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FIFA 12 Review: Gameplay

The tag-line says “it’s in the game”, but we question if the gameplay really is “in the game”.

At a time when ethics, morals and financial regulations in football are under heavy scrutiny, the beautiful game has never looked so ugly. But no matter how tainted the reputation of the sport has become in recent years, our love and passion towards it remains unconditional. It is for this reason above all the last decade has seen football video game sales continually set new sales records on a yearly basis and it’s is no secret that the FIFA franchise has led the way in this respect.

But what is it that makes a football video game successful? Is it based on gameplay? Controls? Visuals? Atmosphere? Licenses? Or is it simply a harmony of all the above? The general consensus amongst sports gamers is that “gameplay is fundamental”. It is the heart and essence of any video game and the other aspects can only shine if the gameplay is at a high enough level. In a recent survey, 83% or people voted gameplay as the most important aspect to any video game. Poor gameplay mechanics can severely attenuate any graphical or technical prowess a game might demonstrate. I put forward this question recently and received a whole host of answers, but one stood out above all the rest. Iain Mair (via Twitter) put it best when he said gameplay is fundamental because it is “immersion, losing yourself in a game of football, blissfully unaware you are holding a controller in your hands”. So does FIFA 12 adopt this philosophy that gameplay is fundamental?

Player Impact Engine

This year the saw the introduction of the “Holy Trinity” of gameplay features, that includes the Player Impact Engine (PIE), Tactical Defending (TD) and Precision Dribbling (PD). The Player Impact Engine (PIE) was developed to add authenticity on a visual front, by implementing an advanced procedural animation system in combination with collision physics to produce different results depending on the players and physical forces involved. This is a feature that other games in the genre have had for some time now. It is instantly evident from the onset that collisions in this year’s game are far more varied; with collisions now appearing to look great in many situations. This impact engine also has the added benefit of facilitating better determination or player injuries as it takes into account body impact locations and determines how significant they would be in injuring a player. However, the realism and outcomes purported are not as well executed as other game titles. There are often situations where players collide with pace and momentum and the collisions appear light or alternatively too heavy (as evident from many YouTube videos). However, as we saw with the physical play and jostling engine in FIFA 10, it requires some time to refine and tweak which was evident in the following year’s release.

Tactical Defending

Historically defending has often been seen as the tedious aspect of football gaming, with players traditionally holding press and timing a tackle to obtain possession of the ball, or alternatively waiting for an interception. Over time the art of defending has been lost, with players that are more defensively astute not being able to gain any advantage from their skill in this aspect of the game. The introduction of Tactical Defending (TD) was necessary to provide the defensive minded players with some reprieve and to reinstate the complexities of the defensive aspects of the beautiful game. The new system is instantly obvious as you are afforded less tracking aid, with timing of the tackle and defensive positioning now playing a much more significant role. Defending now requires thought, precision, timing and anticipation.

Principally, TD will change the way we all think and play FIFA. Conversely, this system may increase the gulf between the good and average players due to steep learning curve involved in adjusting to the new system. This is more significant as TD is locked for online game modes. On a technical level, TD does not take into account that defending is at it’s essence a “duel” between two players (or if you’re Maradona or Messi three plus players), where the attacking player must decide on the most effective way to beat the man standing in his way and the defender must assess the best opportunity for him to retain possession of the ball. The TD system provides the defending player with too much movement freedom which makes it very easy for attackers to skip past players who are less technically able. The system could have benefited from the implementation of a one-on-one lock with a limited degree of movement freedom. This addition would be reflective of the mental lock (challenge) any player is subjected to in the real sport and better portray the time taken to react and make a decision on how to beat a defender whilst reducing the impact this would have on the flow of the game. Alternatively, by reducing the degrees of freedom afforded to player movement when jockeying or defending, the defensive system may become less frustrating for new or less able players who constantly find themselves being left for dead by attacking players. TD will remain a necessary evil this season, that hopefully with some tweaks in subsequent years will change the way we all play football games.

Precision Dribbling

Last year’s offering introduced true 360 dribbling, thus facilitating the process of tight ball control in confined spaces. However, it is well documented that FIFA had the tendency to frustrate the hardcore fans as they were unable to hold onto the ball with the most technically gifted footballers. This is a feature that the competition’s title has provided for over a decade. Precision Dribbling (PD) aims to build on 360 dribbling by further enhancing the ability of the player to dribble using close control whilst shielding, meaning you can still move around the pitch whilst holding players off. The results of this feature are evident instantly for more cultured players and given time and practice, even more casual players will begin to reap the benefits of PD. Gone are the days of Terry and Pique stepping in and collecting the ball from you as if it was their birth right. You now have the ability to hold them off whilst maintaining your dribbling prowess by taking smaller finer touches on the ball in an effort to hold up play for support. This offers the player much more time on the ball and combined with the new limitations of Tactical Defending in not allowing better defenders to always step in and win possession, build up play is now a more frequent occurrence in contrast to days of the past when play was usually much more direct.

Pro Player Intelligence

An essential feature of any simulation is it’s ability to mimic real life situations and behaviour. The incorporation of Pro Player Intelligence (PPI) according to EA Sports has “infused CPU players with self-awareness and aptitude”. The claim being that teams and players are now more akin to their real life counterparts in intelligence and ability, which in turn is reflected on screen. When playing against the AI, there are subtle differences in the approaches that various opponents take in their attacking play. Furthermore, this is also seen in individual performances where a Xabi Alonso will utilise his Vision and passing ability more often than not. Conversely, the frequency at which these events happen is not as regular as one would hope for.

