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Xaors Corner: The Unholy Gameplay Trinity

Time for the first Xaor’s corner article since FIFA 12 released – you can see all previous posts through this link.

One of the key elements to EA’s marketing strategy with FIFA 12 was the idea of a ‘Holy Trinity’ of gameplay alterations, improvements, and innovations. I don’t think the trinity improved FIFA as much as EA promised – precision dribbling is too limited, and the impact engine is far too buggy and glitchy, to the point where it’s probably made the collision physics less believable rather than more. Tactical defending too, while liberating us from the horrors of pressure abuse, is some way off perfecting FIFA’s defensive game.

With this article I’m going to go through three major areas where FIFA is least impressive, and where EA will need to apply the most effort if FIFA 13 is to be a great game.

Player Motion Physics

Nothing happens more in football than players moving – whether it’s running, sprinting, jockeying, jogging or dribbling, there is constant movement everywhere. It is therefore incredibly important for a football simulation to nail the way it represents player movement because it runs into almost every area, nook, facet and cranny of the game. There has been a consensus recently that FIFA does not represent player movement that well – and frankly this area is one of the things I hope EA will focus on most for the next year.

Inertia

A growing criticism over past years has been the lacking representation of inertia, or momentum in FIFA. The most clear examples of this surround how easily a player can slow down, speed up, and turn, and as this is key area is out of sorts, it has tremendous negative effects throughout FIFA. No single thing happens more in a game of football than players moving – and as this is not right, FIFA is also not right.

A lot of things which happen in real football simply cannot happen in FIFA due to the lacking way inertia is represented. Even though FIFA does model these things to an extent (ie, you cannot immediately turn from one direction to another without loss of speed), it tends to do it far too softly so that, for example, you can make 90 degree turns at (the quite high) jogging pace with no penalty to movement speed. There are also a multitude of cases where the model is highly inconsistent: it seems that there are cases when FIFA will almost entirely remove inertia so that a player can make a block or intercept a ball, going from sprinting to a halt mid stride.

There is perhaps one exception to the rule – which is that jockeying players aren’t responsive enough. When jockeying the player feels floaty as opposed springing off his heels – and this is a big balancing issue when it comes to defending. Generally, the defender should be less restricted in his movement than the attacker – but at the moment it feels anything but leading to people being reliant on the automatic contain buttons.

The result of this is that the attack-defence balance is sorely out. Manually containing an attacking player is extremely difficult thanks to how slippery a player can be while jogging and how floaty and unresponsive the jockeying defender is. Instead of the defender being able to look at the way the attacker is moving to position himself wisely, the defender has to just move and hope.

Touch

A very similar area is how FIFA represents dribbling, and the first touch, and like with the inertia modelling it’s not that great. In general players first touches are far, far too good – it’s common to see clumsy defenders taking down hard hit airborne balls with one touch in a manner Ronaldinho would have been proud of, but there are also numerous occasions where players will have inexplicable bad touches for no reason often not allowing you to try to turn on the first touch.

It doesn’t feel like FIFA’s first touches are credible to the context, the rare bad touches are almost random when they do occur, in fact it’s eerily similar to the way that passing error comes about (http://fifasoccerblog.com/blog/xaors-corner-problems-with-passing-part-2/). It’s not just unrealistic, it imbalances things greatly allowing FIFA to be a less thoughtful experience, allowing teams to go up the pitch too quickly and without care due to the ease of receiving and turning on almost every pass.

When you are hit by one of the infrequent and inexplicable poor touches you may find your player losing possession for no reason in a dangerous area. Bad touches are an important thing to represent but currently you cannot reasonably predict when you are liable to get a bad touch nor why you got one when you did.

The other area I’d like to see looked at is the way that turning is restricted when sprinting. The way FIFA has worked (and has worked for as long as I can remember) is restricting turning to 22.5 degrees when sprinting. This was perhaps sensible in FIFA 09, before 360 degree dribbling when anything more than 22.5 would have been 45, and in FIFA 10, before analogue sprinting, when sprinting meant a speed much higher than jogging. Now though, with analogue sprint meaning that you can be ‘sprinting’ at just higher than a jog, and 360 dribbling meaning that you could try to turn at 23 degrees, the 22.5 degree restriction seems old hat – and it’s probably the primary thing which prevents Lionel Messi from strutting his real stuff on FIFA.

