I've been playing rolling matches of FIFA 12 for the best part of two hours now and something odd is happening. I've seen it happen before in the past ninety minutes, but now it's getting a bit ridiculous. The ball has come to a complete standstill and is simply sitting in the middle of the field, daringly lounging about in open play and none of the players can do a thing about it...because they've all fallen over into a giant comical heap.
It would appear we've found something of a bug. True, the new collision system, or Impact Engine as EA Sports insist upon calling it, has caused some deliciously replayable tackles, but at the moment players earning more than God are falling over with as much abandon as Austin Powers on a circular bed. We're all for emergent gameplay, but the slapstick is occasionally a little irritating.
This, though, is the price of change. Transitions into new territory aren't always smooth, but that in no way means that they should be discouraged. As producer David Rutter has stated, EA Sports are unconcerned by the competition this year, and neither should they be. As I've already stressed, the two biggest exponents of the Beautiful Game play very differently. It's like arguing which is better out of Street Fighter and Soul Calibur.
FIFA's game has undergone radical changes, with three main features - helpfully outlined by buzzword-stuffed titles - taking centre stage, we've already touched upon one of them. The Impact Engine has been coming for a while. You only have to look at the strides EA Sports has made in its other franchises to see that the natural progression over the last few years has been to throw out the canned animations of old and conceive of the players as physics objects, with the fields of impact honed and improved to allow for pinpoint accuracy.
But the worst thing about FIFA 11 was that no matter who you played as, matches from the lowest leagues of the tropics to the dizzy heights of the Bundesliga, Premier League or La Liga, inevitably the action would be drawn into a scrappy battle for the centre of the park. It was as if the centre spot was a tiny singularity, sucking teams from Barnet to Barcelona into an untidy scufflefest. That happens to a lesser degree in FIFA 12, but while tackles now look excellent, and the injuries are realistic according to the initial point of contact, or perhaps how a player falls, it's once again slightly unbalanced the gameplay.
In many ways that's a good thing. It makes the game more spontaneous, for starters. It will mean that longtime FIFA players will have to reassess their approaches to a certain degree (particularly when one considers the Tactical Defending, but more on that in a bit), that no two tackles are ever exactly the same and that timing is absolutely everything. But the system is far from perfect. It's easy to see the importance of the new feature, but there are a few niggles - not least the players' predilection for pile-ups - that need ironing out. We rather think that the direction EA Sports are taking is a good one, possibly even a game-changing one for the series, but it doesn't look to be there just yet. There's still a month or so to go before release though, so a little tightening might be possible.
The Impact Engine is going to come into play an awful lot now, thanks to FIFA 12's revised approach to defending. You can forget about holding down 'A' and 'B' to bring two players in to automatically harass and press oncoming attackers, instead holding down the 'A' button (on Xbox 360) simply brings the controlled player in to track his opponent, committing to a tackle is all down to you and the stakes are higher than ever.
Working in conjunction with the Impact Engine, Tactical Defending means always trying to stay a step ahead. Against competent players, you can't simply adopt a gung-ho approach: you'll get skinned every time. Too early and the Precision Dribbling will allow for an easy escape. Too late and that Impact Engine will possibly get you sent back 10 yards, having conceded a free kick in a crucial position.
At first, this all feels thoroughly unintuitive, old habits die hard after all. But the change is absolutely for the better. FIFA fans might approach the initial hour or two of gameplay with apprehension and confusion, but a little perseverance reveals mechanics that add a level of depth to the glorious graphics that goes further than perhaps the series has ever gone before and, no, that's not an exaggeration.
The Precision Dribbling is, frankly, a name for something FIFA has had for several iterations now: slowing the pace down with the left trigger, tricking around at a near standstill with the left bumper. But it has been tightened up a lot, even if its illusion of 360 degree action is still a little angular. The AI has been improved to try and encourage you to vary the game pace too, with pitch-length sprints seemingly a little less common than before. That said, on the offensive I have to say it felt a lot like FIFA 11, a slightly tweaked progression rather than anything major.
The presentation is, obviously, glorious. FIFA is a huge franchise for EA, they shower it with money, and it shows. If you're looking for a televisual treat that captures the action and the drama of
We've heard how the improved AI will extend to the transfer markets, with the elevated drama of deadline day realised in the game for the first time. We've been presented with evidence of progressive injury management as a result of the new systems. We've been quietly impressed by the ideas behind Football Club, though it'll only work if they can actually sort out the site this time. If it does it'll provide an excellent centralised social hub for FIFA fans.
But the key improvements are on the pitch. It plays a very different game to previous instalments, requiring defensive players to be far more patient and attacking players rather more wary. But frankly we think that's a good thing. It's not perfect, of course, shaking things up often leaves a few rough edges, but they'll get smoothed out over the next year or so. This year's instalment looks to be a positive new step for the franchise then. Football fans will be spoilt rotten this year.