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FIFA 12 Gameplay Impressions

Ok, it’s the one you’ve all been waiting for the FIFASoccerBlog FIFA 12 Gameplay Impressions from the two days we recently spent playing the game at EA Guildford. It’s a comprehensive preview and it pulls no punches, so sit back relax and enjoy the ride. Hit the comments afterwards and let us know what you think.

Impact Engine

Before heading to Guildford the Impact Engine was without doubt the most talked about new gameplay feature for FIFA 12, as it virtually defined the studios new vision of revolution. But the community had reservations about how physical things would become on a playing field which many already consider to be over zealous.

The good news is that when the Impact Engine works, it looks and feels fantastic. The real time animations portray the multiple points of contact between players with incredible believability and it’s a level of realism we’ve never seen before in a FIFA title. But with every venture in to new territory there comes great risk, and sadly the Impact Engine is displaying some troubling signs.

The issues don’t actually seem to be with the initial tackle or incident; the problems tend to arise during the aftermath of a challenge or off the ball. Players sometimes tangle awkwardly and there seems to be a lack of avoidance logic particularly when players have gone to ground or fallen over. There are also some weird instances when players will violently jolt a yard or two apart when the real time animation engine almost don’t know what to compute. It doesn’t destroy the experience but it does break the spell on an otherwise engaging affair.

Another issue which quite a few people picked up on over the course of the play test was the inconsistency of refereeing decisions which can only be pinned on the Impact Engine I’m afraid. FIFA 11’s animations had an almost yes/no outcome which made them look visually poor but it made an AI referee’s job extremely easy. Now that collisions happen organically, displaying multiple points of contact, the referees seem to struggle to interpret quite “obvious” fouls. It’s a knock on effect from the Impact Engine which no one really saw coming but due to the added intricacy of collisions it now makes total sense.

One thing I know a lot of you don’t like is the perception that FIFA’s players tend to “skate” around the pitch showing a lack of connection between turf and boot. Well the good news is that in FIFA 12 challenges now carry and preserve momentum allowing players to continue when clipped or unbalanced. The bad news is that there’s still no sign of genuine weight transfer and inertia in player movement which is what I think causes the “skating” issue. I’m not going to pull any punches, it’s still there.

One major Impact Engine positive though is the Self Injuries system which seems to be working wonderfully. The best example we saw on the day was Theo Walcott pulling up with a muscle injury mid-sprint. Now the animation was lovely but the most important thing was the context of Theo’s Self Injury. Around 10 minutes earlier he had been clattered by Lampard, the game was deep in to stoppage time and well it’s Theo Walcott, who is injury prone at the best of times. All the factors added up and it just felt and looked right.

I’ll stress that the build we played was pre-alpha code which is ridiculously early but none the less I can only judge the Impact Engine on what I saw on the day. When it works it’s near genius but when it’s doesn’t you’re left scratching your head. The overwhelming positive is the Self Injury system which seems to be working really well at the moment but the core of the Impact Engine needs some work and the creases in collision and avoidance need to be ironed out.

Tactical Defending

Tactical Defending for me is one of the biggest improvements to FIFA 12 because it fundamentally changes the way you control players at a very basic level. Gone is the horrific pressure system and in its place is Contain. Getting to grips with this new mechanic is the hardest thing about Tactical Defending and combined with the new timed tackling, you find yourself being bypassed by dribbling opponents very easily at first.  But as time goes and you become used to the control scheme the merits of this new defensive system begin to shine through.

Contain is not something to be used continually though, far from it. Knowing where and when to use it, is the key to its success and in one on one situation’s it adds a real cat and mouse affair to defending in FIFA 12. When you do get to grips with it and you do get the timed button press right, the feeling of tackling an opponent using Contain is second to none and it provides a sense of achievement that auto-tackle could only ever dream of.

The other major feature of Contain is the ability to drop off or close down with the left analogue stick. This works really well for buying yourself some time in difficult situations as you are no longer forced to commit to a tackle at the earliest opportunity. My only gripe with it is that the shortest Contain distance is perhaps a little too far away. Something contextual to allow you to get closer (than the default) in very tight situations like near the touchline would be a most welcome addition.