I have two ideas of what would be preferable. One would be to free up the dribbling completely, allowing players to attempt any touch they liked, and applying error dependent on context (ie, trying an overly ambitious fast turn would likely produce a poor touch) – but this might be too punishing. The other would be to have a changing restriction dependent on the context – so your speed, player, and turn angle would all be considered, dynamically restricting you on those bases. Either would be startling changes to the way FIFA works, but it’s a direction EA surely need to take to truly deliver on the potential that 360 dribbling and analogue sprinting have to offer.

Artificial Intelligence

To whatever extent FIFA is an interactive game there is a very solid limit to what a user can control. When playing FIFA I control one player at a time maximum with some vague control over team mates. If I’m playing against the CPU, under a tenth of the play going on is actually under user control – that gap is made up by the artificial intelligence. If FIFA is to play a believable game of football the AI has to be both intelligent and deep: but currently it varies between boringly functional to disastrously broken.

Defensive

The most prominent cases of flawed AI in FIFA tend to occur when defending. When you defend you are very reliant on your teammates AI to help you in marking and holding the line, but most of my time spent defending on FIFA is more about fixing what my AI is doing than it is about defending.

The dedicated defensive players don’t help much – they seem perilously unaware of their colleagues and opponents, often leaving enormous holes for the opponent to run through. Perhaps even worse is the spectacular negligence of midfielders who will often be ball watching or slowly ambling back as a dangerous attack forms – it often feels that you have 3 Arshavins and 3 Berbatovs on the pitch.

A recurrent problem from FIFA 10 sees a sole defender covering a run and ending up completely destroying the defensive line and offside trap – and when you get to this point with the AI it pretty much can randomly ruin your game. One really bad instance of AI is the difference between a win and a draw, Champions League qualification or not in Career Mode, being promoted or not in Head 2 Head seasons and so on.

FIFA is still a game where it too rarely feels that a conceded goal is deserved or even particularly preventable. It’s all too possible to replay a goal scored and point out the moments when the AI made spectacularly bad decisions leading to the goal.

Ideally, the defensive side of the game should be about good strategy, intelligent movement, and trying to organise your team so that you regain possession. Until the defensive AI gets to the stage where you aren’t trying to prevent it committing suicide, there is simply no time for that depth.

Offensive

The other side of the coin isn’t much better. Attacking on FIFA is often a very frustrating process due to how few and how poor most of the attacking runs are. It’s got to the point now where if you don’t specifically order a player using the player run trigger or one-two pass, there is simply no guarantee they’ll take part in the attack.

Again and again I see burgeoning counter attacks starting with 7 men in front of the ball turn into 5 men, 3 men, and then 1 man due to little more than laziness. Even holding the ball up won’t help much: when trying to get the best out of precision dribbling and shielding I’m usually thwarted because my teammates won’t react to this by making a run past me or coming close to support.

To some extent you can improve this by fiddling with the gameplay sliders, and by increasing the player run frequency you do indeed get more player runs – but even then there are still far too many occasions where players don’t make runs that they undoubtedly would.

Aside from the lacking frequency, the runs themselves are too often one dimensional, blatantly obvious, and rarely incisive. You see a player getting in behind the defence once in a blue moon, for example. There is almost no noticeable personality or strategic difference between the way that teams attack – something caused no doubt in party by the severely lacking team management options, another feature in much need of a big improvements in terms of usability and functionality.

Defending

Tactical Defending was probably the most successful element of FIFA 12’s Holy Trinity of gameplay features, yet it feels unfinished and in need of refinement, which is why I’ve placed it in my unholy trinity. Though it’s changed FIFA a lot and probably for the better, and looking at the forum I can see the jury is still definitely out, but I don’t think the concept is the problem. It is more that, added to the lacklustre AI and the flawed player movement mechanics, issues with the contain functions and tackling leave me feeling that tactical defending is neither particularly balanced or realistic.

