23rd Sep 2011 | 17:00
There are some fans that simply don't care if EA's made big changes in the latest instalment, FIFA 12.
They're so engrossed in the series' winning gameplay they're bound to feel the smallest tweaks every year like a boot to the noggin in a fiery half-time team talk. They'll notice every animation, every flake of weight added or removed from the ball, every tweak to Messi's sprint speed. Change the brand of paint used to touch-up the centre spot and they'll sniff the difference in seconds.
Thinking ahead? Read our most-wanted list of FIFA 13 features - and give us your own.
This year you won't have to be a soccer-sim sensei to recognise FIFA 12 has changed. EA Sports has implemented game-changing features in key areas of the park that make for an altogether more tactical, charismatic experience.
Instead of building on top of FIFA 11 the EA team has taken steps in different directions - in some cases, ones we weren't expecting - to change the overall feel of the franchise.
There's still that incredible fluidity of play, the incredibly detailed level of animation. FIFA still surprises you with goals you've never seen before, it still takes full advantage of exclusive licenses to provide the most authentic football experience bar the real deal.
But when you're off the ball you'll discover a more physical, thoughtful and authentic defensive game that forces even the most veteran FIFA champs to rethink their game plan entirely. EA's been brave, and FIFA 12 is most definitely one of its most significant updates yet...
Aesthetically FIFA 12 doesn't look like it's changed an awful lot. Start up your first game and, apart from an attempt at presentation that resembles a TV broadcast highlight reel, everything looks very similar.
The default camera angle is a little lower in the stands this year, there's a slight improvement as far as lighting is concerned and player likeness has been given the annual increase over last year's effort (for the top players at least).
The idle passer by, then, might give a "More of the same" roll of the eyes, but for the man in the boots the changes that have been made by EA Sports are significant.
The overriding feeling is that FIFA is weightier and heavier and, while a fraction of that is down to slightly slower sprint speeds (although we're not talking FIFA 08 here) the biggest contributor is the clever physics based collision detection.
It's essentially a more sophisticated version of the ragdoll model you can find in something like the Skate series. Where in previous FIFA titles a slide or standing tackle would activate a handful of canned animations - we've all fallen victim to the feeble leg up from behind - now there are no animations so to speak. Instead players' body parts react to collisions depending on the position, direction and force of the impact.
What it means is that glancing off a defender's shoulder will cause your body to twist, putting you off course. Similarly a sliding tackle might miss the ball but catch your back leg, again messing up your stride. Colliding with a teammate in the box also comes with more detriment as well; you're more likely to hit the deck than simply jog on the spot until they get out of the way.
It means that there's more to think about for both attackers and defenders.
As an attacker, unless you're Kevin Davies or Didier Drogba (yes they are similar), trying to muscle through a cluster of defenders is probably a bad idea. Not only do you have to protect the ball from poking feet as per usual, but you have to think about all the shoulders that are going to knock you about.
As a defender the addition of the Impact Engine is even more significant; you'll be working out how best to push against a runner and muscle him into a position he'd rather not be in. You'll also have to be careful where you put your feet though because, with every inch of every leg now being nice and sensitive, there are far more ways to incur a foul.
It makes for more tactical tussles, more realistic tumbles and more things to consider both on and off the ball. Players are forced to take their time, mix up play, work around obstacles and ride an extra level of tension. Overall, it's a great addition - but it's not without its quirks.
Apart from the occasional Laurel and Hardy moment in the box, when players trip over their downed teammates and flop face-to-arse to the floor, referees can also show themselves to be not quite as up to speed with the new physical nuances as you'd perhaps like.
To be fair to the refs they're often spot on and we've had to go to a super close-up slow-mo replay to see that, actually, we did get the man first and maybe shouldn't have sworn at his mum.
However, there are times when the man in black lets us get away with murder and, with the devastating crunches the ragdoll engine allows, that's not always too far from the truth.
Ever feared for Patrice Evra's life after he's been knocked clean off the pitch into a broken pile with an off the ball blind-sider? We have. The referee, however, didn't bat a lid.
But FIFA 12's physics engine does substantially more good than harm. Any moments of farce are infrequent enough to be forgiven and - from a pure enjoyment point of view - only adds to the banter between mates.
Get Stuck In
It's not the only back-of-the-box newcomer that forces you to seriously reconsider your approach to FIFA either. This year's edition sees tackling get a near complete overhaul.
What it essentially does is take away the ability to home in on the ball with a defender. In previous editions you could hold A/X and send your man scampering after the ball automatically like a heat-seeking man-missile, confident he would effortlessly dispossess the attacker if he managed to make contact with the ball.
Life's not so easy anymore. Now, holding A/X only draws your defender so far. Instead of getting stuck in and doing all the work for you he'll stop short of the attack and jockey the opponent. In theory it's your job to move in the rest of the way and time your intercepting toe poke with a press of B/circle or slide with X/square.
