FIFA 12 (2011) – EA CANADA
I have a confession to make – every September, around the end of the month, I suffer from an intense moment of madness. Basically, what I do is pop into my local gaming store, put £40 down on the desk, and demand a copy of the brand new FIFA. Every year I tell myself ‘what’s the point, you happily played the last game for a year, why get essentially an upgrade?’ – over the last four years however, the decision has been a bit easier to stomach each time. FIFA (since its jump to the 7th generation of consoles) has trounced the once mighty Pro Evolution Soccer, and each iteration since FIFA 09 has steadily improved on a very solid recipe. That’s why this September I had no qualms about paying for the latest edition, FIFA 12.
Now as a general rule of thumb, I do not write full reviews for football games, but I have spent so much time on the game recently that it would be a shame to give it a short excerpt and call it a day. FIFA 12 can be initially a massive headache even for the most experienced players, but once you learn to play the game and respect the new changes, it rewards you will possibly the best footballing experience one can get on a console, and one that I cant see being matched for quite a while.
Whereas previous years have been focused on trying to improve the game modes, this year the most notable differences are present on the pitch. If you have been following my blog over the last year, then you will be aware of just how heavily EA have been pushing what they call a ‘holy trinity’ of improvements, in the form of the new Impact Engine, Pro Personality system, and most importantly the new Tactical Defending system. I went into a bit of a detail of these improvements in my demo review, but having a lot more games under my belt means I can explain how these impact the full game. The thing that will make or break the game for fans is undoubtedly the defending system, which now encourages the containment of players rather than the homing missile tackles of old. Holding the A button down will make one of your players close up and keep the ball carrier under pressure, and by using other buttons you can let other players do the same job, or perform a standing or sliding tackle to get the ball. It is very awkward to get used to, and for the first 20 games or so that you play you will be giving away pointless fouls and goals purely through ineptness with the system. Crucially though, learn how to drive the other team back, and it’s a very effective system. Games are much tighter affairs now against the AI, and a single goal is often enough to settle it if your defence is top notch. As with the demo, you can turn the defending system off and go back to ‘Legacy Defending’, the controls of old. However, I wouldn’t recommend it as it is banned online, so you may as well get used to the new changes.
In the demo, given the high powered nature of the teams and the short game lengths, it wasn’t really possible to examine the Impact Engine and Pro Personality, but getting stuck into a career mode really does highlight these new changes. There is a very noticeable gap this year between the cream of the crop and the crap players that wasn’t always evident last year – no longer will a English League Two defender have a chance against one of the faster players like Messi, Walcott or Lennon for example. The players that can pull off tricks and moments of flair also shine through this year – having someone with good balance and agility can be a godsend as you can dance through a defence. Also, by holding the RB button when passing with some players, you will automatically perform flick and trick passes, which look fun if nothing else and can embarrass other players. Get too tricky though, and of course the opposition can hack you to shreds, which is where the Impact Engine comes in. Performing tackles and different angles can send players flying off the ball, and strong defenders can simply outmuscle weaker strikers from their dribble. It’s also noticeable in aerial collisions when going for a header, and when going for a more audacious effort on goal. Injuries are also now much more frequent that in FIFA 11, and they actually have proper repercussions – in a season, players can lose anything from a few days out due to a hamstring strain to more serious injuries like a broken leg, putting them out for the season. There is also a new gameplay addition for serious injuries, where the game will stop and then be restarted by a drop ball situation, which is a nice touch. My one reservation with the changes lies in the element of tackling – sometimes you can get away with absolute murder on tackles with no repercussions, leading to some rage inducing moments (especially online if you are clean through, although the slide is no longer a guaranteed connection). Combined with the excellent additions of old, including a more refined 360 degree dribbling system and pro passing, the ‘holy trinity’ of changes have ensured that this is the best footballing engine ever created for a console game.
No pressure on the rest of the game to live up to expectations then. Thankfully, the game modes have undergone somewhat of a revolution this year, which all links into the new EA Sports Football Club system. The basics of this is that when you start the game for the first time, you will be asked to pick a real life club to sponsor (I picked Manchester United, because obviously I’m a glory supporter – note the sarcasm please), and then everything you do within the game, be it with that club or another, will earn you XP. These things can range from anything as simple as simply booting up the game for 10XP, to winning matches, unlocking accomplishments with your Virtual Pro (more on that later), winning a cup in a season or completing daily challenge scenarios provided by EA (as an example the latest one involved playing as Portugal 2-0 down to Denmark, and averting a loss with 30 minutes left). At the end of a 24 hour period, your XP is collected and put toward your supported clubs overall total, along with everyone else worldwide who supports that team, and a table will show you how your real life club ranks in the world standings. It’s a clever and welcome system (I mean, who doesn’t like random awards?), although one suspects that it is heavily susceptible to abuse – ever since the day it launched, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have been rooted to the bottom of the league. Makes a welcome change I suppose.
