FIFA is my Madden, I'll get that out of the way early. My family is from England, and football is in my blood. I pay the extra cost to my cable bill every month so I can watch the Premiership, and every four years I shell out exorbitant sums to buy gear for the World Cup. Each fall I practically count the days until FIFA comes out so I can create my "Simon" (now with hair!) and live out my childhood fantasies playing for Liverpool and England. What can I say? It is escapism at it's finest!
In my opinion, the FIFA franchise from EA Sports has made more noticeable improvements in the last couple of years than the other major sports titles put together. The realistic physics for both the players as they interact with one another, as well as the ball (which is no longer tied to your foot on an invisible string), have made for a more authentic footballing experience. The inclusion of your Virtual Pro across all game modes, the revamped Career and Be a Pro modes, and a wealth of online options, made FIFA 11 the best soccer game I'd played to date. By continually honing what has worked in the past, EA Sports has added a whole slew of new options, both online and off, making FIFA 12 the complete package both in terms of depth and realism.
The biggest change to FIFA 12 is in the new defensive mechanics, dubbed Tactical Defending. Before, when you wanted to track someone, you could just hold down a button and your player would magically blob himself onto the ball carrier like an amoeba. Then it was just a question of timing the tackle. Apparently this was considered too easy. Now they have instituted a mechanic whereby you can follow a player, but not automatically tackle. The emphasis is placed more on positioning, shadowing, and containment, just like in real soccer. Overly enthusiastic defenders will find themselves watching impotently at the back of an onrushing attacker, now free to head in on goal all on his lonesome. This is far more realistic in the sense that it's actually how you should play defense, but I don't think it necessarily translates well here. The problem lies in the reaction time. If you try to make a tackle and miss (and you will, repeatedly, it takes practice to get the timing right), you are effectively out of the play.
I found myself constantly scanning the field, making sure I had someone behind me to cover in case I missed the tackle, otherwise I'd bide my time and track the opponent on the ball until help arrived. The same holds true on offense, you need to pay more attention to defensive positioning. Ultimately this changes the rhythm of the game, making it much slower if played correctly. Keeping an eye on the open spaces becomes more integral. Rather than passing to the player, passing to space will allow the game to open up again, as it should be. If you've played (or watched) a lot of the beautiful game you know how playing the ball into space is what separates the men from the boys (and Barcelona from everyone else).
This is offset slightly by the improved Precision Dribbling, which allows you far greater control over the ball at your feet. Players who are good over the ball will shield themselves from defenders, make turns in tight spaces, and beat their opponents with step-overs, drags, and other skill moves. This takes a fair amount of practice, but when you get it right it's absolutely fantastic! My blood would get going every time I faked a defender out of his socks, leaving him embarrassed and reeling in my wake, just as I'd groan every time it didn't come off and I'd lose the ball.
The other major innovation that plays a role along side Precision Dribbling and Tactical Defending is the Player Impact Engine. Physicality plays a much bigger role this year. Small, quick guys will bounce off of bigger defenders, just like in real life (unless you’re Messi, that guy is a magician!). The fact that the ball is it's own entity means that mild collisions and jostling can leave the ball rolling away looking lonely and forlorn while you pick yourself up off the pitch. The vastly improved animations make the outcome of players colliding look believable! It's especially important for defense to position yourself properly. Miss-time your challenge and it could be a card. This may seem like the least noticeable of the major innovations to FIFA 12, but it goes a long way to creating the more authentic, realistic experience the developers have been pushing.