In practice your player never seems to be able to get close enough to stick a leg in, with an invisible wall stopping us from jockeying close enough to make contact with the ball. Not to worry though, since the option to tackle completely manually proves much more fruitful and, it turns out, far more satisfying.
We find that running in and unleashing a standing or sliding tackle all on your lonesome is the way to go with FIFA 12. It makes you realise how much you used to rely on the old homing mechanism to hit the target. Even in a brief, one-on-one training drill we had to get used to running in a straight line to intercept.
We're glad that homing defenders are out. Manual tackling is tough but you will get used to it. It works well and, once mastered you'll feel a greater sense of defensive achievement than you did in any other FIFA title.
There's an extra twist to tackling that makes each attempt even more of an event as well; in FIFA 12 defenders don't just stick out a quick half-arsed leg in an attempt to get the ball, they properly commit to standing tackles sacrificing speed and balance as a result.
This means that if you miss a tackle you're unlikely to catch up to an attacker unless you have a massive pace advantage. Some defenders lose balance altogether leaving them on the floor.
What it means is although at first glance the gameplay focus this year appears to be entirely aimed at defenders, with skill attacking players can be even more devastating than before in FIFA 12.
Precision dribbling is taken to the next level with players automatically taking tighter, smaller touches when they're closed in (you'll surprise yourself with just how intricately you can dribble with the more skilful players). Or by pressing the left bumper you can take the tiniest of touches, to help change direct we.
The latter option is so slight that we never really put it to practical use, although it does seem to force the AI to back off and wait to see what you do next. You can run a few yards incredibly slowly while they keep shuffling backwards in anticipation if you have the patience.
Bit O' Nous
It's all of the above then that guarantees this year's FIFA feels different, but it's far from the only set of tweaks EA Sports has delivered. Pro Player Intelligence, the AI buzzword which basically means computer players being made aware of their teammates skills and abilities, is one area that's seen a boost.
The idea is if you play against, for example, Stoke, then you should notice your opposition trying to find the head of Peter Crouch, whereas a team like Arsenal will probably try to pass more along the ground and into space looking to exploit the pace of Walcott.
It's a feature that's very much under the hood and hard to really keep a tab on. Generally speaking we haven't noticed too much advancement in AI from last year - if teams are working to player specific tactics it's very subtle indeed - but in terms of raw thinking power the CPU had definitely improved.
The gap between 'Professional' and 'Expert' difficulty in FIFA 12 is astronomical. We felt comfortably challenged as experts last season but this year back lines are impenetrably organised and, thanks in part to the more tactical tackling, opposition forwards consistently capitalise on our mistakes and counter attack to put four or five away.
We were forced to relegate ourselves to mere professionals. We'd hate to see what 'Expert' puts us up against.
Elsewhere in the stadium the atmosphere at matches sounds better than ever. We're pretty sure FIFA's seen an extension to the number of hymns it can coax the football gods with. Clive Tyldesly and Andy Townsend make the jump from Ultimate Team into the main game but the headline duo is Martin Tyler and newbie Alan Smith.
There's obviously a whole set of brand new phrases for Smith who does a fine job in the commentary box, even if his lines do sound a tad more scripted than everyone else's. Smith does the job but we'll admit we miss Andy Gray.
Off the pitch the Career Mode encompasses managers, players and player managers as well as getting a bit of an updated user interface to match its Sky Sports introduction preceding matches.
There are a number of updates that flesh out your management experience, with new ways for players to get disenfranchised, more varied press reports and a more 'realistic' transfer system (although should we really have been able to sign Thierry Henry and Elano for Bolton?)
That's a mode that's most certainly at the top of its game here, though hardcore management sim fans will never be satisfied.
Online FIFA 12 has a real chance of becoming the most competitive football game yet, with EA's Football Club interface accumulating experience points throughout every game mode and then tallying them to your real-life supported football team in the online Support your Team mode.
There are even old school weekly Challenges to earn XP from, such as the one currently available that tasks players with coming back from 3-1 down against Man United with 40 minutes to go, as Chelsea failed to manage last weekend (we won 3-7 - Torres and Mata hatricks, rubbish Chelsea).
When the Whistle Blows
When it comes to 3pm on a Saturday afternoon FIFA shines like no other. Last year we said that EA Sports had reached a pinnacle in football simulation, and rather than attempting to build on the impossible it's been brave and steered slightly in a different direction.
FIFA 12 isn't the total reinvention some expected just yet (and we're not sure real FIFA fans would want it to be) but this year's additions are certainly more than just updates of the same old features and they're the most significant we've seen in years.
FIFA has more character, depth and tactical weight than ever before, and with the new physics engine and tackling system comes promise for the future.
Refs, occasional oddness and Evra head stomps show the Impact Engine isn't the 100% finished article, but we're excited to see how it evolves in this new strain of strategic, physical and personality-plump FIFA.
The great Jose Mourinho once made some rambling analogy about good eggs making great omelettes. In this case, however, the more recognised mantra of not being able to make an omelette without breaking a few eggs is far more relevant.
Check out OXM's FIFA 12 review.