Next up for discussion is the Career Mode, where I spend most of my time. Like last year, you can choose three different paths – Player Mode (where you play from the perspective of and control just one player), Manager Mode (where you manage a team and play the matches, standard fare), and Player Manager Mode (the best of both worlds). The main changes have been focused on Manager Mode, which is a damn sight better now than last year. The interface has been changed to allow you to actually read news stories (split into world, club, transfer and league news), and player growth (which actually happens now over the course of a season) and rankings are now accessible off of the Squad menu. You also need to keep an eye on player morale, which is represented by a bar next to the energy in the squad menu – some players will moan about not getting played enough, and if you ignore them completely they can even ask for a transfer request. In the build-up to big games, you can talk to the press and either praise and motivate your club, the opposition, the manager or even individual players, or slate them (I said that an opponent player was crap, and he demanded a transfer request) The transfer screen is no longer broken, as it will now display 150 player per search and actually sorts players by the parameters you want – in another interesting change, player value has also risen in line with real world events, meaning that the promising young stars of today such as Neymar, Gotze and Bale for example are worth over £40,000,000, and will require some saving or Manchester City’s bank balance to afford. There is also a new ‘Transfer Deadline Day’ mechanic, where the final day of transfers will progress by an hour at a time, allowing you to snap up a bargain. The best new addition comes in the form of the Youth System, by where you can send up to three scouts out to search for new talent across the globe; the better the scout, the more accurate the reports. You can then offer the Youth players contracts and add them to your squad. It’s a pretty flawless setup, and will no doubt keep me interested for months to come. My one major problem that I have which I hope gets patched is that you cannot buy your Virtual Pro if you leave the club where they are, as they simply disappear from existence. Sort it out EA.
For the first time, Ultimate Team is now readily available for free on disc, so long as you are connected to the internet. This mode revolves around collecting cards and coins, more like a childhood sticker album experience….except you then get to play with that team. It confuses me somewhat so I tend to avoid it though, and instead I have focused my time elsewhere online. Ranked matches have been given on overhaul this year as well, in the form of Head To Head Seasons. Whereas before winning matches would promote you a level, this year your opposition are divided into divisions. Everyone starts in Division 10, and then you have 10 games in which to either gain promotion or avoid relegation (you need 12 points, which is four wins, to go up a division). You also select your team and line-up before you enter a match this year, and then the game will select an opponent of a similar star level. It all sounds lovely in practise, but in some ways it’s a step back from last year – its very difficult to find a game that doesn’t involve playing as a five star team, and people still rage quit on a consistent basis. At least the new Online Friendlies system is better – using a similar method of a 10 game system, the game records results against your friends and the person who does better after 10 games is crowned champion of that season. You can repeat seasons over and over, and because friends are less likely to quit, it becomes an engaging experience.
Elsewhere, the general housekeeping for FIFA this year is top notch. Friends Records, which were buggy as hell when being recorded last year, are present and actually keep up to date. The accomplishments for Virtual Pro’s have been tweaked this year to reward you for sticking at it (e.g. play 400 games), and with the new flair controls it is easier to complete the harder accomplishments. The menu interface, with its player animations in the background, is much more logical to manoeuvre and much better presented than previous instalments. The most intriguing change this year is the introduction of a pseudo debug system, where you can change the parameters of certain in game attributes, such as acceleration, shot power and goalkeeper effectiveness. Putting all of these up to 100% capacity makes your players into living gods, players who can cover the length of the pitch in seconds and score from over 90 yards. You can also change the parameters for the AI so if you want an ultimate challenge, you can set their stats sky high and really test yourself. It offers a great deal of flexibility and can be changed at any time in game (excluding online matches), so go nuts and create the game you want to play.
On the issue of presentation, FIFA 12 continues the great trend of EA Sports to push the boundaries in the right direction…and also to take many, many steps backwards. The top players who have been given the full camera treatment by EA look terrifyingly realistic, and when you marvel at the mole accurately placed on Joe Hart’s face or the bulk of one Wayne Rooney you wonder just how much further the graphics can be pushed….for the top players at least. Sadly, if you aren’t renowned in world football, your face doesn’t matter, and so the large majority of the players in game are a generic mess of plastic faces. In the stats menu most players have been given real life pictures to balance the disappointment, but if anything it makes you wonder why the faces look so generic if they had a picture to go off of. It also saddens me that the crowd and the outside of the pitch hasn’t been changed for nearly four years now, and still looks terrible as a result. Even if they aren’t the focal point, at least make them move like a real crowd please EA.
The farcical situation that led to the sacking of Andy Gray from Sky Sports also means that this year, we have a new man on commentary, in the form of the replacement pundit for Sky Sports, Alan Smith, alongside the ever present Martin Tyler. I personally find Smith to be a monotonous man to listen to, but I’ve got to the point with FIFA commentary where I don’t really care what is said because I make my own commentary up in my head. They have added some new lines in this year which comment on transfers, positions in the table and even about what you said to the press, which is a nice touch. And if you don’t like the Sky Sports pairing, for the first time you have the option of a completely new commentary team in the form of ITV pundits Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend, who are more exictable and the overall better option. With regards to the soundtrack, it’s another blend of what you come to expect with FIFA – a mixture of some indie tracks, alongside music acts from around the world and a worrying amount of drum and bass. Its more listenable than last years effort, but doesn’t have as many standout songs – I would highlight Call It What You Want as my personal favourite, but that reflects my music taste more than anything else. If nothing on the soundtrack agrees with you, you have the option to insert custom audio again this year, which is a welcome return.
This year, the excellent mash of a well crafted engine and some very engaging game modes ensures that FIFA 12 remains ahead of PES 2012, and is more than just a squad update from FIFA 11. Time will tell, but if EA can keep on top of any glitches or problems that can arise, I personally think it has the potential to be named as the best football game of all time. Until FIFA 13 comes out…..