FIFA 12: The revolution you've been waiting for?
30th May 2011 | 13:00
To look at, FIFA 12 is no different to FIFA 11. At least not to our highly-trained eyes.
The lighting is the same, the character models look the same (although when you're dealing with a group of men wearing the same outfit how different can they be?) and, while cyber-Cech might look a bit more like his real-life self, when your camera is somewhere in the top tier, that's not going to make a tonne of difference.
At first glance, then - and we should point out we played pre-alpha code - it'll be very easy for FIFA sceptics to claim EA Sports has put out another DLC-worthy update rather than a brand new iteration.
But when producer David Rutter briefed us on what to expect from this year's football sim, and why he believes it's a massive step forward for the franchise, there wasn't a whole lot of talk about graphics.
Instead, FIFA 12 rests on three "revolutionary" gameplay pillars. Each one sounds more important than the last, but, you need to get your thumbs on the thing to determine whether the sum of the parts equates a coup on FIFA 11's throne or just some added upholstery.
Pro Player Intelligence, for example, is very much an addition that does most of its work under the hood. It should, however, mop up any qualms people have about static team mates day-dreaming when they ought to be dashing into space.
It's an extension of last year's edition where characteristics from strength to shooting accuracy were more uniquely defined. This year, by dropping some actual intelligence into the mix, EA Sports has created AI players that actually work as a team.
Most importantly, they work to their team's specific strengths. The likes of Heskey and Crouch, will spend more time in the box than anywhere else, for example, while the rest of the team will do their best to aim crosses at their noggins.
A player's vision is also a major factor this year. Most midfielders might only be able to see the obvious pass right in front of them but the stellar few can be more creative. Beckham and Fabregas for example, are able to see options all over the park, spreading balls into space for players to run onto and create chances from nothing.
With most of our hands-on being played against human intelligence, we can't comment on how effectively the A.I attacks when in opposition. Computer controlled team-mates are noticeably more helpful though. We had far more support than any previous FIFA when moving forward as players ran into space for the through-ball. We also noticed team-mates making more effort to support us in the box during one-on-ones.
The second pillar of revolution, Precision Dribbling, adds to the 360 dribbling of old. Players can now move in the tiniest of spaces and turn at the tightest of angles with Cruyff like finesse. That is if they have the ability to do so in the first place, we assume.
With this, EA Sports wants players to spend more time making little movements at the edge of the box, looking for space to break into. It's a common approach in the real game (anyone who watched the Champion's League Final will have seen Barca do it for about 90 minutes) and Precision Dribbling certainly makes it possible.
Now players have the ability to hold up the ball more effectively while they wait for team-mates to make use of that new Pro Player Intelligence to run into better positions for the pass.
Combine the precision dribbling with a new tackling system though, and you're left with an even more significant gameplay change. The Press button (X/A) is now the Contain button, meaning a defender won't zone in on an attacker and immediately go in for the tackle. Instead, he'll guard the player with the ball and follow him, waiting for you to make a well timed press of circle for a standing tackle.
While containing the opposition in this way is new, standing your ground in a similar way was possible before. The left trigger is still used here to manually contain players but containing and pressing have been merged into one system.
What's significant about it though is that performing a standing tackle now takes more skill and timing. Previously players could just hold the tackle button, regardless of how far away their player was, and let the computer do the rest.
With tackling made more difficult and dribbling more nuanced, the advantage lies with the attacker. As we were playing, the stark decline in tackles within each game was obvious compared to last year. It makes for more end-to-end action and is probably more representative of the real deal.
The third and final back-of-the-box feature is by far the most significant aesthetically speaking. Now rather than a few canned animations triggered by player collisions, contact of any kind is governed by real physics.
Much like the Euphoria engine that sits at the core of something like Backbreaker, players will collide and react depending on the point of impact, its direction and its pace.
The realistic animations are nice to look at - we anticipate many a Youtube video of players face planting into the turf following horrific tackles - but the system also preserves the pace of play thanks to the smaller details
While in the past a clip on the back of the boot resulted in an over the top animation that would pretty much stop an attack dead, now it's authentically brushed off.
This comes into play as well when combined with the Precision Dribbling; as you move with some of the nippier players between defenders, players will twist and bounce off shoulders to get through. Wingers will glance off challengers if you manage to alter your trajectory by a fraction at the right time.
It's definitely a feature worth having and will add a much more tactical element to your team selection - you'll need to pit big defenders against the likes of Heskey if you don't want your back line ploughed into the dirt - but it does make a lot of players feel a tad weaker.
It's probably something we'll just have to get used to, but every little bit of contact causes your player to react in some way. He might alter his dribble pattern or stumble slightly and so players seem to have lost some weight overall.
So far FIFA 12 is looking to have made significant steps forward in three key areas. The overall feel of the game, however, perhaps isn't the revolution more casual fans of the football sim are hoping for.
Rutter tells us there's more to come, but regular players who appreciate the yearly updates already have something to look forward to. Changes to these three areas alone demand that the most entrenched football gamers go back to the dressing room. It's time once again to tweak those tactics and develop that technique.