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Xaor’s Corner: Demo Impressions

Thoughts on the demo, FIFA 13, and the future

See all previous articles here

Finally the world has got its hands on FIFA 13, even if the demo release was less than smooth. PC crashes, an unusually late demo release on the XBOX 360, and an even more unusually late release for the PlayStation 3 may have caused a bit of a headache for EA’s public relations team – but what would demo day be without its fair share of calamity and controversy?

Now that the chaos has desisted, and the demo has been successfully downloaded to our harddrives, we can get onto the far more interesting and important controversy. Is it any good? Having already played an version of FIFA 13 back in June, I had a decent idea of what to expect. Even so, I was quite surprised to see how much had changed. I’ve already written quite a lot about what I feel about FIFA 13’s new features in the previews I wrote back in June and May, so I’ll try not to reiterate over those points too much.

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time reading others’ impressions, including those in comments on FIFASoccerBlog, on the forums, and on twitter. There’s quite a lot of hyperbole out there – I’ve seen quite a few people labelling the game as “FIFA 12.5”, and though such assertions are indeed hyperbolic, it does indicate the key question the demo poses: is this a worthy sequel?

For the most part, that is going to be a subjective question. I do however feel confident that FIFA 13 is at least as worthy a sequel to FIFA 12, as FIFA 12 was to FIFA 11. Compare FIFA 12’s “Holy Trinity” and FIFA 13’s “Big Five” and you should be able to see why I say this. FIFA 12 gave us the Impact Engine, Tactical Defending, and Precision Dribbling. The first was so buggy its inclusion was frankly to FIFA’s detriment, the second was brave but a frankly vain attempt to get a handle on FIFA’s poor defensive system, and the third was by far FIFA’s least useful dribbling modifier warranting only occasional use. They are features which were touted as revolutionary, but realistically were hit and miss.

FIFA 13 gives each of the Holy Trinity a not inconsiderable upgrade. The Impact Engine has been polished up to a level where it is starting to pay off. I’d have to scratch my head to think of a single buggy tackle from my time with the game, and I’ve been happy to see a much improved standard of refereeing – particularly in collisions which aren’t emergent from tackles. Push & pull, which barely warranted a mention in FIFA 12, is now a fully fledged and useful feature, as well as looking really genuine.

Lateral contain adds a supremely necessary layer to Tactical Defending – I’m still fairly incredulous that FIFA 12 released without it – and I am already finding a lot more use for Precision Dribbling 2.0 than I ever did the original. The upgrades to the Holy Trinity however, are not the stars of the show.

Unpredictable Predictability & First Touch Control

The star of the show, at least for me, is first touch control. I liked this feature when I first heard about it, I liked it when I first experienced it in June, and I still do. Does it deliver predictable unpredictability? Certainly, but it is one of the only areas of FIFA which does. EA have talked up FIFA 13’s predictable-unpredictability on a number of occasions in the last few months. While First Touch Control epitomises the concept, it is a small part of a game which otherwise lacks it.

There are three primary areas of FIFA which feature this ‘predictable-unpredictability’, which can probably be more simply summarised as contextual error: Shooting, passing, and now, the first touch. Other areas of the game – like dribbling – still feature predictable-predictability. This leaves FIFA 13 as a game which features predictable-unpredictability in fleeting, exciting moments. That EA are aiming for predictable unpredictability is a good thing – that unpredictability is what makes the game fun and rewarding – but they are still a long way off. Even in the areas which do feature contextual error, there are major issues.

As I argued at length here in one of the first Xaor’s Corner blogs, passing error, as brought about by Pro Passing is represented extremely weakly. What little error there is tends to be represented by bobble/sluggishness rather than inaccuracy, and, there is practically no noticeable inaccuracy whatsoever on long balls and chipped through balls. With FIFA 13, much of that sluggishness has gone, but we still severely lack directional error. Shooting’s contextual error is better, though still not great, especially with finesse shots, but the superhuman nature of goalkeepers removes much of that unpredictability, tending to require overly perfect shots to score goals.

Comparitively, the First Touch does feel unpredictable, and for the most part in a predictable and reasonably believable manner. It’s hard to judge the tuning of it without trying out the full range of teams and players, but for my tastes it could be made a little more apparent on easier passes than it is right now, and perhaps a little less extreme on the harder passes. Every now and then the touches themselves can seem a bit off – but as they are typically being applied to the right touches and in reasonable amounts, that can be forgiven.

For me, First Touch Control is the biggest and best of the ‘Big Five’ features. I can only hope that this philosophy of contextual error and predictable-unpredictability can be expanded across FIFA as quickly as possible. Probably the biggest step will be the expansion towards dribbling, an idea I focused on here.

