish EA would find a way to make their online verification system less intrusive.
Overall though, this is a terrific footballing package with enjoyable playing mechanics that are actually evolving significantly from previous iterations. The production values remain super slick and new controls help push the game towards being a reasonable facsimile of the real thing. There is still plenty more than can be done to improve FIFA but for 2011 this should be the game of choice for football fans.