The other key thing to mention is that you still have the standard defensive jockey system (L2) in FIFA 12 as well and making Tactical Defending work is about balancing the use of these different systems. You need to think about defending now which is perhaps highest praise I can give Tactical Defending really. Holding a single button isn’t going to cut it this year and those who master Contain and have a varied tactical approach to defending will really enjoy themselves. Defending is an engaging experience now and it sits on par with attacking as genuinely fun element of FIFA 12.

Tactical Defending makes FIFA 12 a much more considered affair and now that the awful pressing system has gone everyone has more time on the ball and everything has become a bit more measured. All that’s needed is a little fine tuning, but even in its current state Tactical Defending is a real success story for FIFA 12.

Precision Dribble

For me dribbling in FIFA 12 is the star of the show and the new Precision Dribble is an utter revelation at times, allowing you do things I thought would never be possible in a FIFA title.  The extra layer of close control that you have is just outstanding and you can use it in so many ways rather than it just being a tool for going past defenders.

One of the most impressive things about Precision Dribble is that it has contextual elements which will trigger in certain situations. In very tight areas players will show an extra level of control and awareness taking even tighter touches than before. They’ll also shield automatically too which shows a real intelligence for the situation the player is in rather than it being a mathematical calculation.

Dribbling is powerful now make no mistake about it and while you’re still acclimatising to Tactical Defending that power is certainly felt, maybe even enhanced.  But over time it certainly balances out and Precision Dribble stands out for me as the very best of the trinity of gameplay features. Picking up the ball and running at defenders has never felt so good and Precision Dribble has given FIFA 12 that je ne sais quoi which elevates the gameplay to new heights.

Pro Player Intelligence

Of the trinity of gameplay features Pro Player Intelligence is definitely the most un-assuming of the three. In fact right at the start when you’re jolted by the huge changes to defending and the Impact Engine you almost don’t notice it at all. But just because it isn’t rammed in your face from the first moment doesn’t mean that behind the scenes Pro Player Intelligence isn’t hard at work.  

Personality+ started the process last year and Pro Player Intelligence has certainly taken things up a notch. What’s most important for me is that the players now feel a little bit more individual. Is it as good as it could be? No, but it’s a big step in the right direction. Players like Drogba, Fabregas, Nasri, Lampard now really stand out because of their attributes and using them appropriately can have devastating results.

Drogba is a physical powerhouse to be feared, Fabregas’s passing is crisp and precise, Nasri’s dribbling is simply stunning and Fat Frank knows where the goal is. The individual qualities of players are accentuated now which with FIFA’s mammoth player roster simply had to happen. EA never get enough credit for individuality simply because the spectrum the game covers is so huge, but now it’s just starting shine through.

The player vision maps which we’ve heard so much about also have a nice impact on proceedings. Especially with a player like Fabregas who can control, swivel and hit wonderful passes in one single flowing movement. Try the same with Alex Song and the outcome is wildly different, which is so important to make the star players stand-out. It’s subtle and it isn’t evident all the time but in those key moments when a killer pass is required, you’ll know who you want to be delivering it.

It’s difficult to judge Pro Player Intelligence and give you a definitive verdict because we only had access to a small number of teams so I can’t tell you for example how vision maps and threat analysis filter through the leagues. Which in many ways is the most important thing about Pro Player Intelligence but none the less the signs are good and I can’t wait to see how this affects the bigger picture later in the year.

AI

Hmmm where to begin with the AI… Well it’s certainly a mixed bag with some good and some not so good. The major problem that I have with the “not so good” is that the problems are all too familiar for my liking and AI issues flagged up long ago still seem to remain in FIFA 12.

This first one has been a gripe of mine for years and it’s entirely directed at the AI movement and off the ball runs that your team-mates and the CPU make. Quite simply the movement is way too static and way too linear. When you break from midfield the strikers ahead of you just run in straight lines, they don’t move diagonally, peel off or drop short, nothing it’s all incredibly one dimensional. This means that you have to work really hard to create space and chances rather than it being part of natural build-up play.