A limiting factor that must be taken into consideration is how effective is PPI when a human is playing due to vision restrictions introduced by camera angles etc. You’re not going to spot a 60 yard darting run from your left-back if he isn’t on-screen (Default Camera) and you typically don’t refer to the map that often, but if you are playing in the Be A Pro camera angle then the chances of you seeing that same opportunity are enhanced. How this feature will influence the game for Manual players isn’t clear at the time of going to print, but one would suspect that PPI involvement in manual passing would void the “manual” moniker.  But on the other hand if manual was truly manual then that would nullify the advantage of having more technically able footballers. PPI is a welcome and needed addition to the list of FIFA 12 features, one that will occasionally make you truly believe you are playing with or against certain individual footballers or collective teams.

Shooting and Passing

In short and simple terms, ball physics in FIFA 12 are superb. The impact this has on the overall gameplay feel is very evident in the fact that the ball truly does behave like it would in real life. Shooting in FIFA 12 is truly a joy and we finally have “Daisy Cutters”. Shooting feels refined in all its varieties (Power shots, finesse shots or volleys), and the trajectory and movements of the ball much more true to life. People are going to love hitting long range efforts with known sharp shooters. Passing is fundamental to any football game, as its the essence of the sport as the maestro’s from Catalunya have demonstrated over the last half decade. So how does it feel in FIFA 12. Passing is evidently upgraded in FIFA 12 as a result of more realistic ball physics. Long range passing is improved with better ball trajectories, whilst on the ground passes feel like they have more weight and zip behind them.

Artificial Intelligence

The artificial intelligence (AI) is possibly the most crucial element of any sports game as it controls the decisions made on the pitch that impact the game as a whole. The artificial intelligence in FIFA has seen some steady upgrades over the last few years with the implementation of features such as PPI that aim to enhance the realism of on the pitch events. This AI is however inconsistent at best, with elements such as Goalkeepers being superbly implemented, whilst others including off-the-ball movement requiring a serious overhaul. This season the the higher CPU controlled difficulty levels (World Class and Legendary) are far more challenging in comparison to previous years in order to increase the longevity of the game. The implementation of PPI is also evident under certain circumstances which further supports the argument that the AI has been improved in comparison to last season’s title.

Unfortunately FIFA suffers from an AI flaw that has become more evident with every passing season over the last three years. Although efforts have been made to improve this aspect of the gameplay, it seems that it has been forgotten or ignored in favour of more glamorous technological additions that will enhance the visuals and or atmosphere around the game. AI movement has long been given too little attention and the cracks are beginning to show. FIFA 12 is the most advanced football simulation to date, with a plethora of AI features that aim to mimic the real sport. The problem is that these AI advances can’t shine unless the basic AI is at a particular standard. As it currently stands this level has not been met and it seems that player movement of-the-ball (controlled by the AI) has not been addressed with enough focus for far too long.

There are too many occasions when playing FIFA 12 that a fan can become frustrated with lack of attacking options from attacking players. This applies to forwards/strikers making diagonal or curved runs, wingers and fullbacks making incisive runs down the wings, or midfield players coming to provide support to forwards or to provide alternative options in the box. What you are left with is an underwhelming feeling of “Static-ness” in a game that shines on a technical front. This should not be the case. Features such as PD, that are utilised predominantly in order to buy time until support arrives are deemed useless if the movement of the AI controlled players on your team is too limited/static. Furthermore, the effectiveness of a significant AI feature like PPI is also of less benefit or less likely to be obvious if the movement of your teammates is relatively muted. It is imperative that this particular aspect of the AI be examined with immense focus and resources in order to provide a much more complete product next season that will further showcase features that were introduced this year. If not then any further AI advancements will continue to be subdued by the lack of intelligence in player movement.

Many may argue that in an industry that is continually moving towards online modes and team play, the role of CPU controlled players will become less and less significant with time. In an effort to counter the above argument many could explain how 11 v 11 online team play can eradicate the shortcomings of the AI player movement. However, video games will always heavily depend on AI even in fully human 11 v 11 matches, thus it is imperative that AI is continually improved in order to enhance the gameplay experience for both offline and online play. Ideally we would all love to see forwards making darting runs, strikers making curved runs to stay onside, and players intelligently moving into positions of space in order to provide options for their teammates. This was once a dream for football gamers, but the competitor’s game has managed to replicate this aspect of the sport with stunning results. The ball is now in EA’s court.

Sliders

The human species has been blessed with the ability to think for itself, thus we are able to make decisions based on our preferences. In order to cater for this FIFA 12 now comes with sliders that control the frequency/speed of various aspects of gameplay. These can be moved in order to tailor your gameplay experience as you prefer. A welcome addition to the game, these will be tweaked by the millions and various clubs and communities may begin to publish their preferred settings.

Conclusion

At the top of this gameplay review I asked the question does FIFA 12’s gameplay instill a sense of immersion, where you find yourself lost in the game and anticipating every frame caught by the retina of your eyes? There are times when FIFA 12 appears to be the closest thing any game has come to replicating a sport or any real-life event for that matter. The combination of fantastic ball physics, deep gameplay features that aim to enhance the player’s experience and advanced AI processes that aim to replicate the variety in football styles and attributes makes it shine in many aspects.

Unfortunately there still remains a disconnect between the human player and the game, amplified by the fact that in pursuing a perfect simulation the series has lost some of it’s fun factor. This is something that FIFA 09 had in abundance. Furthermore, the lack of AI intelligence, variety and unpredictability especially with regards to player movement allows the user to quickly become disengaged from the game and will ultimately push people towards online game modes that require less AI dependency or involvement and more human involvement and decision making. So whilst FIFA 12 excels at the complex features, it ultimately stutters at the basic fundamentals. But by going back to basics and addressing the fundamentals of gameplay for next season’s release, next year’s offering could be a much more complete package.

7.5/10

*This is not the final score for the game. It’s the score for this portion. The final score based on all aspects considered will be live at 3pm*

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