At this point in the current console life cycle, FIFA should, by rights, be sitting back, chilling out and kicking its heels. Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer is still playing catch-up, the franchise is bigger than ever, and FIFA 12 would have still sold millions if the most extraordinary thing about it was the truly hideous picture of Wayne Rooney on the box.
Yet instead of resting on its laurels, EA Sports has once again chosen to mess with a winning formula. Last year, they took apart the passing system and reworked the dribbling and animation to bring the game one step further towards realistic simulation. This year, the defence systems, dribbling, collision systems and AI have been given the same kind of overhaul. As a result, the nature of the game has once again been changed, and while it’s safe to say that this won’t please everyone, it doesn’t half make FIFA 12 feel an even more realistic football game.
You can tell that the changes are far-reaching when the game whacks you with a tutorial before you even get a chance to kick off. The subject is the new defending systems, which give you more tactical options when trying to close down on an attacker than ever before.
Jockeying with a shoulder button keeps your defender hounding strikers and blocking potential passes, while a new Contain feature brings in a nearby AI team mate to mark the player with the ball, leaving your active player free to deal with other threats. And when you have to get up close and personal, there’s a new option on top of your basic standing and sliding tackles; a button to barge or grab attacking players, depending on proximity – though it's best used sparingly if you don’t want too much attention from the ref.
This system combines with FIFA’s new Player Impact engine, which is designed to make the various interactions between players, balls and other players that bit more believable. Smack hard into other players and you’re more likely to create a tangled mess on the pitch than steal the ball, and it certainly makes the action in the box that bit more lively.
To an extent, it also affects the basic flow of the gameplay. The graceful waves of end-to-end action that used to characterise FIFA aren’t gone entirely, but FIFA 12 is more a game of careful build-ups, fast moves and sudden breaks, where you’re as likely to score from a sudden run as from a set piece or a cheeky cross.
It’s also surprisingly hard at first just to retain possession. The AI is tangibly smarter, both on your side and the opposing one, and the more realistic dribbling mechanics make it that much harder to just pile through and hope for the best. The trick is to focus more on tactical passing play, or on the new tricks and close touches that can help you keep hold of the ball.