Amongst most gamers this side of the Atlantic, the Fifa series is the penultimate soccer gaming franchise. Going strong for nearly 20 years, Fifa has excited gamers for the last 4 gaming generations, and it has taken down numerous attempts at competition along the way. This year, the promise of new features and a better playing experience intrigued me, along with some of the enhanced controls. The current generation of controls started to take shape around the Euro '08 title, and started to hit its stride with World Cup last year. Let's see how this year's title stacks up.
The game hits you with its tutorial right away, and the ever pleasant Martin Tyler takes you through training paces. Tyler, who sounded ridiculously uninterested in his commentary last year is a night and day improvement this year. His voice is vibrant, full of personality, and it looks like he's gotten over whatever hesitation was in his voice last year. That's a nice touch. I would recommend quickly whipping through the tutorial, because there's a bit that's been added to the way you can defend and call your teammates to defend. I don't recall any of these features in past years, but you're going to want to spend a lot of time trying to perfect these techniques because new defensive mechanics and animations mean it's tougher than before to time your challenges.
You're then whisked into what I can only describe as the world's worst menu system. Seriously, this menu system does not work for Fifa. It's one of those left to right bands at the bottom of the screen that you see in games with much less options. It works for those games, but it's terrible here. You can switch off the menu any time and start practicing with a designated superstar, and I was tempted to do so many times after trying to navigate through that trash heap of a menu. I rarely complain this much about such a small feature, but seriously guys -- what were you thinking?
There's not a TON to report in the way of new features that really affect gameplay modes. Most of the changes come on the pitch itself. Goalies are a bit smarter this year and will come out and challenge your players more. The new defensive controls are a bit more realistic in the sense that you can no longer ride a button to magnetize your player to the defender and automatically check him. Of course, this does mean it is much harder to check a player, but you'll get used to it. What may take a bit of accustoming is the new collision features. Last year eluded to the fact that EA was working on a better detection engine, and it's definitely out in full force here. You'll see the increased player interaction on the pitch, as they no longer float through each other. Checks are animated to player specific - How far you are away, how good the player being checked is at maintaining ball control and so on. It's no longer the easy stroll it used to be. This is bound to initially frustrate novice gamers and benefit the advanced ones, but to be honest, it's something that you've been seeing for the last few years anyway, and it's good to see it finally come to fruition.
Graphical improvements abound. I will speak to it a bit better in my graphics breakdown, but these are the best player animations yet. They've filled in a lot of gaps, and the actions taken include more realistic passing and kicking animations, and cleaned up scrums on corner kicks.
I'm going to skip past more of the Be a Pro-style features since I didn't see much change from last year (at least nothing that spoke out to me,) and move onto what should be the bread and butter for all Fifa faithful - the Ultimate Team Mode. Just like the other franchises, you start with a team of bronze level players (guys rated in the 50s and low 60s) and have to build a better team through playing lower tier clubs and working your way up. You can also challenge a dev-designed Team of the Week, which will give you bonus coins and challenge multipliers if you win. This is where I admit I've spent the majority of my Fifa time, and will continue to spend the majority of my Fifa time. Just like the other Ultimate Team modes in other games, your team improves through the purchase of card packs of Bronze, Silver and Gold, depending on how many coins you choose to put out. For the lazy at heart, you can just throw MS Points into the fray and purchase your teams. In fact, the game starts you off by offering an upgrade to you for 1500 coins (approximately 3-5 games depending on how good you are and difficulty you're playing on.) or the low price of 40 MSP. This continues to be a bit of a head scratcher to me - The enticement of building a better team for so cheap. The Gold packs are even only a couple bucks - hovering around or even less than the cost of 1 Rock Band DLC song. I'd highly encourage playing your team into glory, as the auction is where you can a better team for pennies on the dollar. Other gamers will put their cards up for auction (starting as low was 150 coins) and after a while, you can start picking off players from your team, or your country -- many as low as the starting price. Since the game is still pretty brand new, so many people are auctioning off what you want that if you miss out (or get outbid,) chances are something's ending only a few minutes, or a couple hours later. I purchased a pack of cards, and unhappy with the results (moreso that these guys were temps until I got the players I wanted,) I figured I would just play my way into more coins and just buy the players I wanted at auction. So far so good. Once you've built your team, you can jump into online friendlies with your friends list and over Xbox Live. In fact, many of the achievements in this game come from Ultimate Team's Online mode, so you're encouraged to make the leap.
