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Career Mode: Dave’s Impressions

There’s a new man at the helm of Career Mode these days and he just happens to be the lead producer of my favourite FIFA game of recent times, FIFA World Cup 2010. Simon Humber now has the black sheep of the FIFA family to shepherd though and it’s fair to say he has quite a task on his hands. But now more than ever is the time for Career Mode to finally step up and meet the expectations of its passionate and dedicated fan base.

Six weeks ago we sat down and spoke to the Career Mode development team and they asked us to rate the FIFA 11 managerial experience out of ten. The general consensus was that Career Mode last year was probably a 3/10 and the team in Vancouver agreed. But FIFA 12 is on the way now, riding on the crest of a revolutionary wave so how does the latest Career Mode offering stack up against last years managerial benchmark?

The Interface

The Career Mode layout hasn’t changed a great deal in FIFA 12, but to be honest there wasn’t any need for drastic overhaul anyway. What has happened though is an incredible amount of polishing, fine tuning and the addition of some really intelligent design choices.

The first being the in-game calendar which now embeds at the top of the homepage when you ‘advance’ through the mode. It’s a simple change but it keeps the mode feeling cohesive and maintains visibility of the big football stories evolving around you. The calendar icons which indicate upcoming friendly, league, cup and European matches are properly colour coded too, which means there’s no magnifying glass needed to decipher the minute badges seen in FIFA 11.

The speed at which Career Mode advances is certainly better too, although when the transfer window is open, it definitely slows up to accommodate for the extra information. Besides loading times the main thing which disrupts the flow of Career Mode is the constant stream of emails. The good news is that you can now deal with multiple transfer negotiations in one email, rather than receiving an individual email per player. What I think the game needs to do though, is prioritise emails better and only interrupt Career Mode advancing if an email requires genuinely urgent attention. It just feels a little bit stop, start, stop, start for me at the moment and there can be lack of fluidity between game weeks.

The media pane has also seen some welcome changes giving you the ability to view news stories in full now, without having to open a separate window. The information contained within the media stories is good and the transfers, offers and rumours we saw throughout the play test were all plausible, without being ridiculous.

The most important thing though is that the Career Mode homepage now feels and acts like a command centre for everything you accomplish as a manger. Whereas before it was just an index which would send you spiralling through unnecessary sub menus and grey drudgery. As I said at the start, there’s been no drastic overhaul to the interface but the aesthetic changes that have been made make Career Mode a genuinely pleasant place to experience your managerial journey.

Transfer Negotiations

Without doubt the best thing about any managerial simulation is the buying and selling of players. Nothing compares to the feeling of making a huge marquee signing for your club and there will be plenty of opportunity for this to happen in Career Mode, I assure you.

One feature I know everyone wanted was the ability to loan any player regardless of their contract status and thankfully it’s now in the game. You no longer have to rely on the game to offer up a decent selection of young loan talent as you can now in theory make a loan move for anyone, should their circumstances fit. As a test we tried to loan Xavi from Barcelona and were immediately slapped down and with our tail between our legs we swiftly moved on to other targets.

The other ‘most wanted’ transfer feature however, player plus cash deals, did not make the cut this time round. We spoke to the developers about this at length and whilst they do have a system which will make player plus cash deals work, they weren’t happy at all with the results being displayed by the CPU. Quite simply the AI to support, the valuation, whether a club want a player offered for exchange and the ensuing contract negotiations, just isn’t there yet. Player plus cash deals are a lot more complex than we realised and I’m happy the team are spending extra time to get it right, rather than adding it to Career Mode half finished.

A major plus point with transfers though is that the CPU will now make offers for players not transfer listed by you consistently. And when they do want one of your star players they can be ferocious in their attempts to sign them. I rejected four increased offers from Juventus for Dimitar Berbatov before eventually agreeing to sell him for 22 million. The bidding started at just 12.5 million, so it was very clear to me that Juventus had identified their primary target and were prepared to get their man at any cost, which was really satisfying to see.

For transfer negotiations to go to the next level I’d like to see some more contractual options around performance based incentives, now common place in today’s game and I’d also like the ability to set an asking price for a player if a bid comes in lower than my expectations. In my opinion there’s still an awful lot of work to do to flesh out Transfer Negotiations fully. The features that have been added this year do their jobs well, but the experience of buying and selling isn’t quite as inspiring as it could be.

Scouting and Youth Academy

After a period of absence longer than anyone expected, scouting is finally back in Career Mode and the implementation is top drawer. Firstly, it’s key to point out that the scouting system is for unknown youth players only and not players already present in the FIFA 12 database. It’s about unearthing a hidden gem and not finding out whether Xavi has a pass accuracy rating of 84 or 85.

To begin your scouting adventure you’ll need to hire one and you’ll be presented with four scouts initially, ranging in ability. The better the scout, the more money they cost, so lower league clubs will need to get by with lesser rated scouts to begin with. Personally, I think every club should start with at least one scout as default rather than having to sign one, but that’s a minor gripe. You can have a maximum of three scouts at your club and these can be chopped and changed as Career Mode progresses.