The reverse happens in midfield where you’d want your team-mates to come looking for the ball, to make runs beyond the strikers, run in to the channels and they just don’t do it unless instructed. The gameplay as a whole is much more structured now which I really like but it’s almost too rigid. At times players seem strictly bound to their positional roles rather than reacting to on the pitch events. Again, it’s all just a little bit one dimensional and far too familiar.

There are positives though and I’m not just going to bash the AI repeatedly as it doesn’t deserve it. In possession the CPU is much better now and they’ll keep the ball for extended periods pinning you in your own half whilst probing for opportunities. When you combine this with Tactical Defending it makes for some really interesting battles against the CPU.  They also don’t cross anywhere near as much and there’s much better variety in the way the AI attacks your goal.

But with every AI positive there seems to be a negative because when the AI does probe and it does make that yard of space they very rarely punish you by actually shooting. Even on World Class they still have a tendency to hesitate when getting a chance and by the time they’ve taken two unnecessary touches it’s far too late. It’s so frustrating because on World Class I want the AI to punish my mistakes and show that killer instinct in front of goal, but it just doesn’t.

Without doubt the AI of your team-mates and the CPU is the biggest limiting factor with FIFA 12 right now and it underpins everything good and bad about the gameplay. What worries me most is that implementing intelligent movement isn’t an overnight job and to fix these issues the development team are going to have to move mountains before release. Unless of course there were things missing from the pre-alpha build we played, which is entirely possible but I can only judge what was in front of me. The most worrying section of my gameplay impressions, bar none. 

Ball Physics

Picking things back up now after the uncomfortable read that was the AI section we have ball physics and all of a sudden the smile is back on my face. I didn’t think there was a great deal of room left for improvement in ball physics after FIFA 11 but I’m happy to admit I was wrong.

The ball now has so much more weight and feeling to it than before .So much so that you actually believe you’re striking through a football now, rather than an inanimate object. The ball now carries its own mass and the realism of its flight when passing, crossing and shooting is the highest of eye candy.  It now also feels completely detached from the players, deflecting and bouncing where ever the physics determine rather than feeling magnetised to the nearest player.

The biggest improvement felt by the new ball physics though is in the shooting which is a tremendous step up from FIFA 11. The shot trajectory is much lower and you’ll need to be a lot more precise with the power bar to get the right elevation and placement. Shots also have fewer tendencies to balloon wildly and anything which goes over the bar now flies in to the crowd rather than looping on top of the net. The curl on shots has also been reined in with the wild left to right swing now smoothed out to a more realistic bend and dip. As you can tell from my lavishing of praise so far shooting gets my approval, no question.

My one negative is with passing because for me it still lacks that little bit of zip at the top end. At times it can feel quite sluggish and it lacks enough light and shade to allow you to inject some urgency when the situation calls for it. It’s a shame because shooting has that zip now but passing just doesn’t and only a small tweak to the top end passing speed would resolve the problem instantly.   

Graphics

How the game’s graphics are shaping up is a difficult one to call really as all of the cosmetic enhancements to FIFA usually happen last. But FIFA 12 certainly looks better than FIFA 11 even now, and that’s purely down to the new lighting which is a real joy in certain weather conditions.

The lighting is much more subtle now and the high contrast look to the game has been paired back. I know a lot of people (myself included) thought that FIFA 11’s colour palette was way too bright giving the game an almost cartoon feel at times. Thankfully the softened lighting has removed that garish edge and everything seems a little bit more real now. I’d even go as far as to say that FIFA 12 can be quite gritty at times, especially in overcast weather which I really, really like. It still looks like FIFA though make no mistake about it and no one is going to be utterly blown away by the graphics as the changes are subtle but it’s a more grown-up presentation this time round and the game as a whole benefits from that.

