Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Yearly, iterative sports games have a tough job on their hands. It is not enough to simply rest upon the laurels of years gone by, each year must bring something new to the table, something vital that stands apart from those that have come before. And no, we're not just talking about updated rosters.
EA Sports have made a big show of the changes that they've rung for this year's instalment. Buzzword-heavy announcements, flashy explanatory trailers and bolshy fighting talk have served to prime and prepare the FIFA faithful and attempt to assuage long-time sceptics that the strides that the series has undeniably made in the past few years have been leading up to something utterly game-changing. It is perhaps too early to tell if that may be the case, but the fact is that FIFA 12 plays a game of football so far removed from its predecessors that all-comers, new or old, will have to do a little bit of thought adjustment.
Let's start on the pitch. The new focus on the field is really all about defence, EA Canada have stripped away the 'Hold A to Press' tactics of yesteryear, ditching them completely to make tracking and tackling a more hands-on affair that has completely changed the dynamic of the way that you play. Matches are far more ponderous than they used to be, the whistle-happy refs often carding for mere tussling, and so timing is everything. The range of options at your disposal is cracking: you can jostle and jockey players to hold them up and slow down their advance. Standing tackles must be executed with precision, else they leave you looking an absolute fool, the half second of committed animation giving your opponent the opportunity to break you defensive line. You can call in other players as you ensure you have you back to the goal, always facing your opponent thanks to the triggers, but they won't go in for risky slide tackles. That's really up to you now.
In attack, the Precision Dribbling gives you the necessary tools to counteract this intense focus on defence, the left bumper offering up total control as you glide your way through a forest of lumbering centre-backs, making close-quarters encounters far more tactical, offering up a number of ways to change the pace, shifting down the gears as the centre of the park becomes more and more cluttered. We resented the way that every match in FIFA 11 seemed to get bogged down around the centre circle, but now the developers have given players the tools to extricate themselves from sticky situations, should they have the skill to do so.
Finally, the Impact Engine, two years in the making, plays into everything that you do. It's still not perfect, the awareness in friendly AI perhaps has a few kinks to iron out, a quirk in the Impact Engine meaning I ended up losing an online match in extra time as one of my defenders 'forgot' that goals tend to have two vertical posts, banged into it, fell over his own feet, took out my goalkeeper and another defender, who caused a small domino ripple that nudged the defender I was controlling out of the way and allowed my opponent to score from a corner. It would have been funny if I hadn't been swearing so much. Most of the time, though, it is exceptional, every little bit of contact meaningful, affecting the shape and pace of the game, but even though it is much improved, there'll still be the odd random little pile-up that happens nowhere near the ball.
EA Canada have shaken things up, and that is to be commended, certainly; sporting franchises hunger for such originality and the developers have indeed delivered what they said they would. But this is not without consequence. In changing the core nature of the way that FIFA plays, accessibility is now certainly an issue. Although it does create a more level playing field this year to begin with, online the learning curve is likely to be harsh and painful. If you don't acclimatise to the new defensive mechanics quickly, you'll be found out and ruthlessly dispatched.
Furthermore, although now you can certainly play in a way that would thrill the Nou Camp faithful, every team seems to offer that option. Higher levels of difficulty will see the AI all playing the same way, bump the level up to professional and beyond and even League Two teams will be offering up skilful possession play, no matter who they are. Every team feels different when you are controlling them, the physical modelling, offensive and defensive modifications all taken into account when you're up against a human opponent, but the AI tends to play the same way regardless. And the AI seems to cheat, frequently.
It's clear that a lot of thought has gone into revolutionising the way that the game is played, even if offline that sometimes leads to a bit of frustration.. We do wish, though, that the same amount of careful planning had gone into the Career mode, which is still as clunky as ever. The news stories and emails are dull and repetitive, the player progression system a farce: I miss being able to allocate points and mould players as I could in FIFA 09, there's no real option for player development outside of your virtual pro aside from praying. There have been one or two little upgrades - players will now come to you with their hopes and fears and it will be up to you to balance those out with your match day selection, knowing that refusal could affect morale, which eventually might lead to a transfer request and some sneaky bids from rivals clubs looking to unsettle your stars. There's even a new little scramble for Transfer Deadline Day, where the game gives you a play-by-play account of the expenditure madness, although it doesn't really mean much in practice. Add that to the fact that you still only have a limited number of negotiations for individual players and it's easy to get frustrated. Don't expect anything approaching the depth of Football Manager or FIFA's rival's Master League. And the interface is still an ugly, cumbersome, cluttered mess. This must be rectified for next year's game, surely.
Much the same might be said of Be A Pro, in its offline mode. The only real difference between player and manager is that you get to do 90% less work on the field and have none of the customisation options open to you until you at least make 'Captain'. Playing it surrounded by 10 AI-controlled teammates is just as frustratingly pointless as it was last year. Elsewhere, Live Season returns and you can create tournaments and leagues to your heart's content, assisted by full creation centre integration which lets you design players and teams on the web and import them straight into your game. Last year's system was pretty clunky and erratic, though, and it hasn't really improved all that much.
