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Xaor’s Corner: Assisting Assisted

Since FIFA 07, assisted has been the hard to kick crutch which in the end serves nobody. How could FIFA’s assisted be improved to be an asset, rather than one of its greatest foibles?

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If you’re a regular reader of my blogs, you will know that I think many areas of FIFA fall below where they ought to given that it’s 2012. While areas like locomotion and defensive AI would be my top priorities going forward, one area has always peaked my ire more than any other: control settings.

I think it nigh on criminal that for so many years we have been stuck with the same settings. I have my issues with manual, as elaborated on here, which is what I use whenever I can, but I find myself as frustrated with the control settings I do not use. It is a huge shame that the vast majority will only ever experience the worst that FIFA has to offer, and the worst that FIFA has to offer, is assisted.

For assisted is a control scheme which removes almost all control from the user, preventing possibility, and enforcing a repetitive game of football. On assisted you have minimal control over your passes, your crosses, or your shots – three absolute footballing fundamentals.

With passing, you are given three choices – when do you pass, who do you pass to, and whether it is direct, or a through ball. In one fell swoop, you’ve lost the control to dictate whether it’s short of the recipient or blasted to his feet. You’ve lost the control to aim it to the left of him or the right. You’ve lost the control to push it through one gap or another.

As substitute for user control, the game does it all for you, and it’s frankly not that good at it. A direct pass, for example, will almost always be aimed to intersect the recipient’s current movement. If the player is stationary, it will be to feet. If the player is moving, it will be a bit ahead of him.

It doesn’t matter whether that’s the best pass – that’s the way it aims them. In fact, in a lot of cases, that pass might be obviously blocked by a defender, but it will do it anyway. That doesn’t mean it’s an impossible pass, or even a difficult one – it’s just that FIFA chooses the wrong one, and in those circumstances it will do it almost without fail.

Assisted users will get used to the way passes are chosen over time – you become attuned to the type of passes which are allowed in FIFA and the much larger set of passes which are not. Subconsciously, you stop thinking that perfectly feasible passes are even possible. For me though, as a manual user, I find myself caught out with this when I play on assisted. It makes me aware of just how many passes I make on manual which I cannot, for all my trying, replicate on assisted.

Clearly, assisted passing does not do a very good job of interpreting what the user wants. The underlying algorithms which calculate the ideal pass, simply aren’t up to the task. Assisted passing, for this reason, is not very good at one hell of a lot. What’s startling, and what makes assisted so effective, is that when it does interpret the instruction correctly, it executes it so well that it entirely makes up for how poor it is at doing anything outside of the box.

The reason for that is the lack of error present in FIFA’s passing. When the player does try the right thing, it almost never gets it wrong regardless of how ambitious the attempt is. Whether it’s a huge ball over the top of a 180 degree blind pass, or a combination of the two, FIFA will make it happen far more often than it realistically should. No matter what else, increasing the amount of error is a critical step to fixing assisted.

On its own though, the change would undoubtedly leave assisted in an almost unusable state because if it couldn’t make the really ridiculous passes, it wouldn’t be much good for anything. That’s probably the reason that Pro Passing has been so suppressed since its inclusion in FIFA 11. Truly fixing assisted passing and making it a scheme which will work for everyone, while not ruining FIFA in the process would require changes to the core of how assistance plays out in FIFA.

One way or another, the issue which must be addressed is the paltry variety of passes that assisted can muster. From what I can see, there are two ways EA can manage this – one, is to work to improve FIFA’s ability to calculate intelligent passes, and the other is to increase the user’s control over assisted.

The danger of increasing user control is that you might end up making the game more difficult to play. To most readers of FIFASoccerBlog, that probably sounds like no bad thing, or even a good thing, but realistically FIFA is already a game which is quite difficult to learn and play as games go. The question is whether increasing control would actually make the game more difficult.

If you go as far as manual, it undoubtedly does. Manual gives you far more control than you would ever actually need, and it takes months of practice to get good at. Somewhere in between though, an increased level of control could make passing more intuitive. Intuitive definitely doesn’t sum up assisted passing at the moment – because the game is only trying to discern who you are passing to, it scraps a lot of your input.

One of the most refreshing things about playing on manual is suddenly, you know exactly why things are happening as they are. It is inherently intuitive, because it does follow exactly what you tell it to do. There is no reason why you couldn’t have a scheme which was still assisted, but tried to take into account the weight and direction you’ve input when making its decision.

It all depends on how the user’s control over passing is increased. The style added with Pro Passing is precisely the wrong type. With this, you are penalised for not inputting the optimum pass weight. It does mean that using assisted requires a little more skill, but it in no way improves what you can do with assisted in terms of the passing variety, and nor does it make a great deal of footballing sense. Who is to say what the optimum pass weight actually is, given that there is no such thing as an optimum pass? Maybe I wanted to make a particularly hard pass in one case, or play it short in another – the user-based element of Pro Passing neglects this entirely.

It is completely unnecessary to make assisted “more difficult” by adding arbitrary penalties like these – the difficulty should stem from error. I would actually recommend that this mechanic is removed in favour of using the user’s input to inform the AI’s passing choice. In any particular circumstance there are a huge number of potential passes – why not utilise the user’s input to choose between those, as well as working out who the pass intended for?

The same can be true for passing direction. If I’m holding to the left of a player, then it should try and pick a pass out towards his left. That isn’t to say that it should turn into manual – it should still be very much assisting the pass – but where there are a number of choices, it can take that input into account. Some might say that this surely is what semi does now – but I’m not sure that’s the case. To me, semi always felt like a less assisted version of assisted, but not one which actually gave me much more control.

For this to work well, it’s probably important that EA work on the game’s ability to pick a pass. Far too often the game will choose an infeasible pass when there was a simple alternative, and far too often the game will misinterpret the intended recipient.

I’m always bemused by just how many passes I will miss on assisted, even though I’m an accurate passer on manual. They won’t miss because of error or player stats – they miss because it will choose the wrong player or try to make the pass through a defender. Perhaps it’s a lack of practice on my part, but given that I know I’m very accurate at pointing pretty directly at a player, it’s odd how often it will think I’m trying to pass to someone else. It’s illustrated well on the bronze passing skillgame, which can definitely catch you out if you’re not being very careful – particularly when trying to pick out the players in the middle distance.

Conclusion

If done right, a really good assisted control scheme could mean a great deal for FIFA. It could be the control scheme where players who are not necessarily that experienced, or particularly dexterous, could still cope because they were making good decisions and having them played out dependent on player stats.

It would be a scheme which I would want to play with, albeit not exclusively, and a scheme which no-one would have to be ashamed to be playing and a scheme which no-one could accuse of being overpowering or unrealistic. For this to happen, two things absolutely must occur: far, far more error needs to be applied to passes across the board, and it needs to become far easier to actually choose the passes you want, something which can be achieved through improved AI, and or increasing the control of the user.

There is an argument that most players are perfectly happy with the way assisted works right now – that it is the most popular scheme for a reason – and that it should be left well alone. The reality is different – the assisted scheme is popular because it’s the default, the easiest, and the most effective scheme. Many never even discover there is anything else, and due to this many miss out on so much of what shines in this generation’s FIFA.

Gamers deserve better than assisted – it’s as simple as that.

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