Automation

One of the major criticisms of ‘legacy’ defending was that it was overly automated and required too little skill, allowing users to hold down the ‘press’ and ‘secondary press’ buttons to their hearts content, charging in liking homing missiles and experiencing too much success in regaining possession. The new system removes the press buttons but replaces them with the contain buttons, which instead of automatically charging in, will automatically close in, and then follow the attacker step for step. It’s perhaps ironic that if anything this has made he experience even more automated. While the press button was certainly overpowering, using it too much certainly had it’s downsides and anyone just holding down the press buttons constantly would be punished at the top level – users had to learn to manually jockey and position themselves intelligently.

Now, though the press buttons have gone, the contain buttons allow users to automatically jockey and contain a player far more perfectly than a human ever could due to it’s crazy reaction speeds, and though always using both contain and secondary contain is a beatable tactic, we’ve run into a situation where most people will be holding one or both the buttons at all times in defence – and it’s a situation which unfortunately does not, as many state, require more skill than defending used to. It’s more realistic by a fair margin because it lowers the pressure and puts the emphasis on good positioning and marking rather than crazy charges into players, but it’s still not a particularly engaging defensive system.

I have always questioned the need for an automatic contain system, and I still do. It’s difficult to imagine playing FIFA 12 without them, but most of that is because the inertia model makes jockeying to contain an attacker much harder than it ought to be, and the AI does so little to help you. It may be too much of a risk to entirely remove automated contain function, but the effectiveness of it needs to be severely reduced.

Secondary contain too could use some changes, at the moment it feels like something you should hold all of the time except for when your nearest non-controlled player is part of the defensive line. It almost feels like what happens when you press secondary contain should be done by the AI based on your tactical set up anyway – so perhaps it too could be removed and replaced by a more overarching control mechanism like “team pressure” or “offside trap” being made easier to access and more noticeably effective.

Tackling & Interception

The two main ways that a team can regain possession are by tackling the ball or intercepting a pass. FIFA 11 was very tackle oriented and tactical defending has certainly taken away from that, but it still feels that there the tackle itself is slightly too easy, and intercepting is still too hard.

In terms of interception the clearest example is always the superb range of interception animations which seem to conspire to do you in, either by missing the ball or by allowing it to cannon off the player. It often seems that the better you position yourself to intercept the less chance you have of getting it – so often players will just spindle on the spot as the ball rolls over their toes.

The tackle animations, while now requiring triggering by the user, feel quite over the top. Players will often make massive tackles when just putting their foot in would be enough, and though they seem to be able to hook their legs around the back of attackers all too easily, when they do make the tackle it’s surprisingly rare that they will actually keep the ball.

Nothing is more frustrating than defending really well only to be screwed at the last moment as a perfectly timed tackle ricochets straight back to your opponent putting him in for a goal – a frustration which has been far too frequent in FIFA for far too long.

So that’s that – this is what I’ve been thinking about over the last few weeks – and it’s the kind of thing that I want to push really hard this year, though there is much more to be said too. We know EA listen: let’s make sure that we do our bit to give the features and improvements we want the best shot at being implemented come FIFA 13.

Join the discussion
  • qO_ol

    there are so many points that I disagree on, as well as agree on, that I am not even going to comment in detail. unfortunately, it’s the negativity of the community that influences the direction of each installment. not the positive critiquing.

  • Stefano B.

    @markov thanks, i’ll still have to think about buying pes 2012, i’ll keep in mind your bad opinion. i loved so much winning eleven! i’ll play a bit with demo before any decision!

  • Leonardo Ratafiá

    i almost cannot use anymore the L1 + /\ for high long passes, since it lobs a ball too high and almost unreachable, i don´t know why they changed the behaviour of that kind of passes, even for crosses was a very nice option instead of using the lob button, now every time I barely press this combination is too hard