Complete Dribbling & Game Pacing

Much to my relief, Complete Dribbling has been much improved since the playtest back in June. Then, I reported back saying that I didn’t believe the contextual side of the feature was working as intended, as it required extremely close proximity to another player before it would kick in. The implementation in the demo matches up more closely to how I imagined the feature working when it was first described by EA.

It’s taking time to get used to the feature, but I’m enjoying being able to face up to players without the awkwardness skilled dribbling always presented. Complete Dribbling is a far more intuitive system – instead of locking your facing angle when you apply the modifier, as Skilled Dribbling did, Complete Dribbling will infer the facing angle you want from the context.

I’ve seen a few people complaining about the contextual side of it, and that they don’t want the game to be doing this kind of thing for them. So far, I don’t really have any issue with it. By design, the contextual side of Complete Dribbling will never alter your facing angle so much that it will actually slow you down. Because of that, I don’t really have a huge problem with it. Should EA have an assistance setting which would turn off the contextual side of the feature? Maybe – but I’m not convinced that there is a need.

While I think that Complete Dribbling is a good idea and one that is well executed, the general pacing of FIFA 13 means that you simply can’t get the best out of it. Probably the most consistent piece of feedback that I’ve seen across the web about this demo is that it simply is too fast, and I can’t disagree one bit. Probably more than any FIFA game this generation, FIFA 13’s demo plays a hectic and impatient game of football.

Changing the game speed to Slow and making a variety of slider tweaks can help, but at the end of the day the focus when it comes to feedback has to be in reference to how the game plays by default, particularly as all online modes play on default settings (something which needs solving).

Patently, not every part of the game is too fast. It’s the usual suspects which are contributing to the problem in my mind: reaction speeds and movement physics. But then, why does FIFA 13’s demo seem even worse in terms of pacing than FIFA 12? I’m guessing that’s down to a combination of the zippier ball physics (generally an improvement on FIFA 11 and 12’s lethargic passing, but perhaps just a little over the top), and the improvements to attacking AI ensuring available options further up the pitch.

But it is undoubtedly the movement physics which are the primary cause. I know a lot of people try to fix the pacing problem by lowering sprint speed, but I’m fairly sure that players in FIFA don’t actually run faster than their real life counterparts would (I did calculations to confirm this was the case a couple of years ago). The artificial lowering of sprint speed for the dribbler is a clear reminder of the effects of trying to solve a problem in the wrong way – nothing is more frustrating than seeing Walcott a yard ahead and losing ground. The major issue for the game speed is more to do with acceleration and deceleration, as well as how much speed can be conserved through a sharp turn.

It’s amazing how FIFA will break physics for the purpose of providing responsiveness. It’s easy to find replays which show instances of players going from sprinting to stopped without making contact with the ground, or players spindling on the spot. Here’s an example I found in the demo: normal speed | slow motion.

In the clip, Tevez receives the ball and makes a 90 degree turn to go toward goal. A split second after, he decides to turn back the other way (through 180 degrees). What happens in the game at this point is absolutely bizarre. Within a split second, his legs practically warp to the other side of the ball so he can make the touch. In that time, one of his legs quite literally passes through the ground. This incredible short clip sums up what FIFA has sacrificed on the altar of fluidity.

Fluidity and FIFA have become almost inextricable concepts over the last few years. It’s still common to read reviews and impressions which praise FIFA for its fluidity, almost as if there is no downside to it. If there is a single lesson FIFA should learn over the next year, it should be that fluidity can go too far, and in FIFA it very definitely has. It’s important to have responsiveness – players need to react to button presses as soon as possible, but the actions themselves should still take their proper time.

Take the simple example of a sprinting player stopping. To slow yourself down, you have to push into the ground with your front foot. You can’t slow down before your foot hits the ground, and if you’re going too quickly, you might have to slow yourself down with successive steps so as not to injure yourself or lose balance. In FIFA, these steps simply are not followed in a realistic manner. Whether it needs to precisely simulate movement physics to the level where it’s simulating each foot plant is hard to know, but at the very least some realistic bounds need to be set in terms of how fast a player can slow down.

The other major issue when it comes to FIFA’s impatient play is reaction times, which are simply as bad as ever. The speed which players can react to the movement of the ball is still absolutely ridiculous, and it’s probably most apparent with tackles. It’s very difficult to make the most of the various dribbling tools at our disposal when a defender can react to tackle a split second after you’ve changed the direction of the ball. It took me about 20 seconds to find this example, where my dragback is immediately tackled by a defender who, I can only assume, is a Jedi: normal speed| slow motion.

Another area where the reaction speed issue is highlighted uglily, is with the first touches. When you get a really bad touch, you should find that there is a slight delay as the player adjusts to something he wasn’t anticipating, and the same should apply to the other players on the pitch. In FIFA, these instances are simply taken in the players’ strides.

