The old maxim “change is good” begrudgingly sits alongside its counterpart “change is hard.” And while my initial experience with FIFA 12 tended to associate more with the latter, I found myself pleasantly surprised and coming around to believe that change is–in fact–a good thing.
It won’t be long into your time with FIFA 12 until you notice that it has changed dramatically. This year, EA Sports has delivered an all-together more tactical and elegant experience with game-changing features in key areas across the pitch. And while EA Sports could have easily built-upon FIFA 11 by just updating the teams and squads as many annual sports franchises do (and believe me at first I really wish they had), the developers chose to overhaul some of the core gameplay mechanics that the franchise has relied upon for years, and it works.
On the surface, FIFA 12 still retains the sensational fluidity and high level production values the series is known for; you still have the coveted exclusive licenses, real players, teams and leagues. The detailed level of animation is still top-notch, and it all comes together to give you the most authentic football experience you could have from home.
However, you really start noticing the changes when you take control of a defender and experience what the game is like off the ball. What you’ll discover right away is a more authentic, tactical, and physical defensive game than last year’s offering, that will cause even the most veteran FIFA players to rethink their approach entirely. And it’s not until you stop playing FIFA 12 as if it were FIFA 11 in a pretty new dress that you’ll start to appreciate that fact.
All That Glitters
And what about that pretty new dress? Well, first off FIFA 12 doesn’t look all too different from last year–which isn’t really a bad thing. Load the game and apart from EA Sports’ continuing attempt to further “ESPNize” the presentation, not a whole lot has changed visually.
You may notice that slight improvements to the lighting and player likenesses over last year’s effort, which is expected of series with yearly releases. Other than that, you would be forgiven for mistaking last year’s effort for this one, but it isn’t the changes in appearance–or lack thereof–that provide the significant alterations. Instead, the changes are felt in the gameplay and right when you lace up those boots you’ll feel the difference.
Probably the most accurate description of FIFA 12’s engine would be that it is ‘heavier.’ From the reduced player sprint speeds, to the weight of the ball, the new physics and collision detection provides an overriding weightiness to gameplay.
In previous FIFA titles a slide or standing tackle would activate a handful of scripted animations, now there are no set animations, so to speak. Instead players’ body parts react to collisions depending on the position, direction and force of the impact.
What this means is that while on defense, pressing a button and reaching out for an attacker’s shoulder will cause the defender to stretch his hand out, reducing his speed in order to get close and get stuck in with a tackle. Similarly, a sliding tackle might miss the ball, but catch the attacker’s back leg, messing up his stride.
It all translates to a more physical game that requires players to think about their offensive and defensive tactics.
As an attacker–unless you’re Wayne Rooney or Didier Drogba–trying to muscle through a crowd of defenders is probably a bad idea. Not only do you have to protect the ball from marauding defenders, you have to think about all the shoulders that are going to knock you about and slow you down.
As a defender, the implementation of the new Player Impact Engine is even more significant because you need to think about how to not only use your feet, but you’ll also have to be mindful of where you put yourself because every inch of every leg is sensitive to being fouled. Clip a runner in the box and you’ve just gone from hero to villain by conceding that crucial penalty.
And while in past FIFA titles it may have been a viable option to overcome defenders with pure speed or play the long-ball down the pitch (we’re looking at you, Chelsea), the new Player Impact Engine definitely makes for a more realistic experience, requiring you to work around obstacles and mix up play. Overall, it’s a great addition–but it’s not without its quirks.
The referees are, at times, not up to detecting the new found physicality of the game and the calls can be maddeningly inconsistent. They don’t call fouls enough, and the collision detection is a little lacking at times due to the increased physicality of the new impact engine. To be fair though, this is more the exception than the rule and doesn’t detract from the overall improvements the new physics engine provides.
A Big Piece of P.I.E.
While the Player Impact Engine (P.I.E) does its fair share to force you to reconsider your approach to FIFA 12 in general, the addition of the overhauled defensive system will make you rethink how you tackle as well.
What the new tackling system does is take away the ability to hold the pressure button in order to zero in on the ball and effortlessly dispossess it from the attacker. In FIFA 12, while you can still hold down the button to close in on an attacker, the game sets up an invisible wall–stopping you short of the ball–requiring players to hit the tackle button at the opportune moment, or slide in with a slide tackle. Does this make defending more difficult? Sure it does, but it also makes it that much more intense, and altogether satisfying.
Simply speaking, manual tackling is tough, miss a tackle and you’re likely to get burned, but hang in there because you will get used to it. It works well, and once mastered you’ll feel a greater sense of defensive achievement than ever before.
The changes with the gameplay at first make it feel like the defense now has more of an advantage, but with the right moves and tactics, skilled players can exploit even greater attacking opportunities as well.
In With the Nou
While everything mentioned above greatly contributes to FIFA 12 feeling different, it’s far from the only tweaks EA Sports have delivered. The difficulty level has been severely cranked up and player AI has seen vast improvements–meaning Barcelona will play their famous brand of Tiki-Taka football in the famed Camp Nou stadium, while AC Milan will look to find the talismanic Zlatan Ibrahimovic near goal. Even though this type of feature can seem subtle and more of an under the hood change, it’s one that helps push FIFA 12 towards a more realistic and improved experience.
As for the audio, this year Martin Tyler is joined by Alan Smith in the commentator’s box. And while Smith performs admirably, longtime commentator and outspoken Scottish rogue, Andy Gray, is definitely missed.
Career Mode has seen a number of tweaks as well, including an updated user interface requiring managers to make tough decisions while keeping the board happy. Players will now become disenfranchised due to a lack of playing time and therefore demand to move on if they don’t. There is even a fleshed out scouting and youth-team feature that can be tinkered with, as well as a more realistic and engaging transfer system.
Online, FIFA 12 really shines this year with the introduction of a new “Head to Head Seasons” mode. Head to Head Seasons focuses on you, your season, and your division. There are 10 divisions to progress through, with 10 games per season to try to get promoted (and avoid relegation). Throw in various cup competitions along the way and you have a truly dynamic online experience. Add to the list the returning and popular Be a Pro Mode, and Pro Clubs, and FIFA 12 really offers a lot of depth online.
FIFA 12 isn’t a complete reinvention of the wheel that many may have expected (and I’m not sure FIFA fans really want it to be), but this year’s additions cannot be written off as mere updates. Rather than attempt to cash-in and rest on its laurels, EA Sports chose the brave route this year in steering the series in a slightly different direction, and it pays dividends.
While FIFA 12 may suffer the occasional oddness, refereeing hiccups and steep learning curve in the beginning, it is an altogether polished experience that delivers an authentic tempo and improves upon past FIFA titles in every way thanks to incredible gameplay, amazing production values and a wealth of game modes. While the changes to FIFA 12 may seem hard to adapt to for many fans at first, by sticking with it and realizing what EA is attempting to offer, football fans will go from skeptics to believers, and realize that change is indeed hard, but good.
Final Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by EA)