FIFA games in recent years have been renowned for their expansive and innovative online features, with a huge amount of variety on offer, from the bread and butter of head-to-head ranked matches to the 11 v.s. 11 Virtual Pro Clubs.
For FIFA 12 EA have gone to work changing up systems which have been part of FIFA for years, and adding new innovations like EA Sports Football Club – but outside of the big promises and buzzwords, how does FIFA 12′s online hold up?
Head 2 Head Seasons
Undoubtedly the largest changes that the online segment of FIFA has experienced this year are in the way that the ranked head to head games are held together. The entire matchmaking and ranking systems have gone to be replaced by a newer, smoother, simpler, and, almost inarguably better system.
This comes in two parts, first, the Head 2 Head ‘Seasons’, which is a revival of the FIFA 2010 World Cup games’ ranking system. It’s a very simplistic ranking system which works in a way very similarly (but much faster than) the real world system of national divisions, ranking players by challenging them to beat those in their division.
In terms of being able to rank players accurately it’s fairly crude, given that there are only 10 divisions, meaning that the game barely differentiates between the top player and bottom player in any particular division. Mostly though, the accuracy of ranking is something I’d trade every time for what Head 2 Head seasons grants FIFA, which is a much more exciting structure which prevents ranked head to heads from being match after match, and instead being a fight, every game, to prevent relegation or to reach promotion. There are also cups to play in which aren’t out ’til after this is published – but an extra enjoyable way to compete is always wanted.
Intertwined heavily with this is the new Match Flow, which replaces the old quick and custom searches. The major change is that now you choose your team, and setup your team before searching, and get put straight into a game. Cleverly, it searches to find an ideal game, trying to match you to a closely rated opponent team, in your same division, with similar did-not-finish percentages, and gives you the option for searching for a manual game.
It’s a fairly unexciting number of changes which in many ways radically change how online games work. Most importantly, I can now get fair games with lower levelled team – and the increased prominence of the manual search, at least for now, means that I can always get manual games as and when I want them, usually with fair teams.
It does have some issues, mostly in how it reacts to situations where it struggles to find a perfect opponent, something which even now happens quite frequently when searching for manual games. When this does happen, players can be matched up with people from different divisions to them, or to teams which are massively better than them. Given that the ranking system pins on the fact that you are playing against people in your division, this seems an odd decision. Take an example of someone from Division 10 who then gets matched up against someone in Division 8, is that really fair? Equally, is it fair for someone playing as Charlton Athletic to be matched up against Real Madrid?
Even when it does find a ‘perfect’ match, you may well find yourself in an unfair fixture. The system matchmakes you to a player with a team of the same star rating, but the difference between the bottom and top of any (half) star is enormous (ie, Arsenal and Barcelona), and this is already leading to people converging towards the best teams in each half star, which probably explains the sudden rise in fans of Anzhi Makhachkala.
Finally, it’s worth questioning the reasoning behind having the team management done before you search, when arguably what I want to do with my team management is dependent on the type of team I come up against. FIFA’s gameplay does lack in the tactical department, and forcing us to pick our team set up before knowing what we’re going up against simply exacerbates this.
Head 2 Head Gameplay
Of course, what happens off the pitch is not as important as what happens on it. Though the ranking system and matchmaking system contributed to the problems and frustrating of online gaming in the last few years, it was gameplay, and the way it translated online which caused the most problem. Like with the rest of FIFA 12, the most striking change is Tactical Defending. Given that online players for the last 5 years have had the press system, and high pressure ingrained into them, the removal of these ultimate crutches has caused a bit of a culture shock – and it’s common to see new players making comical and useful mistakes, and though after a while people will get used to the new way to defend, the lasting effect on the balance of FIFA online will be remarkable, and will massively improve the way FIFA feels to play in the long term. The amount of time you have on the ball to play your football is revelation, and for that EA deserve much praise.
Otherwise, changes to FIFA’s gameplay seem quite small. My biggest frustrations are almost always aimed at the AI, which are questionable defensively and offensively. The result is that far too often conceded goals feel like matters of fate rather than matters of fault – and in attack players almost have to become reliant on the player-run, and one-two triggers to get things moving forward. In some ways the most important thing for an online competitive game to do is to achieve a feeling of fairness and balance: you need to be able to feel that you deserved to win, and understand what you did wrong when you lose, and frankly, I don’t find that much in FIFA 12.
Whether it’s a case where your goalkeeper inexplicably spills the ball straight back to an attacker, or you tackle someone only for the ball to ricochet perfectly back into his, or his teammates control, or you get taken out in the penalty area without a penalty or taken out from behind when one-on-one without the opponent getting a red, or when you perfectly position your player to header only for the game to swap you to a less well positioned player: it’s a constant list of things which are guaranteed to have you raging against the game – and they are things which happen far, far too often, and far too randomly.