I’m sure that I’ll have cause to return to these topics later in the year. Fortunately, in terms of the overall pacing problems there are consistent and credible reports that the retail game will feature more a more reasonable match speed. I don’t have much confidence that this will have been achieved in the right way, but, at the very least it should mean we can get more out of features like Complete Dribbling. Nothing could benefit FIFA more than having a slower pace, so, it would be slightly horrific if FIFA 13’s good progress was to be damaged by it being faster, rather than slow than its predecessor.

AI and Attacking Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence was probably the #1 area most people wanted to see addressed in FIFA 13, though for me it was always a throw up between AI and movement physics. I was saddened to hear that EA had decided to focus on just attacking AI for this iteration because I felt that both were in dire need of attention. Perhaps that would be too much for one year – perhaps focusing purely on AI and, perhaps then not doing Complete Dribbling, would be unpopular with the wider audience. Either way, it’s a huge pity – on the bright side, the defensive AI now sticks out like such a sore thumb that it will surely be addressed next year. I hope.

The attacking AI changes do make for a serious improvement above what we had in FIFA 12. There will be no need this year to increase the attacking runs sliders to 80 or above before you get a reasonable amount of movement in the final third. In fact, there can be no comparison – where in FIFA 12 getting players forward absolutely required the use of the player run trigger, in FIFA 13 they are not only clearly interested in getting forward, they are managing to find space far better than ever before too.

Even so, there are some behaviours which are a little too prevalent in this demo build. My primary concern is how frequency my players will get out of position. I first noticed this problem when I scored a top corner blaster with Pvt. Carl Jenkinson from just outside the D. I was a little surprised when I saw who had scored it, so I headed into the replay to work out how he had suddenly become one of my most forward attackers. When I’d picked the ball up in my own box, he’d started making a run up the wing, which was fine, but once he had made that run, even though I was working the ball up the left flank, he stayed in attack. Chamberlain, who was playing on the right wing, instead moved back into defence. What must have been 20 seconds later, Jenkinson moved inside, meaning business, and blasted the shot top corner.

Once I’d noticed this position swapping behaviour I started noticing it everywhere. It’s good that players are getting forward, but when my attackers are in defence and my defenders are in attack, something is quite severely wrong and it tends to cause chaos when I then lose possession. For the most part though, while there are certainly issues with attacking AI, they are totally eclipsed by the problems the defensive AI have.

There are a number of pretty severe issues. First, the midfield is still completely unhelpful when it comes to defending – they are still very happy to be on the wrong side of the ball as the attackers bear down on goal. Secondly, the defensive marking is extremely lose – it’s far too easy to just pass directly to your strikers who will always have space around them in all directions. Thirdly, the defence still does not defend as a unit – it still feels like you have a group of individuals who are mostly unaware of what their teammates are doing, and how their actions will reflect on them.

Even after a year of focus, FIFA 13’s AI is still going to be a weakpoint – this is the result of it being neglected for almost the entire generation. At least with FIFA 13, it does feel like we’re finally on the right track. The reality of the matter is that EA will need to continue this level of focus for the next few years if they want to get the AI, as a whole, up to scratch. The attacking AI is now up to a satisfactory level – further focus while other areas are in disrepair would be foolish – but the defensive AI, the CPU team AI, and the underlying tactical layer are all in desperate need of attention.

Assisted and Manual

The first thing I did when I got on the demo was to switch my controls to manual, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that for frankly the first time, manual had received some serious attention from EA. I have been pleased to find, like I did in the June playtest, that there are no longer instances of the infamous manual weighting bug. Not only that, but there is now a much greater consistency when it comes to how the power bar input relates to the weight of the pass, power of the shot etc.

A further improvement is seen in how much crisper the passing physics now are. The sluggish lethargy which came along with Pro Passing is finally gone, and this makes it far less arduous to make long grounded passes. Together, these three improvements put FIFA 13’s manual head and shoulders above the control scheme in all previous iterations, as well as making it far, far more accessible than ever before. If you’re still one of the people who hasn’t given manual a serious try, now is the time to do so.

I still think some further improvements to manual could be made, but we are infinitely closer to the ideal than we were a year ago. I still think it’s a bit tricky to make very short passes – I continue to believe that the overlap between the two pass buttons on manual is unnecessary, and tuning one button for short passes and one for long would further manual’s accessibility.

I have seen that some attribute this improved accessibility to manual becoming more assisted. Personally, though I cannot be sure, I don’t think this is the case. I still seem to have the control to pass exactly how I wish. If I want to pass to a players left foot, I can choose to – this level of control would surely be lost if assistance was added. I’m not really sure whether it matters either way. I still feel like I have the control with manual to do whatever I want – that’s all that matters.