While I love the Virtual Pro, I still have the same issue I had last year when it comes to how you "level" your player. Rather than having your pro's progression marked solely by their performance on the pitch, there is a massive list of "Accomplishments" (not to be confused with "Achievements") you'll have to complete while playing in-game. They can range from playing your first game in the rain to scoring from outside the box, to having a 75% pass completion rate two matches running. There are plenty on that list that you'll unlock through the natural course of play, but for some of the more obscure challenges, it can be quite... well, challenging! It's not practical nor wise to take shots from outside 32 yards just to get +3 to your shot power skill. For a number of them you'll have to play on World Class difficulty, which isn't that big a deal but the game does become noticeably harder, especially considering the new defending mechanics. This is only exacerbated by the fact that quite a few options for characterization (like hair styles, boots, ankle tape, etc.) are locked until you complete the necessary prerequisite Accomplishment. You can't even untuck your bloody shirt until you "earn" the right to do so. My point here is that you tend to focus too much on playing the game a certain way, on what you still "have to do," rather than just playing (and enjoying) it. I just don't think this arbitrary list is an organic or natural way to progress your player.
Graphically, things keep getting slightly better each year. Famous players look better than ever, while the lesser known working men look less like mannequins. The on-field animations are excellent, looking both natural and fluid. Thanks to the new Player Impact Engine, those crunching tackles not only look real, but wincingly painful! There are also a lot of neat little touches to the presentation (like seeing your Pro in mini-cutscenes in the background of the menus) that made me smile.
The sound effects are still top notch with proper fan chants and songs unique to certain venues. But what I really love is the fact that there are two sets of commentary teams. The curse of modern sports titles is that they need to develop over time a virtual library of lines that then need to be edited together. Eventually you'll hear them repeating themselves and the "color" commentary gets faded. The addition of a second option is most welcome!
There are some smaller, less obvious, improvements made to the career mode which, again, add realism to the overall experience. Managers can now have their own Youth Academy to build young talent for those of us who are in it for the long haul. In conjunction with the new scouting system (what is essentially a menu based mini-game,) it seems to work smoothly. You have to weigh risks, hire better scouts as you have money, and pay attention to your funds. Speaking of the bottom line, transfers, and the transfer deadline, are much more dramatic now, including a new countdown clock on the final day. Then there are things like player morale which may (or may not) make a difference. If a player doesn't feel like he is getting enough playing time, a little note will pop up saying so. Same goes for on-pitch form. If your star striker isn't scoring, expect to see a little exerpt about someone not living up to expectations. You can even praise or call out the other team in press conferences before the big game! The main issue is these sorts of things take time to develop, and since it's all menu driven it's easy to forget about them in the shuffle.
There are several new options available to the online smorgasbord beyond your standard matches that show the level of commitment EA has to creating an online social network. The idea behind the EA Sports Football Club is basically that you support your favorite team through your efforts in-game. You gain experience for everything you do, both online and off. Also, you'll earn club points, which along with all the other fans out there in the ether, will actually determine whether or not your favorite team will stay up in the Support Your Club League Table. They will even update everything to take into account real life occurrences week to week. It's a pretty cool idea, and I think that time will tell if there is the support for it. Also, the Ultimate Team is actually included in the game this year. I never messed around with it much, but the idea is pretty straightforward... create your own Real Madrid by buying player card packs and then playing with your team. It's a fun distraction, and the joy of finding that one good player in a card pack reminds me of my childhood baseball cards and Little League.
Now, striving to create a realistic experience is all well and good, but it does beg the question: when does it become too much? If I wanted a realistic experience I'd lace up my boots and head outside for a kickabout. Since I've decidedly missed my window to be an international soccer superstar, escapism into games like FIFA is my only outlet. It's the essential difference between a sim versus a game.
And that's where I begin to worry. FIFA is the biggest selling sports franchise in the world hands down. While I applaud EA Sports for endeavoring to re-create an authentic, real-life simulation, I wonder if it won't alienate the more casual fan. For those of us who live and breathe the sport, the extra challenge is welcome (despite my neighbors probably wondering why I'm shouting at my TV more than usual). Overall, FIFA 12 improves upon the ground work laid by the previous incarnations of the series. The level of immersion, of escapism, not to mention the level of online support for fans, is beyond impressive. Truth be told, the beautiful game has never been prettier.