The football is still startlingly end-to-end, the most successful attacks often coming off of perfectly placed clearances – midfield play is as difficult to find in FIFA 12 as ever. Add to that the fact that gameplay is still very much dominated by assisted controls, which are still too accurate, and thus very exploitable – and this will put a lot of players between a rock and a hard place. FIFA 12 has made playing manually online easier than ever thanks to the more prominent filter, but for everyone else it’s very difficult to be successful playing anywhere in between the inaccessible, and somewhat flawed full manual scheme, and the overpowered, unrealistic, and exploitable mostly assisted ‘ideal’ setup.
And, as we’ve come onto the subject of exploits, I will take this opportunity to state in no uncertain terms that the ‘Goalkeeper’ exploit where users take control of the keeper, and leave the CPU to do all the defending for them is an utter farce which absolutely must be fixed. I am amazed that after all the criticism of how overpowering human goalkeepers are in Clubs, EA actually opened the door to this being used on ranked multiplayer. It seems that they will be able to fix this, hopefully it will be so sooner rather than later.
Almost purely because of tactical defending, FIFA 12’s gameplay online is the most enjoyable in a long time: where I barely played FIFA 11’s online due to utter frustration, I have enjoyed a lot of my time on FIFA 12 online so far and plan to play a lot more, but it could be so, so much better.
Head 2 Head Seasons is not the only area of considerable change, because EA have also changed up the way that online friendlies work. The system works sort of like the head 2 head seasons, except that you have a ‘season’ running against each friend. This gives a level of continuity between friendly matches, and will undoubtedly add that extra excitement in matches between friends.
FIFA 12 Clubs
While it’s all change with the Head 2 Head Seasons, Online Friendlies, and the Match Flow, it’s all the same when it comes to Clubs. Unfortunately, it has to be said that Clubs in FIFA 11 was simply not a mode which could be released again unchanged, and the result will be that Clubs will denigrate to the same mess that it has for the last few years, but this time around it will happen even faster.
I will not use this opportunity to go over the problems with Clubs, as I quite recently wrote about them in a Xaor’s Corner post. Unfortunately, the issues talked about there recur almost in their entirety. It has to be said that so far it seems the servers are holding up considerably better than they did in FIFA 11 launch, but that really is a bare minimum. Worst of all, it seems that the 100% VP hack which only appeared in the last few months of FIFA 11’s lifespan, has already been replicated in FIFA 12. Even for those not willing to go as far as explicit hacking, boosting your VP is easier than ever thanks to the gameplay sliders making even the hardest accomplishments extremely easy.
All of this put together probably means one thing: those who still tolerated Clubs last year will probably continue doing so, albeit with even more gritted teeth, but those who couldn’t tolerate it last year certainly won’t be able to this year – a dreadful disappointment for FIFA’s cleverest, most unique, and most potentially brilliant feature.
EA Sports Football Club
Lastly, FIFA 12 features a number of new concepts housed under EASFC. This allows you to connect better to your friends – getting updates for everything they do, get rewarded for playing FIFA 12 through experience points, challenge yourself with dynamic scenarios, and contribute your supported team’s league position. As you play, you gain experience and this contributes to your level, but so far I can’t see any reason to care about my level.
It’s certainly a well implemented feature, both smooth and stylish, but frankly I fail to see why so much effort has been focused on it. While it’s occasionally nice to know that a friend has won a game in X mode by Y score, I certainly don’t need to be informed that a friend has uploaded a video (especially given that I can’t watch the video from the game).
Then there is the Support Your Club feature, a virtual football league based on how much (on average) a fan of each particular team plays FIFA. This is at best an interesting statistic, but I can’t realistically imagine anyone caring a huge amount about how their team does in this league. After all, your contribution is capped so heavily that unless you support a club with very few other followers, you won’t be able to make a jot of difference – and even if you could, is having the ‘Most FIFA addicted’ Club really anything to get excited about? I can see as many reasons to hope that my team would do badly as well!
Finally, the challenges feature allows you to play a scenario which EA has set (they roll over every few days) which allows you to try to recreate a real world result, starting at a particular point in the match at a particular score. I cannot know what type of scenarios there will be in the future, but so far almost all of them have been: “You are X goals down with Y minutes to go – go win”. I hope that in future the challenges will become a little more varied – perhaps having us hold on to a lead, giant killing, or surviving with 10 men. Even so, it will only ever be a small nice idea in the EASFC package of small nice ideas – and that begs the question: was it worth the hype, or the time?
FIFA 12′s online is a bit hit and miss. On the one hand, the new structure for head 2 head ranked games is a superb success, not that this is a particular surprise given that the system had already been tried in FIFA 2010 World Cup – and the new matchmaking system is a triumph for manual users and small team supporters. On the other, we have a whole host of modes which have experienced almost no change at all: Leagues, Online Team Play, Pro Ranked Matches and most importantly Virtual Pro Clubs, which will no doubt be a huge disappointment to many. EA’s big new innovation this year, EA Sports Football Club, fails to prove its worth as something which will revolutionise the way we play FIFA. Crucially, the gameplay online feels very different to how it did in FIFA 11 thanks to the changes to defending, but outside of this the old cracks are appearing thick and fast.
*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*