Long gone are the days when marquee football titles could get away with their annual release updating little more than rosters and as such, the pre-alpha code of FIFA 12 on display at this year’s E3 showed just how much evolution EA are trying to pack into the latest iteration of their 100-million-selling franchise.
Three refinements immediately stand out gameplay-wise. The first is an overhaul of the game’s impact engine, which in FIFA 11 allowed players to awkwardly bounce off each other or run on the spot when blocked, usually with some measure of glitching along for the ride. Such horrors will not plague FIFA 12 but rather, the game calculates where someone has been hit, how hard they have been hit, and in what direction they are moving as a result. This means a player shielding the ball may successfully hold off an opposing tackler crowding him, or crumple to the pitch depending on the weight and strength statistics of those involved.
It also makes for some great animations: a player about to kick the ball can have their rear leg chopped out from beneath them and tumble in a suitably awkward and painful manner.
This precise level of contact tracking also means that injuries don’t appear as arbitrary as they have in the past. Although there are no Mortal Kombat-inspired X-ray moves included in FIFA 12, it’s obvious rather than baffling as to why your star striker is not back on his feet following a head clash or ‘accidental’ kick to the knee. The flipside of this is that more skilled attackers can brush off relatively small amounts of contact that in the past would have seen them hit the deck, which allows for twisting runs through tangles of defence and the deflecting of some contact on the way to the goal box.
Speaking of shielding the ball, that is now possible due to refinement number two to the game engine: precision dribbling. Players unhappy with how far they knock the ball ahead when dribbling in FIFA 11 will be pleased to know that this time around you can delicately pad the ball about, thus protecting it much more effectively.
As you’d hope, shielding while dribbling is possible but slow, however player movements have been tightened up, allowing defenders to be solid one way but beaten the other without the need for fancy dribbling (which is still in your arsenal should you need it, of course). In short, your turning circle while in possession has been massively reduced, so now there is one less excuse for dribbling the ball out of bounds.
This new level of control certainly makes it easier to exploit small gaps in the defence, so to balance things defensive play has been given an overhaul as well. As a defender, it is now possible to drop down into a containment stance and shepherd the ball-carrier into an unfavourable position rather than simply charge in for the tackle. Field positioning, therefore, plays a much larger role than in previous games, and it’s crucial that a player’s defensive tactics are as sound as their offensive ones.
However, unlike previous FIFA outings, tackling is not simply just a matter of holding the tackle button when the ball-carrier is in range – now timing and distance is all-important. Fortunately, thanks to the new defensive stance it’s really easy to control this distance and strike at precisely the right moment.
Luckily, even if you miss the odd tackle or fluff the odd pass all is not lost, as the AI has been given a welcome injection of common sense, if not outright football savvy. Noticeably less static than in previous FIFA games, your teammates run into space, support well, and cover your mistakes to the best of their abilities. It was hard to tell in the brief hands-on session, but according to EA each player has an awareness and style of play relative to that of their real-world counterpart too, for example the passing options for Beckham may be wider than for other players, and Rooney will always choke in World Cup games.
The cumulative effect of all these changes is a smoothing of play and a more nuanced, realistic experience overall. Momentum shifts in a far more natural manner, and with the new-found control, slowing the ball whether defensively or offensively is now a legitimate option. Graphically the game looks identical to its predecessor, but there is much greater variety in player animation.
FIFA 11 and its twin FIFA World Cup 11 were hardly slouches when it came to delivering an enjoyable football experience, so although only pre-alpha code may have been on display, it’s hard to see how substantial improvements to core gameplay will be cause for anything but celebration from football fans.
Combine this with the impending launch of FIFA Superstars (a Facebook football management game) and the EA Football Club (a persistent leaderboard and social hub for all FIFA games across all platforms), and it’s easy to envisage EA defending the title in the football gaming world for another year at the very least.