So here we go once again, like the inevitable turning of the seasons or the impending approach of Monday morning so we have the latest addition to the ever increasing EA back catalogue. This annual event has taken the form of a head to head fight with football gaming aficionados waiting to see if FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer will provide them with the best armchair football. This recurring battle, of late, has seen the FIFA series emerge victorious despite FIFA 11 being largely regarded as a step back from the previous year’s installment. This year has seen the Pro Evolution series step up to the mark and has demonstrated a strong improvement in the last 12 months as can be seen in The Digital Fix’s review. So how does FIFA 12 fare in this hotly contested derby?
Off the pitch FIFA 12 has no equal with its absolutely immaculate presentation, something that it has always had and PES has always lacked. It’s something that we’ve grown to expect from FIFA but it should really get more praise for the presentation as it always manages to refine it and this year sees new levels of polish. The menu screens are slick and much quicker to navigate with loading times noticeably faster than in the previous game, this also thankfully applies to the simulation times of league and cup fixtures. Each match introduction has the glisten and shine of the highest level of television football coverage, some purists may find the sweeping logos and branding a bit much to stomach but the presentation just oozes quality. As expected this all plays out to the usual EA track list of contemporary music ranging from the popular (Kasabian) to the slightly more obscure (Architecture in Helsinki). As always this repetition of tracks will inevitably grate on your ears so be prepared to upload your own playlists for sanity, thankfully after a week playing FIFA the playlist still seems to be just on the right side of tolerable.
The commentary team has also been expanded this year (after the forced omission of Andy Gray due to his unique and public take on gender roles in football) with the team now totalling four commentators. For your standard matches players are treated to the dulcet tones of Alan Smith and Martin Tyler giving their take on proceedings whilst tournament matches are voiced by Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend. You can choose which commentators to have or in fact turn it off altogether if it begins to annoy, but unfortunately there is no ‘mute Andy Townsend’ option. The quality here is again very high and contextually the commentary is accurate enough,but you will inevitably have moments of hilarity such as your throw-in being exclaimed as a close shot on target.
When it comes down to how you want to play your football there are so many variations in FIFA 12, there is a game mode for everyone and the diversity and depth is staggering. The single player tournament and league modes are largely unchanged allowing to player to do as they wish, customizing and playing the competition of your choice, where the changes lie are with the new 'Head to Head Seasons' and 'Online Friendlies'. The 'Head to Head Season' sees you entering into what is basically an online league encompassing ten divisions with each season being made up of ten games, your performance by the end of the season will determine whether you get promoted or relegated.
The 'Head to Head Seasons' married with the online stats tracking leads to an enthralling competition as you track your stats against the global community and compete for silverware with a trophy available for each league. The 'Online Friendlies' is a richer version of the standard head to head online with friends or strangers, however with a few simple tweaks it has become much more engaging. Playing against your friends will see all the stats tracked and a ten game league being started, by the end of the ten games the winner will receive a trophy for their cabinet, this simple addition adds a great element for competition and plenty of stat tracking for bragging rights. Equally, playing against strangers has been improved with the matchmaking seeming much tighter this time and matches are much more fair and they are helped by the 'Did not Finish' percentage allowing you to avoid mid match quitters.
This community focus seems to have been at the heart of the development of Fifa 12, once again you can join and compete in 'Fifa Clubs' allowing you to take your virtual pro online and either recruit or join a team to compete in 10v10 matches, competing for both trophies and an overall ranking on the global leaderboard. While the competition has increased and become more streamlined it was noticeable that the lag issues that troubled the previous iteration has not been totally eradicated, hopefully it's something that will see improvement with the inevitable patching. The 'Ultimate Team' mode has also been introduced this year as an additional game mode, previously this had to be paid for but now it serves as another excellent addition to this years repertoire. Unfamiliar to most this mode may seem like some lightweight addition just filling out the game but that would be doing the 'Ultimate Team' mode a disservice. Beyond the improved interface the mode pretty much stays the same with you building your team via trading cards, buying and selling in auctions, managing contracts and eventually competing online against other teams. What could have been simply a tacked on element becomes a very involving,deep and possibly the most rewarding of all of the game modes in Fifa 12.