Sadly the player models and kits don’t seem to have moved on a great deal and the latter especially still have that plastic sheen up close which makes the kits looks too thick and almost glued to the player models. But there are definitely more real player faces on display this year, exactly which players I can’t mention but the eight-way facial capture method has certainly been expanded and there are some eerily familiar faces wandering the pitches of FIFA 12.

Overall the graphics have certainly been improved but the work seems to have gone mainly in to the lighting department rather than a drastic overhaul which some of you would have wanted. The changes are subtle but they deliver and FIFA 12 is certainly a much better looking game than its predecessor.

The Finer Details

The best things always come in small packages and thankfully FIFA 12 is crammed with tiny details which flesh out the headline gameplay features we’ve already heard so much about.  I’ve been an advocate of “the finer details” for a few years now because I believe that even the tiniest flecks of detail can be incredibly powerful when combined as one big presentation package. It’s taken EA a while, but slowly changes are being made.

The first one which is a lovely touch is the addition of contextual quick throw-ins, which is something we’ve all wanted for a while. I have to say EA have implemented them brilliantly and seeing a player run just off the pitch, pick up the ball and ready themselves for a throw-in is a truly a great moment. But other than the exemplary animation what quick throw-ins add is a seamless nature to the way FIFA 12 plays. The less cut scenes and screen resets the better in my opinion and quick throw-ins certainly help to maintain that match day cohesion.

Now this next element really is a wow moment and the first time it happened, jaws dropped and eyes bulged. When an injury happens or a player requires treatment the referee will drop the ball for the CPU and they will then play it back to you just like a true sportsman. It’s entirely cosmetic and it has no gameplay reverberations what so ever but I don’t care, I absolutely love stuff like this and the more EA can cram in the better.

The other worthy mention is the way the game is presented from the main menu all the way through to final whistle and in that sense FIFA 12 is a complete redesign. The old menu system has gone and has been replaced with a horizontal layout which makes moving through FIFA’s vast array of options much easier and crucially much quicker. It’s also a much more vibrant and polished menu system with the dull greys and blacks replaced with chromed reds, silvers and whites.

The team and kit selection has also had a revamp with kits now being displayed on a player from the club rather than just a kit icon which you scroll through. You can also now see the socks which accompany the main kit, which may seem insignificant but it helps to prevent the rather annoying kit clashes which are common place in FIFA 11.

There’s so much more too with club specific pre-match sequences, new tunnel scenes, new match information menus, real player faces in team management, the list goes on and on. There are still mountains of detail for EA to get through but finally it seems like they have made a concerted effort to focus on the detail and present FIFA 12 as best they can.

Verdict 

I have to say that based on FIFA code that I’ve played this early in previous years FIFA 12 is light years ahead at this stage which can only be a good thing. But many issues from FIFA 11 still seem to linger in the background. The trinity of gameplay features have eradicated some of our biggest hates but the most important ones contained within the games AI still seem to be standing tall.

Where EA deserve credit though is that they haven’t just dumped the Impact Engine, Tactical Defending and Pro Player Intelligence in to the game and hoped it would fix all of last year’s problems. They’ve gone back and looked at ball physics, goalkeepers, Personality+ and Pro Passing again and for the most part have made some real advances in these areas too.

The game as a whole feels much more refined than FIFA 11 and tactically it’s a much slower and more considered experience. There’s a methodical pacing to FIFA 12 now and I think it ebbs and flows very nicely. My one criticism of of the pacing is that I’d like some extra top end zip to passing just for added urgency and thrust going forward. Other than that the game speed is very well balanced right now. 

Calling FIFA 12 a “Revolution” for me is probably a bridge too far because whilst the new improvements are largely great, the obvious problems from previous FIFA’s are still there for all to see and that sours some of the advances in my opinion. The focus now has to pour in to the AI and off the ball movement especially because in all honesty it’s holding FIFA back and until those shackles are broken I can’t call FIFA 12 in any way revolutionary.

It’s one small, but beautifully formed step for FIFA 12, but sadly no giant leap for the revolution we desired.

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