So I've offered up so much praise to this game, and haven't outlined what's wrong with it. What don't I like about this game? Well, there's very little coming from the way the game plays. My dislikes are little things like the fact that the crowd just doesn't seem into the game, the goal celebrations are really weird (they're fine tuned so that it's all unique animation and spot on sprite interaction, which leads to some really strange things like a teammate that ran across my screen and Bill Goldberg speared me before rubbing himself on me and giving me a hug.) and the fact that substitutions are still a distracting cut scene. One thing I really like, however, is the fact that EA's implemented a better "hurry-up" system for throw-ins, just like some free kicks. For the most part, players will now run off the pitch ASAP and begin play, rather than cutting to a crowd shot or to the club manager trying to pick the ketchup stain off his track suit. Improvement points in this game are few and far between. Living in the city where much of the development took place, and working with the wife of an involved EA employee, I heard about the extra hours and late nights that went into trying to create the perfect soccer experience. I'm happy to say they're almost there, and every ounce of sweat put into this game shows in the end product.
Graphics: 9/10. Graphically, this game has done just about everything right. Players move completely independent of each other in the most fluid motions we've seen yet for any soccer game. If you take the time to pay attention to the runner animations, the amount of detail shown will astound you. Compare it to the current graphics king (World Cup South Africa) and you'll see additional frames for the smallest things like the swinging of arms when you run, to when you pass the ball to a teammate. As a Vancouver Whitecaps local, I'm appreciative they put BC Place into the list of available stadiums, though. A slight deduction for the weird coloring and blending of background advertisements, but it's forgivable in the long run considering that's not really why you're playing this game, and it's just background static in the grand scheme of things. Slight deduction as well for the crummy menu system. I'm really not a fan of the left to right horizontal menus with options popping up from the bottom of the screen. It hasn't worked in other option and play style heavy games, and it definitely does not work here. If you're going to do this kind of menu, you've really got to tone down the number of level 1 options, and maybe turn those into L2 or L3 sub-menus. I know the game wants to feed into the "play soccer anywhere, anytime" mentality where with the push of a button, you can forget the menus and play some pickup practice footie, but maybe it's time to bring back the familiarized menus with a picture-in-picture view of Kaka or whomever standing on the practice field where you can push a button to switch in between, or something like that.
Increased collision detection is something you'll have to get used to, though I don't know whether to put this into graphics or gameplay, since they affect both. You can't really meld into and breeze through defenders any longer. You're subject to every bump, bruise and collision, and even the goal celebrations seem to be custom tailored to the collision system. No two celebrations are really the system, and there are no more pre-determined celebration animations with the push of a button (granted, they will perform the same motions, it's just that the game no longer cuts to a pre-defined cinematic like it used to.)
Sound: 9.5/10. One of the biggest complaints I had last year was the overabundance of Martin Tyler's ridiculously boring and unenthusiastic play by play. Imagine my surprise this year when it's been split between the Tyler camp, and Clyde Tillsley and Andy Townsend, who feature in many of the North American games and in Ultimate Team. It's as if EA read this last year, and decided to throw them back in to shut me up. Well played EA. That, and much of Tyler's play by play appears to have been re-recorded and it doesn't sound like he's play by playing a funeral anymore. The World Cup duo are largely recycled commentary from WC South Africa by the sounds of it, but you know what? Don't care. The variation is awesome. Thank you for re-doing all of this EA. Once again, you've made a believer in me.
Outside of that, everything else is bang on. The soundtrack leaves a bit to be desired, but considering Fifa's the one EA sports franchise that allows you to shut it down and throw in your own tunes, I can live with it. The only thing I'd like to see added is a bit more crowd noise. The chants don't appear to have been re-done or added to, and the MLS especially is sorely lacking in crowd personality. It might be worth leaning on all the international offices to go out in the next year and have recording sessions with various clubs' hardcore fans recanting their various war songs. The Seattle Sounders have some very boisterous fans that I'm sure will be happy to help out, and the Vancouver Whitecaps Southsiders are pretty well singing when they get in their cars to go to the game, so there's opportunity to harness that energy too. The one thing the World Cup game did very well last year was piping in realistic sounding crowd noise (vuvuzelas) and cutting to shots of fans in team colors waving scarves and flags. This stuff goes on in every pro league, and I'd love to see a bit more of that, again, especially at the MLS level.