Finally, though, Ultimate Team is in the box and it's still the brilliant combination of tactical trading gameplay, online social interaction and on the pitch skill tha tit was before. It's inclusion, considering the stagnation of Career Mode, is a very welcome one indeed. You start off with two packs of player cards and a handful of available tournaments to compete in, but it's not long before you're busy mixing and matching, the auction system and card marketplace very easy to use indeed. There is one problem with Ultimate Team, in that in order to play it you must be signed into the EA Sports Football Club servers, but we'll come to that in a bit.
Going online, everything is slightly different here too, most noticeably on the pitch. Games are all tight and nervy affairs online - far slower than they used to be in this series, with far less risk taking. We'll have to come back to this in a few months, but the defensive nature of things at the moment means that most players you encounter tend to put men behind the ball and back off. Fear is now an overriding dynamic of online play because, when playing anyone with even just a small level of competence, any defensive error is likely to be punished.
And that's brilliant.
You see, it's symptomatic of a desire, no...a burning need, to improve and do better. Find a match with someone who's not worried about working out which button they should be pressing at any given time, and the game really opens up. Pro performance actually comes into play here, allowing for a multitude of play styles depending upon the team that you've chosen. You'll find people who throw everything they have at you, with skilful counter-attacking a very real proposition. There'll be those who opt to take a slow and steady approach, but the human element means that the pace of the game can change at any point, there will always be a gap somewhere, an error to exploit if you pressurise. Patience is key, now, but knowing when to step up the pace is just as important too. You're constantly engaged with everything on the pitch, everything is in your hands and that creates an utterly thrilling multiplayer experience.
Ranked matches as you knew them are gone, replaced with a league system that sees you playing in 10-game seasons, the points you earn from your results determining your division. Get enough and you'll be promoted, fail to do so and you'll find yourself sliding back towards Division 10. There are special cups matches based on your divisional tier so, no matter what rank you are, there's an opportunity to get stuck in and be competitive. Best of all, you choose your team, arrange your formation and tactics all before you start your matchmaking search. Be A Pro online is relatively unchanged from last year: you can drop in and out for quick matches, or set about joining or starting a team and try to conquer the Pro leagues.
Everything is designed to suck you in and push you to do better, improve your ranking and increase your points with the EA Sports Football Club. Right at the start of the game you're asked to pick a club to support, don't worry you're not mandated to play as that club at all. But across every single game mode, even the Arena, the things that you do will earn points. Those points and XP will go towards a score and a ranking for your team. Everything you do in FIFA 12 has an impact, you're constantly connected to a larger social sphere and EAS FC makes you constantly aware of this. Furthermore, the Football Club gives you access to special daily challenges such as overturning the North London derby to win 3-1 as Arsenal, or snatching victory from the jaws of defeat with Borussia Dortmund. The Football Club is an excellent service that provides reminders, scores to beat and challenges to chase. It's FIFA 12's answer to Autolog, and it's excellent...
...when it works.
What you don't want to happen when you release a game is to have a scenario where your fans go out buy a game on launch day and then find that not only are the online servers not up to scratch, but that their issues have ruined a good chunk of the game. You see, the EAS FC servers are about as temperamental as Carlos Tevez. Sometimes, they just decide not to work at all. With warning, that would be fine, but after trying to do a daily challenge five times, only to come back to the main menu and find that in those seven minutes the EAS FC servers have managed to boot me off again, EA had driven me to drinking.
I thought it might just have been me, but the internet was on, Xbox LIVE merrily trotting about, a speed test clocking in at just over 10mbps. Then I rang some people, they were having issues too. The game was out, the public had their hands on the game, I rang more friends. One complained that an EAS FC Error threw him out of Ultimate Team, three more reported the same thing I had suffered through. One had reached EA on the phone (this writer decided that 20 minutes on hold was too long) but the response had been simply 'We are aware of the issue and we are doing all that we can to sort it out.' The internet supports this too, the forums full of complaints and disgruntled, confused consumers. Having your servers brick themselves and throw periodic tantrums is frankly unacceptable. No, it's not quite a Dead Island level of launch calamity, but it'll piss off a lot of people until EA sort it out.
The changes EA Canada have made to the series certainly represent strides in the right direction. This is a brave FIFA, one filled with challenges for newcomers and veterans alike, but with new power comes new responsibility. The additions on the pitch make downsides such as the unbalanced AI, the stale Career Mode and dodgy online experiences all the more noticeable. Play it with a friend and this is probably the finest football game to grace our consoles since Pierluigi Collina last stuck his face on a PES box.
- Matches are far more tactically varied than ever before
- Ultimate Team is in the box
- Playing with a friend is pure footballing bliss
- Still a few Impact Engine slapstick moments
- Career Mode lacks depth
- EAS Football Club servers are abysmal
The Short Version: Drab offline options (aside from the excellent Ultimate Team), quirky behaviour and buggy servers only frustrate what should be an utter triumph. But the game engine is fantastic and online encounters are truly nail-biting, lag-free pockets of sporting tension that do much to capture the fever of match day.