Revamped mechanics enhance the authenticity of FIFA 12 and complement a range of new modes and features. It's a package that brims with care and attention, going the extra mile in almost every facet of its presentation. You only need to spend a few moments with FIFA 12 to understand just how much the developers love the sport it's based on, and that really is the game's most infectious quality.
FIFA 12 is a staggering video game. It impresses because it somehow manages to capture all the tension and excitement that's traditionally associated with the real game of football. Everyone has sporting preferences, but it's hard to argue with the appeal of football. When you care, the sport can be unbearable. And FIFA 12 recreates that sense of immersion through the controller, as your hands sweat against the plastic buttons beneath them. When you need that equaliser, or winner, or penalty — it's hard to not get caught up in the atmosphere. And that's the prolonged brilliance of the series.
With FIFA now one of the biggest gaming franchises in the world — with both critical and commercial success to its name — few would question EA if it were to clean up last year's FIFA and repackage it as FIFA 12. But we're starting to understand that's not how the current FIFA team operates. Having come from behind and taken the crown from last generation's footballing favourite, Pro Evolution Soccer, EA Canada is now improving upon itself. Contrary to the opinion of uninitiated critics, this is probably the biggest update the series has had in a few years.
The changes are introduced by an Interactive Tutorial that opens the moment you start. Martin Tyler's alongside you, and he wants to talk about defending. In previous FIFAs, defence was little more than an after-thought: you held the X button and hoped you'd get in a tackle. That's all changed with FIFA 12, giving a much more authentic pacing that makes being off the ball as much fun as being on it.
The changes take some getting used to — and can be switched back if you prefer — but ultimately result in much better paced matches with far more thought-provoking defending. Now you need to be just as switched on when you don't have the ball as when you do, and it brings a far more authentic feel. Your ultimate aim in defence is to make life as difficult as possible for the opponent, and it's genuinely satisfying when you prevent an opponent through a considered effort.
The Interactive Tutorial does a great job of explaining the mechanics concisely too, with a series of set-pieces laid out on the training pitch to settle you into the controls. Unfortunately, EA Canada hasn't taken it on board to craft Interactive Tutorials for each facet of FIFA's gameplay, meaning newcomers will still find it difficult to compete with online opponents with years of practice. There's room for improvement in the way that FIFA communicates with players, and despite a great UI overhaul and numerous presentation improvements, the game can still feel a bit intimidating.
But that's because there really is so much crammed into it. On the pitch a new Impact Engine adds weight to every collision on the pitch, triggering custom animations that add variety and life-like realism to the action. The result is a title that not only plays more authentically, but also looks less pre-determined. In addition, FIFA's 360-degree dribbling has been refined, allowing players to wriggle with the ball when in close quarters as opposed to being rooted to the spot. It's now possible to take more touches with the ball and retain tighter control.
And they're really just the headline features. EA Canada's introduced thousands of tweaks to the existing engine with the aim of creating a much more authentic experience. It would take hundreds of hours more than our working week contains to observe them all, but we can surmise that many are for the best.
We do have a couple of criticisms about the on-pitch action though. Goalkeepers now seem practically invincible in one-on-one encounters, saving pretty much anything — be it lobs or drives. Furthermore, the number of shots we've had hit the post or cross-bar seems suspect, almost like the PS3 is doing some artificial calculating to keep goal tallies down, which ruins the illusion a touch.
Passing doesn't feel quite right either. EA Canada's dropped the ping-pong mechanics of previous outings, opting for a more power-driven, analogue device. It works well much of the time, but we got frustrated occasionally by the ball not going where we intended. Perhaps we're the ones at fault, but crucially it didn't feel that way and so EA needs to refine this in future titles.
Presentation is spot-on, mimicking the flamboyance of Sky Sports as spinning logos bookmark replays and statistics. You'll get live updates on the happenings of other simultaneous matches, adding a touch of drama to proceedings — especially if you're competing against another team in a relegation or championship battle. Commentary is handled by Martin Tyler and Alan Smith, with both voices putting in a decent innings. We didn't hear too many repeated phrases during our time, though this is nearly always the test a sports game faces over time. Admittedly Alan Smith doesn't quite fit like Andy Gray, but he does a decent job. Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend provide commentary for other matches, creating some variety and adding a terrestrial/satellite diversity to the presentation.
Visually FIFA 12 looks stunning, with the same superb animation and uncanny player likenesses expected at this stage. The new Impact Engine adds some real crunch to heavy tackles, which is especially noticeable in slow motion replays.
Like the rest of the game, the Career Mode has been tweaked to offer a more authentic experience. You can choose to play as a Manager, Player or Player Manager, with Virtual Pros once again used to track your individual progression. We're not huge fans of the Management mode — otherwise we'd be playing Football Manager — but we appreciate its inclusion. Those that do will enjoy tweaks such as the transfer deadline day progressing in hours, in order to help you close those final deals. On that note, transfers feel that bit more natural, with clubs pushing for higher prices if they think they can get them. It's a cool addition and it adds some serious depth to the package if you enjoy the management side of sport.
When selecting a Virtual Pro, FIFA 12 still allows you to play matches entirely from your player's perspective, so you can enjoy playing as a lone striker, or goalkeeper, or winger, or whatever you prefer. There's a real sense of satisfaction when you do nothing all game, only to pop up in the final 20 minutes with a winning goal. And of course your Virtual Pro can be taken online, with a range of challenges on offer in order to improve your player's ability.
Online the experience has been improved dramatically, with the new Head To Head Seasons feature we alluded to earlier being a brilliant addition. Here you'll play a set number of matches, and will gain points through winning and drawing. Reaching a specific points tally once all your matches are completed will decide whether you get relegated, promoted or stay-put. There are ten leagues to progress through, with the ultimate conclusion being that everyone will find the appropriate "leagues" for their skill level once the launch period has settled. You'll also be able to participate in cup tournaments every few weeks.
Doing anything in the game earns you XP which contributes to your overall rank. This XP is then added to the average of your favourite team, with a separate Supporter's Cup running in the background. It's a bit shallow, but it's a cool addition, and is enhanced by an activity list that keeps track of what you and your friends are doing in-game. Perhaps the best feature of the Supporter's Club is the dynamic challenges section, which will update regularly with challenges based on real-world matches. For example, if there's a real-world match with an exceptional score-line — say a minnow team comes from behind to progress in the FA Cup — EA is able to recreate those scenarios, providing unique challenge conditions for you to comply to and a specific XP bonus to commend your success.
All of this is underlined by the excellent Arena feature, which is perhaps the best loading screen in any video game. It still continues to impress us today, even though it's featured in several FIFA titles over the years.
And that's before we even touch on the inclusion of FIFA Ultimate Team out of the box — EA Canada's part-sticker collecting, part-football game spin-off mode. If we were being cynical we'd argue that the mode's inclusion was designed to enhance the sale of micro-transactions, but seeing as you can play without investing a penny it's not really a problem.
FIFA 12 is staggering not just because it's comprehensive, but also because it's so cohesive. Modes, campaigns and features overlap each other, giving you a focused sense of progression and a variety of things to enjoy. But underneath all that — beneath the on-pitch action, gorgeous presentation and freedom to experience play as you wish — there's a love for the sport that's affectionate and intoxicating. Even if you don't love football, FIFA 12 will make you feel like you do. And that's wonderful.