It will take a few days for your scout to join your club (just like a player transfer) but once signed you then need to decide on a region to send them to. The interface for doing this is excellent and it’s very similar to the team selection in FIFA World Cup 2010, clearly a favourite of Simon Humber’s. After selecting a region you then choose the type of player to search for, their position and so on. It will then take your scout a few weeks to set up a scouting network in that region before players begin to be suggested on a monthly basis.

The scout reports are presented really well too and you’ll be shown a potential OVR rating range (45-84) that the scout thinks a player could potentially reach. The more months you scout a player for, the tighter that range becomes, but if you wait too long rival clubs will step in and sign players should they be revealed as future superstars.

I’m torn about whether scouting should be used for players that already exist in FIFA 12’s database, as well as unknown youth because scouting the very top stars is an obvious waste of time. We already know Messi is a great player and that Sneijder can pick a pass.  But for gauging the potential ability of younger players already in FIFA 12, I really think this scouting model could be applicable and I hope it expands in future Career Modes.

Of course once you’ve signed a youth player they will be added to your Youth Academy, and from there you can track their development and when the time is right, give them some game time. Not every player will reach their full potential and you will invariably sign some duds, but after the scout has made his recommendations it’s down to you as the manager to cultivate raw potential with the aim of creating the next world superstar.

Team Management

There is one massive issue with Team Management in FIFA 12, which I’m afraid I just cannot get past. It isn’t solely a Career Mode issue either, because it annoys me in each and every FIFA 12 game mode available. The usability of the squad and formation management systems in FIFA is just, terrible. Changing a player’s base position requires a degree in Astro Physics, and that’s only if you can handle the sheer volume of button presses it takes to get in and out of the sub menus.

This isn’t just a FIFA 12 problem though because the Team Management menus are shared EA SPORTS technology, which is why it’s so bloody difficult to get rid of them. We hate them, the developers hate them, but until next year at the earliest we are well and truly stuck with them.

However, there is a new addition which makes the arduous squad management much easier to digest. The Alternate Selection system. Now, when you scroll down to your right back (for example) and press ‘triangle’ the player will highlight. You then use the d-pad to scroll left and right and the game will suggest replacement players for that position in order of suitability. It works brilliantly, firstly to reduce the volume of button presses and secondly the players it suggests are spot on. It’s a wonderful example of how simple innovation can work wonders and I can’t praise this inventive change highly enough.

As I said at the start this isn’t a Career Mode or even a FIFA 12 problem but when you’re in a mode which is trying to serve up a realistic management experience, you just can’t have something so restrictive in an area so fundamental. A new Team Management system needs to be priority number one, for FIFA 13.

Transfer Deadline Day

This one has been on the community wish list for a while now and its one of the new Career Mode features I’m most excited about for when release day comes round. Transfer deadline day is now a fully fledged mode of its own, attempting to bring the real world drama of the final hours of trading to life in Career Mode and boy does it succeed.

Transfer deadline day is broken down in to eight hourly slots which allow you to conduct multiple rounds of transfer negotiations. The communication back from clubs is prompt and deals can go through extremely quickly, if terms are agreed at the first time of asking. But when the drama really ramps up is when you struggle to agree terms and the hours begin to tick dangerously past. I’ll be honest, I caved and offered more money than I should have to force a deal for Ashley Young, but in the heat of deadline day drama you need to act on instinct.

In the top right of the screen, counters keep track of the number of deadline deals which have been completed and the total amount of money spent. Which when combined with the rapidly updating media pane provides excellent visibility of the transfers happening elsewhere in Career Mode. Most importantly it gives you the feeling that you’re personal agenda is only a small part of something much, much bigger.

In FIFA 11’s Career Mode the transfer deadline day passes with a whimper and poorly constructed news article. In FIFA 12 it passes with an adrenaline filled, mad dash, to get that one crucial signing in the bag for your title challenge. As a sensible manager you’d have all your signings tied up well before any last ditch drama. But to be honest, I’m tempted to leave all my transfer dealings until deadline day in FIFA 12, just for the rush. Without doubt a AAA addition to Career Mode.

Squad Report

Another new addition to Career Mode is the Squad Report system which allows you to track and compare player growth and statistics throughout the season. The design and layout of the Squad Report is really well constructed and it works brilliantly to provide a top level, managerial overview of your entire squad.

The screen is split in two (as always) with the left panel showing a list of your squad members and the right hand side showing player’s stats in full. Player growth is tracked very simply by green or red pluses and minuses, so you can see at a glance where a player is improving. You can view player form and morale (which are both back) within the Squad Report but crucially they have been added to Team Management as well.

The Squad Report screens also track player statistics across the competitions you take part in. One thing which always used to annoy me was that the game would never show you how many yellow cards a player was away from a suspension in different competitions. So as a manager you never knew whether to rest a player to protect them for a crucial match, the following week. Thankfully the Squad Report now has this information along with other many other useful player statistics.