Controls: 9.25/10. The controls in this game have hit a great stride here. They're quick to get into, quicker than other games to start learning the complex bits (especially compared to NHL's WWF Attitude-esque complicated controls,) yet difficult enough that you won't master them overnight. This year's game brings better and more realistic defensive strategies and controls, along with a tweaking of the pressure control system. Past years saw a bit of forgiveness if you didn't hold the pass button down long enough, or you held the shoot button too long. Definitely not this year. If you mess up, you mess it all up. You have to precision every corner kick, every throw-in, every cross just that much better. Your players play to their abilities too. If you're a team of 60s going up against a team in the 90s, the disparity is felt more than past years. Don't expect the Chicago Fire to just walk through Manchester United, for example, without a bit of help from the sliders. Don't forget button caching either. The beloved soccer game feature of accidentally pressing a button too quickly and being unable to undo it (and having the player do what you don't want him to do once you get the ball) has returned, though seriously, if you haven't conditioned yourself out of the button cache in the last 6 years, you deserve to lose a few opportunities. The biggest gripe I have with the controls isn't their unforgiving nature, but the fact that I often found the ball wasn't going where I was asking it to, even with what were perfect enough passes the other 99 times out of 100 I'd execute them. Players will flounder the ball a bit more at times when you pass or shoot, which you wouldn't expect at the level you're expecting all these players to be. That kind of stuff should've been cleared up when these pros were 9 or 10.
Gameplay: 9.5/10. This game does so many little things right that I hope they incorporate into everything going forward. The Hurry up throw-in (an out of bounds doesn't always trigger a cut-scene or fade out screen any longer) is fabulous. The Ultimate Team mode might keep this game in my XBox for months to come alone, and I'd probably put Fifa's Ultimate Team right up at the top next to NHL's. The thing I like about Fifa's Ultimate Team is that it's a much easier and less difficult style for everybody to get into. NHL sim fans can be downright crazy, so they need something as intense as NHL's HUT mode, for example. I still love the player auctions, and with so many people auctioning so many players, I've been able to pick some of my favorites up for cheap, especially in the late hours of West Coast nights from European sellers. The standard modes are largely unchanged, but they had very little to improve upon anyway. As I'd mentioned before, collision detection is a vastly improved entity of the game this year, as you'll have to get used to the fact that players bump and collide as they should. In addition to no longer being able to float through your opponents, players will jostle each other during a collision, and may take each other out of plays longer than expected. You've now got real soccer referees in matches now too, and they all bring their own styles with them. You may find looser play amongst some refs than others. One will call fouls for the slightest things, and one may even miss a couple obvious calls. Pay close attention to what the play by play commentary tells you at the beginning of the match, as they usually spell out what kind of ref you have.
Last year's Fifa was great, but not really a great step up if you'd already put your cash into World Cup. This year's different. With another year to build enhancements into an already exquisite gaming engine, and the opportunity to touch up previous oversights, EA has stepped its game up once again this year. Next year's edition might be a tough sell because this one's so good, but there are a few things left over to bolster Fifa 13. Building on ambience I would say is probably the biggest thing. I'd love to be able to turn up my surround sound on full blast, and hear tons of crowd noise, songs from spectators on the pitch, and just more from the crowd in general. I'd also like to see a little bit more though into the pricing scheme of Ultimate Team. The one that really stuck out to me was the silver upgrade special team. 50 cents or 1500 coins? You'd have to put a few games or hours into getting some of these upgrade packs...or throwing 40 MS points at it. The effort divide here is not as large as the NHL series players are accustomed to, but still a bit astounding. I'm not condoning you go and spend money in buying an all star team, but it's tempting isn't it? There's more fun in the auctions anyway. Get in on it right away, because there's so much up for grabs right now, you can probably grab your players on the cheap. Somebody save BC Place for me too - I need to upgrade my stadium,
So now that yearly question remains - should you get this game if you purchased Fifa 11? What's Fifa 11? In other words - yes. This game is worth purchasing. I have no complaints about the foundation of the game, or the improvements that they made. Fifa in a whole just never stops being fun, and this game is no exception. If you're looking for what could end up being the Sports Game of the year, it's probably going to come down to this and NHL 12, unless NBA 2K12 or WWE 2012 somehow blow these games out of the water.
Suggestions: Kinect Goalie Mode? C'mon....you know you wanna.