I know that there is a significant proportion of the manual community who like manual, in part, because it is difficult. In a game which doesn’t hold a great deal of depth, or at least one which can be played very effectively without delving deep, manual has offered a serious gaming challenge. Some will mourn losing the inherent challenge of playing with a somewhat broken system, but it’s an overall positive. The balance online will benefit from it, but also it should further the argument that the ridiculous amounts of assistance available in FIFA are not only unnecessary, but detrimental to the overall experience.

I don’t believe that manual could be offered up as the only control scheme available on FIFA, but I am convinced that EA could do massively better than assisted. Assisted is a control scheme which is as constraining as it is helpful – there are so, so many passes that you simply cannot make with it. You get used to what you can and can’t do with experience, but it fundamentally removes so many options to the player.

In most cases, an assisted pass will be made so that it won’t require the recipient to change the way he is moving. If the player you are passing to is stationary, then the pass will be directly to him, and if the player is moving, the ball will intercept his path. In both cases, the speed the ball will be at when it gets received will be pretty consistent regardless of the path. That doesn’t sound too bad on paper, but it means that a lot of very feasible passes become infeasible. Take the example a defender is between you and a stationary intended recipient. In real life, and on manual, you can simply pass to the side of the defender into space – with FIFA’s assistance, it will attempt to pass directly through the defender.

I’m sure that the actual assistance calculation is far more complicated than drawing a fairly simple triangle in the manner described, but in almost every case an assisted pass will follow that formula. That FIFA, the supposed cutting edge football simulation, constrains almost all of its players to this is ridiculous. Worst of all, this accounts for almost all of the passing error on assisted. Almost every missed pass will be due to choosing an impossible pass, FIFA misinterpreting who the intended recipient is, or FIFA being unable to work out how to make the pass thanks to the flawed formula.

When on manual, you get a sense for how little passing error actually exists. There isn’t a particularly noticeable difference between how easy it is to make a short and straight pass, and how easy it is to make a 180 degree blind pass on your first touch. While manual is difficult enough for many passes, due to the level of human error on the analogue stick, there should be a noticeable hike in trickiness when performing first time, awkwardly angled, and long passes. On assisted schemes, the amount of error is on a much greater level of inadequecy.

Personally, I think it’s pretty clear that both passing and assistance need to be hot topics going forward. The job Pro Passing set out to do is most certainly not done, but there is also a major discussion to be had about whether a better, fairer, freer ‘assisted’ control scheme could be developed.

Miscellaneous

CPU AI

I haven’t been someone who plays much against the CPU for the last few years with FIFA, and on the evidence of this demo that isn’t going to change any time soon. My memories of FIFA 12’s demo would attest that there is a noticeable improvement, but that doesn’t sum to a huge amount. They still feel deeply inhuman thanks to their ludicrous reaction times, they still play as if they are on assisted, and they still don’t seem particularly differentiated one team to another. It is this factor which prevents me from really getting into Career Mode – however much the features of Career Mode improve, if I can’t enjoy the premise of playing 100 games in a row against the CPU, then I’m not going to enjoy the mode.

Goalkeepers

Particularly when it comes to finesse shots, FIFA’s goalkeepers seem to have been improved quite a bit. How much this will ring true in the retail game and online is hard to know, but I think we can all be confident that the finesse shot will no longer be the near-certainty shot from certain sweetspots that it has been for a few years. My gripe with the keepers though remains the same as always – they react too fast, and too consistently.

The keepers feel like they are tuned to be balanced up against assisted shooting (because they undoubtedly are). This has lead to a situation in my mind where both areas are quite considerably off: assisted shots are far too perfect far too often, and therefore the keepers have to be equally brilliant so that the game doesn’t turn into a goalfest. Not only does it mean that scoring on manual is quite a bit too difficult to fit the 10-15 minute match, it also means that the possibilities for goalscoring are heavily reduced, and as I said earlier, this is the primary contributor to the lack of predictable-unpredictability when it comes to shooting and scoring.

Conclusion

Like everyone else, I’m really only starting to get to grips with FIFA 13. A lot has changed, and it’s safe to assume quite a bit will change from the demo to the retail edition. I think it’s fairly clear that, even with all these changes, a lot of the major issues FIFA 12 had are still present with FIFA 13. It’s perhaps a little early to start talking about FIFA 14 priorities, but it doesn’t take much thought to assert Defensive AI and Movement Physics right at the very top of the list.

Is FIFA 13 a better game than FIFA 12? Certainly. Is it the best FIFA yet? Certainly. Is it the best football game ever made? Probably. So why will I spend another year’s worth of articles criticising it? Because it could be so, so much better.

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