Monday, October 10, 2011

Review: FIFA 12

Yet another year, yet another FIFA update. Another chance to showcase my silky smooth dribbling skills, jink past a couple of defenders, slip into the box and side foot the ball into the net. No doubt, within minutes of booting up the disc, the opposing keeper will once again be floundering and wishing he’d stayed at home. Even before playing, it’s fair to say we’d all expect the graphics to be a little better, and the commentary, music and teams to be updated but the actual gameplay to feel as familiar as ever.

Hang on though. This year’s iteration is a little different. I’m being closed down almost immediately. My passes are being cut out. My tried-and-tested scoring methods aren’t working… The defence is seemingly impenetrable!

FIFA 12 is back with a vengeance and it’s so much more than just an update this year. The beautiful game is looking a whole lot better.

Sure, all your usual FIFA goodness is trapped inside the little shiny disc: hundreds of licensed teams, accurately scanned faces, as well as loads of game modes. But this time round, EA Canada has worked even harder to capture the very essence of football. And it’s sublime.

Of the major additions this time round Tactical Defending is arguably the feature that most transforms the game. A perfectly-timed tackle is now every bit as satisfying as scoring a sensational goal. Defence is now all about biding your time and waiting to stick out a boot to nick the ball. Positioning is all important. Quickly close down attackers, track their movements and give them the occasional shirt tug to throw them off their stride. It goes way beyond the traditional standing tackle and wild lunges; in FIFA 12 holding the A button means your player moves in and contains the attacker. Alternatively, you can jockey your opponent using the trigger or call for support if you like, getting team mates to come and lend a hand. And what’s more, the computer AI has been greatly enhanced so you can really rely on them.

The referees were pretty harsh during our repeated playthroughs; not once was I given a penalty for be blatantly felled in the box whereas a slightly forceful challenge on my part meant I saw many a card produced. Damn that man in black! It’s all very tricky to master but extremely rewarding when it all clicks into place.

Another welcome addition is precision dribbling, which adds a huge amount of realism to proceedings and offers an increased degree of control in tight spaces. No longer will you just hold down the sprint button and maybe pull off a trick or two to get past your opponents, close control now allows you to perform intricate movements and be more tactically astute.

Visually, FIFA 12 looks more like a televised football match than ever before. Countless players are there, their features and movements all replicated accurately. But at two years in the making, it’s the all-new Impact Engine that’s the real treat. Player physics have been tweaked meaning that every time there’s a tackle or collision, they react as they would in the real world. Speed, impact and direction of a player all have a bearing on how they move when tackled or blocked. Try taking on a hulking defender with someone comparatively small and you’ll bounce off them and end up in a heap on the floor. Glance someone who’s racing by and watch as they tumble. Although aesthetically it adds some lovely animations to the players, it becomes very important to the game too – perfectly complementing the all-new defending mechanics.

Of course, FIFA 12 features numerous options and game modes to keep you occupied until next year’s inevitable outing. From the main menu, you can access a new social network - the EA Sports Football Club, which is effectively a football version of the Autolog seen in Need for Speed. Pick your favourite team and every game you win accrues points that sends them up the league.

From this hub you can also monitor friends’ performances and attempt regularly updated challenges. These consist of scenarios based on real-world games that appear for a limited time. Can you change history? Can you come back from 2-0 down in the final five minutes, is it possible to earn a draw when a man down? Not only is it a fun distraction but achieving the seemingly impossible also earns you a hefty dose of XP points so it’s well worth your attention.

Then there are the usual exhibition games, online matchups and the Career Mode, which this year manages to get ever closer to the experience of the acclaimed Football Manager series. Here you can take the mantle as player, manager or player manager at your favourite club and talk to the press, negotiate tricky transfer dealings, rotate players and deal with injuries and morale. Games can be played as your virtual pro or with you controlling the entire team so there’s plenty to keep you occupied. There’s nothing like the feeling when you pull of a transfer coup, lift a cup or come top of the league after a gruelling season.

Ultimate Team also makes a welcome return and is as addictive as ever. Essentially copying the age-old favourite past time of sticker collecting and swapping, you’re blessed with a starting line up of bronze “stickers” and the aim is to trade your way to a better team. Packs of randomly allotted players can be bought using Microsoft Points or virtual coins that you collect with each game played. Depending on their skills, these players vary greatly in price but you can often pick up an absolute bargain if you master the art of auctioneering. Pull together a team of stars and you’ll be almost unbeatable as you wade into tournaments and cup runs. It’s inspired and really adds to the longevity and community feel well after you’ve conquered career mode.

In summary, solo play is fantastic but get online with a few friends and this will consume your life. With better AI, commentary, controls, graphics and game modes than its predecessors, buying FIFA 12 is a bit of a no-brainer. There’s little doubt that this will be challenging for top spot in the Christmas league table.

*Reviewed on Xbox 360