Compared to reality, FIFA 13 is pure; an uncompromised look at all the thrills that football entails, wrapped in a stylish package that wouldn't look out of place on television. Mercifully it remains focused on the core of football, free of the scandal that so often overshadows the sport presently. There are no faked injuries or over-egged dives; there are super-inflated pay packets, but there are no illicit encounters with team mates' significant others. And there's no racial abuse - unless you're unfortunate enough to run into a mindless yob during an online game.
FIFA 13 is the finest game in the series to date. It does nothing goal post-rattlingly different to last year's edition, which itself reformed the defence system for the better. Instead it comprises of a series of refinements and additional modes that fill out or tweak the solid foundations that were re-dug for FIFA 12.
There are plenty of smaller improvements that push the latest version up the table a position or three. There's no complete overhaul in any particular third of the pitch this time, but there are definitely some touches that tighten matches up. Attacking now feels better thanks to seemingly improved artificial intelligence from your team mates, their runs now more competent and useful than before.
Then there's defter control over dribbling, while first-touch shots force you to think more about what you're doing. The refereeing is also harsher for the better, no longer restricted exclusively to nasty tackles: clumsily barge full-bodied into someone and there's a greater chance you'll be booked. It might break up the flow of play more regularly, but it's fairer on the whole.
The atmosphere is taken up a notch by improved commentary. There's still unavoidable repetition from Alan Smith and Martin Tyler, but now it changes more regularly with auto-downloading updates that take into account real life results. If you're playing in a mode that takes advantage of this and your team has lost its last five fixtures in reality, you're probably going to hear about it. While re-playing a live fixture, Alan McInally will burst in breathlessly from time to time to give updates on other games being played concurrently; a small touch that adds a lot.
It's exciting to see each team's statistics constantly evolve. Runs of bad form in the proper leagues reflect upon teams' overall ratings in FIFA 13; starting lineups are adjusted according to the changes of real life squads. Injured players are equally hurt in game. The integration of reality also means there are more challenges based on past fixtures – start from the penalty spot in the 90th minute and pull back the match to secure at least a draw, for example – and the chance to completely re-write games from the previous week. If you're a passionate follower of the Premier League, your footballing commitments have just doubled.
The roles available in Career Mode have been juggled about. It's no longer possible to be a player-manager with your own created Be A Pro player and drop yourself right into the starting eleven; it's now a straight decision between taking your creation to the top as part of a squad or steering the whole ship to victory from behind a desk. It's a slightly disappointing choice, but it does make the mode more realistic overall and fits with the changes made to the player career.
You can't create a striker, sign with Manchester City and instantly demote Aguero to the bench anymore – there's a much bigger emphasis on earning your place. Join a gigantic club and it's more likely you'll be sent out on loan before you've even had a lick at the ball. Gain enough experience and perform well and you might eventually get to fight for a spot in your first choice team.
As a manager it's still possible to take direct control your squad's destiny by playing the actual matches. You have complete power behind the scenes: buying, selling and loaning players, selecting formations, setting up youth networks to turn up future stars. Player negotiations have been expanded slightly, letting you suggest squad roles to potential newcomers to sway them to join. There's also the ability to look after national teams if you're lucky enough to be called up. It's just about deep enough, a streamlined approach to management that fits well in between games, though it's still lacking when it comes to setting up new tactics.
Career Mode's interface hasn't changed much, but there are some adjustments that make it more palatable. You can now browse the news stories as the coming days are simulated, which means you don't feel as if you're waiting around as much. Meanwhile you also get pop ups of breaking news that's potentially critical to your club as you go on.
FIFA Ultimate Team naturally makes a return, letting you build up your own fantasy football team by buying card packs of players, managers and modifiers with either points earned through play or actual money. After assembling a team that gels well together – putting together players that share a league or nationality, for example, instils the line-up with greater chemistry – you can take them to the pitch to take on single player tournaments, the team of the week as assembled by EA or test your might against other players. Win or lose, if you play skilfully you earn points, which can be used to buy more cards to continue the cycle. It's a great feeling to gradually build your random starting team of no-hopers into something more formidable and rise through the divisions; it's easy to see why so many people have adopted Ultimate Team as their primary mode.
There are other online modes too, from your standard head-to-heads to more structured efforts. The premise of Seasons is to play 'seasons' of 10 games against other players online, trying to score enough points to be promoted into the next division and win shiny things for your new trophy cabinet.
Clubs, where you and your friends each take control of a Be A Pro player, create a team and take to the pitch online, now adopts a similar model. Previously you'd just play match after match; now, with a vague path ahead and trophies to win, there's more incentive to play on. Be A Pro growth is no longer shared across online and offline modes, so you can't cheat and boost your players' statistics offline then take a souped-up soccer monster online. Not that you'd do that, would you?
Perhaps the best new feature comes from an unexpected source. Skill Games now share pre-match loading time duty with the beat-the-goalkeeper practice arenas that have been present over a few games, and they also have their own section on the main menu. They're essentially mini-games to teach ball control and set pieces, from dribbling to penalties and every type of pass in between, in which you have to hit certain targets with the ball or complete other goals against the clock.
The real kicker is that these tiny challenges genuinely help to improve your game, gently showing you the basics with indicators and lenient win conditions on the lower levels, while the higher ranks take that aid away and force you to learn under 'real world' conditions. Curve balls, finesse shots and different types of cross are just a few techniques that even novices might now find easier to pick up.
There's a PlayStation Move match option, which lets you use the motion wand to point and drag your way through a game. When attacking the glowing orb is used to highlight players off the ball, either clicking to pass to them or holding T and drawing out run paths for them, while simultaneously aiming where you want to move. Defending is a matter of shifting the cursor over opponents and holding T to send your players, magnet-like, zooming to mark and tackle them. Having this sort of control is especially useful when taking penalties: you have a cursor to show exactly where you're trying to hit it and only have to get the power level right.
Move control requires some practice and feels at once both easier, thanks to the almost auto-run of attack, and more difficult, due to the additional strategy needed. It's not terrible, despite confusing presentation — a mess of lines connects who's marking who when defending, for instance — but it's clear that it's in its own mode and not a standard option because it simply doesn't match up to the ease of DualShock 3 controls. With some work, this could be a good alternative in a future FIFA; the potential is there if you're willing to give it a fair whack, though it's more likely that you'll prefer to kick back with a traditional controller.
FIFA 13 does feel like it's beginning to lumber under the extra weight of all these accumulated modes, though. Mid-match it's as smooth as you'd want, aside the unskippable scenes that preface substitutions as they have the last couple of years, but on menus there are hints of some struggle. When exiting back to the main menu there are moments where button presses are inadmissible for a few seconds while it pulls in the next bit of data. It's more an observation than a true negative; it's to be expected on ageing hardware with the amount of content now available, and thankfully it doesn't intrude too much in-play.
If it's more of the same you want, with a few extras, some more polish and updated player rosters, have no fear – FIFA 13 scores effortlessly on that front. There aren't a whole lot of huge changes during this run out, but the substitutions across each mode, plus some smart new diversions such as Skill Games, the great integration of live team updates and tightened mechanics, ensure that it stays on top of the table for another year.