My one criticism is that the Squad Report is so brilliant and so helpful, why isn’t it plugging in to every facet of Career Mode and Squad Management? It’s a more efficient way to view and compare player stats and most importantly its displayed full screen. And because it isn’t weaved in to the fabric of Career Mode deeply enough, the Squad Report feels a little bit tacked on at the moment, almost separate. Its influence should be consistent in all squad based decision making for me as it’s simply too good an implementation for this opportunity to pass by.

Player Stories

As well as looking after transfer policy and getting results on the pitch, you’ll also need to handle the games biggest egos in Career Mode. Player Stories can pop up at any time and are based on a number of different scenarios including, morale, retirement, form, wanting to play, new signings and many more. It is then down to you as the manager to deal with the situation appropriately and live with the consequences.

The best example I saw of Player Stories at work, actually happened during the Career Mode play test six weeks ago and the scenario involved big spending Man City. Who with their financial muscle targeted ‘best player in the world’ Lionel Messi. After much negotiation they eventually managed to get their man for £80 million and 250K per week wages. I know most people were annoyed by ‘player affinity’ preventing massive transfers between big clubs last year and this deal proves it’s now possible.

After Messi had made his much anticipated Man City debut, a Player Story appeared from David Silva stating his unhappiness at the new acquisition as he didn’t feel he’d get enough game time whilst superstar Messi was in the team. Personally I though that was a fantastic reaction to the transfer story, however it then got even better. After Silva’s moan the Man City board stepped in saying that they would leave it up to the manager to decide whether to sell Silva but would support any move to keep him against his will, in a word, awesome.

That’s just one example of course and already you can see that Player Stories are reacting really well to Career Mode events. My only worry is that over multiple seasons the stories the game portrays may begin to repeat themselves and the wow factor that the Messi/Silva saga provided could be lost. Only time will tell I guess but if the scenarios stay varied then Player stories could be a real tale of success in FIFA 12’s Career Mode.

Commentary

As I’m sure you all know by now, Martin Tyler and Alan Smith will be taking the English commentary reins in FIFA 12 and having listened to them in action, I think people will be surprised at the impact Alan Smith in particular has on the game. But aside from the general gameplay commentary there is also a lot of specific dialogue focussed entirely on Career Mode.

When your first match of the season comes round the commentators discuss your clubs ambitions for the season, where you’re squad may be lacking and in some cases even the clubs history. This adds so much to the immersion of the mode and the fact that EA have dedicated so much recording time to Career Mode, shows their intent to improve this aspect of the mode going forward.

Another brilliant addition is the use of multiple commentary teams for league and cup competitions. David Rutter informed us that you’ll have Tyler/Smith for Career Mode league games and then Tyldesley/Townsed for cup matches. If you desperately hate one of the duos then you can pick and choose yourself, but I can’t see why you’d want to? Variety being the spice of life and all that.

The success of the specific Career Mode commentary is going to come down to how in depth it actually is. As soon as you start hearing the same lines over and over the spell is broken and whilst repetition is inevitable in a game like FIFA, it can and should be minimised.

Bugs/Glitches

It’s worth noting, before I plough in to my verdict that we did encounter some bugs during our time with Career Mode. Which to be honest when you’re playing alpha code is to be expected. The vast majority of things we flagged up were met with the response “already fixed” which was pleasing to hear but I just want you guys to be aware of the full picture.

Verdict

I’ll be honest with you. This is not going to be the all singing, all dancing Career Mode that everyone ‘dreams’ of having to compliment FIFA’s gameplay. There are just too many big things still missing to call the mode anywhere near complete or perfect. This feeling is also enforced by some of the aging tech still being utilised by Career Mode, like the Team Management interface. This in my eyes has no place in a modern day football game and should be cast aside at the earliest opportunity.

It’s also worth mentioning that whilst all the above features sound great, the success of Career Mode this year is ultimately going to come down to the modes stability and reliability, long term. If we start getting widespread game save corruptions, players disappearing and regular crashes, much of the excellent work done in the features department will be irrelevant. Career Mode is as much at the mercy of bugs and glitches as it is to the actual innovation by the development team.

Having said that, for the first time in about three years I’m actually seeing genuine progression in Career Mode and when you see things you fed back to the devs six weeks ago, now in the game and flourishing, it makes it all of this worth while. Career mode seems to have a defined vision now and you get a real sense that the team in Vancouver know how to achieve it.

If FIFA 11’s Career Mode was a 3/10, this year’s is probably a strong 6/10 maybe even 7/10, if we get the stability we crave. That’s a pretty huge leap in one development cycle and for the first time, in years I actually believe that under Simon Humber’s stewardship, Career mode can continue to develop and improve year on year.

Career Mode is good this year and it will be the most playable and enjoyable Career Mode we’ve seen this generation. The ‘great’ however, may take just a little longer.

No pressure Simon…

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