Since the onset of the current console generation EA’s Fifa has evolved into a true football lover’s game. Gone is the simplistic ‘pick-up-and-play’ nature that defined the series pre-2007, replaced by something altogether more in-depth, more complex, and more grown up. In its quest to replicate the real-life sport as accurately as possible Fifa has taken on an almost religious following of fans seeking the promised land of the perfect digital-beautiful game.
While we’re not quite in heaven yet, we’re getting closer. Fifa 12 represents the biggest leap forward for the crown jewel in EA Sports’ catalogue since the overhaul that occurred with Fifa 08.
Most pleasingly, the ambition demonstrated by Fifa 12’s new game modes seems to be matching that shown by the gameplay tweaks that have taken place over the past few years. Front and centre is ‘EA Sports Football Club’, a feature made immediately prominent thanks to its very own video intro that plays the first time you load up the game.
Essentially, Football Club is a much-expanded version of EA’s Autolog feature that first appeared in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. The focus of the ‘Autolog’ in Fifa 12 is on player-to-player networking, ranking your performance against other real players and (this being football) bragging rights.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Football Club is ‘Support Your Club.’ Like Fifa’s past you’re asked to select your favourite team upon start up, but this time (rather than merely affecting the default teams for Exhibition Match) you’ll be partly reasonable for that team’s worldwide rank.
Thanks to an RPG-esque experience system in which you earn points for every match in every mode Football Club is able to rank each club based on the average amount of XP earned across all supporters of each club. Presumably the idea is to highlight which team’s fans are the best Fifa players – meaning the likes of Portsmouth, New York Red Bulls and Plymouth Argyle could find themselves above Man Utd and Barcelona in the Football Club league table.
More XP is awarded for difficult feats, so if you’re a long-suffering Oldham Athletic fan then you might want to jump straight in and try to get the likes of Swansea, QPR and Wigan into the Champions League while playing on the most difficult setting. Even in Fifa, live is hard for Oldham fans…
Other Football Club features include various leader boards which rank you against friends in a wide-variety of categories, such as longest distance goal, most goals, most wins, total XP etc. There’s also a constantly updated Challenge mode which provides you with the chance to overturn recent results. A Challenge is currently up and running which tasks you with playing as Chelsea and overturning the 3 – 1 defeat they suffered at the hands of Man Utd last weekend.
Joining EA Sports Football Club in the multiplayer stakes is Head to Head Seasons. Split into 10 seasons of 10 games, Head to Head seasons are a great option for those that enjoy playing competitive matches but are tired of the traditional ‘Ranked Match’ limitation. Throughout the 10 seasons you can be promoted and relegated, and take part in league-specific cup competitions, with a view to finishing as high as possible come the finale of season 10.
While we haven’t had the opportunity to indulge in this mode fully (thanks to the limitations of reviewing multiplayer modes pre-release) the potential is clearly there and should keep players interested in the game for far longer than random matches against random players.
It’s not only the multiplayer modes that have seen expansion, however. Career Mode is a much more robust and in-depth proposition thanks to greatly improved presentation (in the form of news stories, stats layout etc), more realistic long-term stamina degradation of players, increased transfer frequency and a ‘transfer day’ implementation which replicates the kind of craziness we saw this past August. A few ridiculous transfers still pop up from time-to-time (in one of our seasons both Nani and Pedro signed for Tottenham) but there’s no denying that things have improved.
Things have improved (again) on the pitch as well – most obviously with the manner in which players physically interact with one another and the way you’re asked to defend. Defending is much more cerebral, the emphasis on keeping a solid formation and being patient – improved dribbling and passing mean anyone intent on simply driving in at every opportunity will concede four or five goals a game.
The LT/L2 ‘jockey’ button is one you’ll need to become familiar with in order to retain a solid defensive line and provide multiple layers of players for the attackers to penetrate. When defending, the A button (X on PS3) allows you to shadow an offensive player and get in the perfect position to either attempt a tackle or force your opponent out wide as you wait for defensive support. Both of these tactics work thanks to the improved AI of the defenders not under your direct control.
As a result, defensive set-ups are a legitimate means of winning games and frustrating your opponents; further diversifying the tactical options at your disposal and reacting to tactics on-the-fly mid-game. Solid defensive performances that lead to draws or wins when playing as an inferior team are just as satisfying as 5 – 0 victories when playing as the likes of talent-packed Man City, Barcelona or Spain.
It also helps that goal keepers are much smarter and better at shot stopping. In Fifa 12 defence really does win championships.
Physical interactions have taken a massive step forward thanks to the ‘Player Impact’ engine. Rather than canned animations, players react organically to bumps and shunts based on the force, direction and the body part in question. Players now trip over each other’s heels, perform headers and tackles more realistically and suffer injuries more in line with the area of impact.
Not all players react in the same way to every tackle either. Messi, Ronaldo, David Silva and other payers with good balance and quick feet are able to survive jostles through finesse, while strong players like Drogba, Hulk and Vidic simply shrug many players off. As a result, you’ll see new falls, tackles and goal scenarios in almost every game.
There’s also an amazing variety in the little details. Stadiums are modelled so closely on their real-life counterparts that they could be used to plan a terrorist attack – the Bernabau of Real Madrid is particularly impressive, creating a real sense of claustrophobia due to the height and steep angle of the stands. The default camera angle also changes depending on which stadium you’re playing in and where the TV camera gantries are positioned, a nice touch that heightens the illusion of a TV broadcast.
Elsewhere, fans sing team-specific chants, referees come with their own idea of what is and isn’t a foul and some players (Ashley Young, for example) even run in the unique way they do in reality. On the other hand, commentary is still a bit hit-and-miss and the optional handballs feature still doesn’t work, but those hardly detract in any major way.
If you’re looking for a realistic, thoughtful and exhaustive recreation of the beautiful game then Fifa 12 is the best option you’ve ever had. Just be prepared to put in the time if you harbour ambitions of Champions League wins, a glorious return to the Premiership with Swindon Town or keeping a clean sheet with Tottenham.