One casualty of FIFA's drive for authenticity has been accessibility. Simplified 'dad's' control schemes and smart use of the analogue pads have helped, but FIFA has become a game where a lot of the more sophisticated aspects of the gameplay seem buried unless you have the time and energy to master all the combinations of pad, face-button and trigger.
To get around this, FIFA introduces a selection of skill games, which can be played on their own or sampled while you're waiting for a match to begin. It's all simple stuff - sending balls over barrels, slaloming around cones or hitting targets - but surprisingly addictive, and all the time you're learning tricks and techniques that you can apply when taking your pro towards the next final, or giving mates a drubbing on a slow Sunday night.
FIFA 13 Gameplay
All of this is great, but what really makes FIFA 13 so stunning is how it looks, plays and sounds on the pitch. The TV-style presentation is even better than on the already strong FIFA 12. Player models still look like they're ready to camp out in the uncanny valley during close-up shots, but in movement the detail is impressive, capturing the full horror of the Premiership's worst haircuts and the gait and motion of key players.
The commentary is the best it's ever been, with Martin Tyler and Alan Smith, abetted by Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend commenting fluently on the in-game action, tracking your performance across matches, and even making references to individual team's grounds, track record, history and supporters. Of course, the more you play the more the repetition creeps in and the more you see the smoke and mirrors, but you can't fault FIFA 13 for matchday atmosphere.
Nor can we find much to complain about in terms of gameplay. Since last year's FIFA the team has gone to work tweaking the Impact Engine's player interactions, dribbling and - particularly - the attacking AI, while adding a new First Touch Control mechanic that changes how players take hold of and control the ball on contact. It's apparently based on the situation and the player involved, and the idea has clearly been to make the action less predictable but still enjoyable and believable.
It works. In fact, it all works. It's not that FIFA 13 is faultless, or that you won't ever be mystified by poor AI calls or bogged down by grinding midfield play. You'll still find the occasional goalie perplexed by a painfully obvious shot, or great plays blocked by a superhuman keeper. Even the Impact Engine throws up a rare glitch now and then. Yet 99% of the time FIFA 13 just plays better. There's more of a flow to the action on the pitch, more excitement as attacks build, climax or peter out, and simply more entertainment. FIFA 13 hasn't lost the gritty, real football feel of FIFA 12, but is plays a more lively and action-packed game,
Nobody could argue that FIFA 13 isn't a radical improvement on FIFA 12, but it's the perfect example of how an evolutionary approach, with dozens of often minor enhancements stacking up, can make a great game even greater. Some enhancements are marginal and the Kinect and Move features are just gravy, but the tweaked mechanics and the new skill games ensure that this year's FIFA looks and plays better than any other soccer game this generation. Sorry Konami and the valiant PES 2013 offering.