FIFA 13 hands-on preview

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I don’t know FIFA all that well, both the intricacies of both EA Sports’ series of sims and the real-life pro sport. It’s soccer to me, not football (or futbol). I have to Google terms and abbreviations like “FC” just to understand what’s being discussed when the subject comes up. In short, I am probably not the ideal guy to speak with authority on FIFA 13.

Yet here I am, talking to you about FIFA 13. Maybe I don’t know the sport very well, but I thoroughly enjoy a good pickup match and actually have a running FIFA 12 feud with one of my closest friends. We play frequently, I get schooled just as frequently, and I keep coming back for more. It’s really a credit to the EA Canada dev team that the game, and really the series as a whole, is so brilliantly accessible. You don’t need to understand soccer. Sure, it helps, but the game’s controls and rules are simple enough to grasp that bringing even a neophyte up to speed is a non-issue.

I lay all of this out just so you understand where this preview is coming from. EA recently paid a visit to New York City for a holiday preview event and I got to spend a little bit of time playing FIFA 13. The demo wasn’t some elaborate showcase of the game’s new features, and I didn’t even get to see all of the new elements. It was just an open station where a person could walk up, sit down, snatch a controller, and play a little footy. I can’t tell you which teams were queued up, but I can tell you that FIFA 13 feels just as easy to get a grasp on and literally hit the ground running with as FIFA 12 was. The controls are responsive, the visuals continue to improve, and the play is just flat-out fun.

The hands-on time wasn’t completely devoid of peeks at the new content. One feature that I got a better sense of (after reading about it in the press release) was the game’s improved attacking intelligence. The simplest way to describe it is, AI-controlled players used to only consider the area immediately around them and the particulars of their assigned position. The computer brain is much smarter now, taking in the whole field on a moment-to-moment basis and adjusting tactics accordingly to help create better opportunities. This is especially true as you approach the opposing team’s net. I have a tendency to approach from the outside, and I noticed that my AI-managed teammates were much better (as compared to last year’s game) about tying up defenders and hanging onto a space in the center for me to send the ball to.

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Handling the ball also feels more precise. In general, FIFA tends to do a good job of making you feel like you’re in control when you’ve got possession. When opposing team members get close, however, I’ve found that it can often be hard to deke your way past them. Maybe it’s less of an issue for pro players, but I found that I had a much easier time steering the ball away from a potential steal using the game’s manual dribble controls. Perhaps it was the opponent I was facing or just a few lucky escapes, but these instances stood out to me for being noticeably easier in terms of maintaining control of the ball than FIFA 12 was.

Really though, what we’re looking at here is more FIFA. The “if it ain’t broke” philosophy applies in a big way here. This is not a series that is in desperate need of re-tooling or mechanical fixes. EA Canada has an established formula that really works on the level of delivering an authentic simulator that is also incredibly fun to play. It’s something that continues to shine through based on the brief amount of time I spent kicking the virtual soccer ball around.

There are more new elements in FIFA 13 that you could easily absorb from a press release. Animations have been improved considerably, specifically with regards to player impacts. Free kicks have been re-tooled to offer even more opportunities for both the offense and the defense. Then there’s the EA Sports Football Club (FC!), which is essentially the FIFA equivalent of the likes of Autolog or Battlelog. You’ll have a profile, earn levels, net yourself some rewards, and generally just leave a digital footprint that offers onlookers a snapshot of your FIFA 13 performance.

All of these are welcome bells and whistles, but none of them really amount to anything game-changing, certainly not to the point that a casual player would sit down and notice them. They’re there for the hardcore enthusiasts to sit down, analyze, and measure against what’s come before. For everyone else, FIFA 13 continues to be one of the greatest sports games out there that you don’t need to know anything about in order to enjoy. That’s probably not going to change before the game launches on September 28. I may not have any team pride and I may feel a bit of triumph in being able to use a term like “FC” correctly, but I can always spot a good game. FIFA 13 is, by all appearances, a good game and one that you’ll enjoy all that much more than you did FIFA 12 before it.