On top of these new modes you also have the 'Virtual Pro' mode making a return and also returning is the ability to manage a team, its much more involved this time and the transfer deadline window is now an exciting countdown that adds a great level of involvement. Suffice to say you will not grow tired of Fifa 12 any time soon, you will be able to approach the game in any way you want and customise it to suit you. EA have worked hard to build a community game and there are echoes of the 'Autolog' mechanic from the Need for Speed games here, the ability to track all stats and compare with friends and the wider community is enthralling and even the 'Challenge Mode' which gives you situational challenges daily based on real life matches adds a great layer of freshness.
When it reaches the time for a new FIFA release you will always hear someone say “It can’t be that different from last year”, and to an extent they can often be right. However this year there are major changes to the way the game plays and it in many ways feels more like a brand new franchise than a half baked update. EA have really pushed to advance the series, which is commendable, and this year sees the introduction of a trinity of new gameplay features, Precision Dribbling, the Impact Engine and Tactical defending.
The addition of the Impact Engine has given a real weight and physicality to FIFA 12 as it takes into account the player and the external forces acting upon them resulting in a higher level of realism. The collision physics can provide you with some fantastic moments and goal line scrambles that you wouldn’t get from procedural animations alone, with collision happening on and off the ball. It's not flawless however and there will be incidents that will be completely bizarre to witness, such as tackling a player only to see him roll into two other players forcing them to the ground. On the whole it works very well and these little incidents are more humorous than a deal breaker, like a character quirk in your best friend. The Impact Engine coupled with fantastic animations and ever more lifelike player models lends to a very organic looking game of football that its competitors just can't compete with.
Probably the best addition to the game mechanics this year is the precision dribbling, offering you the ability to take apart defenders with some close ball control. This is the key to FIFA 12 and will be the deciding factor between who wins and loses in any given match. The ability to run and shield the ball at the same time is a welcomed addition as previously if you wanted to protect the ball you ended up having to plant your feet and hold up. You can also now use precision dribbling to slow down to a light jog, holding the ball up and when you see an area of space you can change pace and make a burst into it. It’s a system that does work but it will take time to get used to, it will feel haphazard at first but stick with it and your offensive play will never have looked or felt better.
The most controversial feature of FIFA 12 and the first thing anyone who has played the previous games in the series will notice is the new tactical defending system. This new system is designed to allow the player to focus more on positional defending rather than the usual standard of the ‘pressing’ defence. There is a large focus on containment of the attacking team and this can be done using your selected player to restrict the movement of the player carrying the ball. You do this with a simple button press and it will keep you at a small distance as you try to usher the attacker in the direction you wish, waiting for that moment to make your move to steal possession. You can also send one of your uncontrolled players off to contain the ball carrier while you cover their second option making it difficult for the opposing team to break into the box. There is no doubt that this addition completely changes the game for FIFA but it does so with mixed results, when it works well it does feel that you are in complete control of the flow of the game.
There will be many instances when you are carved open like a Sunday roast with little ability to do anything about it, and that wavering between defending brilliantly to defending horrendously seems to be erratic at best. The main problem is the distance at which you contain the attacker, it just seems to be a yard too far with the attacker getting too much room to manoeuvre. If your player was just a yard or two closer then there would be less punishment if you mistime a tackle, as it stands with the current distance if you mistime your tackle there is so much room that the attacker is left to run free. This disparity appeared more evident in the matches played against the computer with the AI seeming to be able to close you down at will but defending against them resulted in them having acres of space. Playing against friends and strangers I did see a much better level of balance with the punishment of bad defending leading to some exciting last third battles. It's obvious EA were aware this could be a mechanic that divided the community so they have added the option to revert to the old style ‘Legacy’ defending, so fear not. I would urge you to stick with the tactical defending, as frustrating as it can be, and within a hour or two you will find it difficult to return to any of the previous versions.
As the smoke clears on the battleground of this years football head to head FIFA 12 emerges victorious once again, but with Pro Evolution Soccer’s improvement this year the gap is narrowing. There was a large gamble this year by FIFA with its game changing mechanics but they have by and large paid off, minor frustrations aside. Even in this early stage of release it's exciting to think about how this contest will pan out next year, but for now FIFA stands the taller of the two. FIFA 12 is football refined to a fine shine and polished with all the excitement of a derby match.