Every year, nearly a dozen major sports titles come out for your home consoles the world over. Most end up as local or single continent favorites, and very few are a global phenomenon. F1 titles tend to be popular the world over, and FIFA is the other.
The popularity of soccer is undeniable. I would say that it quite handily is the most popular sport in the world. All it takes is an inflated ball, and you can have a soccer game in any form, any fashion and any time. Over the last 20 years, Electronic Arts has taken video game soccer from an semi-licensed, decent pickup game to an all-encompassing sports title. With hundreds of teams, more than a dozen leagues, and more licenses to its name than a Vegas wedding chapel minister, FIFA?s presence grows by the thousands every month, and is always one of the best, if not the best-selling sports title every year. Last year, FIFA 12 generated nearly $200,000,000 in sales in its first week, and EA looks to continue that trend into this year. Lionel Messi is this year?s poster boy, hot off his multi-year deal with EA Sports. Messi was on the cover of FIFA Street, and looks much happier on the cover of its father title.
The first thing you?ll notice when you play the game is that, mechanically, it is so very different than even last year. Controls are much more sensitive to your actions, and jamming buttons frantically, or mashing them will impact your ability to complete passes or take shots more than before. If it sounds agonizing and detrimental to your FIFA experience, it isn?t. EA has been slowly evolving the game?s controls into this form the last few years, and ?13 is the first time you see it on full blast.
However, button caching still remains a FIFA exclusive headache. Yes, you would think that after more than a half decade of button cache goodness, I would have learned by now. I have not. It still happens once every few games at the most inopportune times.
Looking further into the new additions, it starts no simpler than the rosters. More leagues have been added, and though you probably won?t be rushing to play as any of the Saudi Pro Leagues (the best teams in the league don?t match up ranking-wise to the worst teams in the MLS, let alone Europe,) it?s nice to know they?re there, along with a couple of African Pro teams too. In all, more than 500 teams and 15000 professional soccer players are packed into this game, playing in 58 different stadiums (57 on the 360.) Of note for North American players ? It appears the only MLS Stadium is the Whitecaps? BC Place. Unfortunately, you will have to relegate DC United?s Chris Pontius and his Party Boy Anthem to shake around the Streets of Vancouver for one more year, and not RFK.
If you read the preview that we did for FIFA 13 last month, you will know they changed the sprite physics engine in this game as well to better mirror the standard set by NHL 13, and carried into Madden 13 this year. It too, like the controls is something you saw inklings of in past years, but is ramped up for this year. The result is that your on-field players no longer have transparent limbs, and in the past, all those ghost-like moves you hit on your opponents will not work any longer. You can no longer dribble through barrages of defenders mere inches from each other without making contact with a limb or torso like you would expect to see in the real game. Invisible limbs in previous versions also meant that tackling could often be a pain. Your application of logical physics was thrown out the window when the ball would mysteriously go through your legs, with your opponent following suit after avoiding tackle. Unlike Madden and NHL, the frequency of rubber band collisions is minimal, and players interact much better with each other in this game than the others. With more than 20 moving objects on screen at once, it?s a hard task, but one EA?s done well to succeed and run with.
With in-game physics changes, other things change as well by default. Many of the kicking trajectories, especially around free kicks have changed. Kicking the ball requires a little bit more precision this year, and you can even run set plays to throw your opponent off of where you?re kicking. Be aware that winning the ball off these free kicks, and even goal kicks are much different. In the past, your players would readily move themselves into position and react appropriately. All you had to do was simply time when you had to jump for the ball and wiggle the left stick. This system is still largely the same, though you do have to be weary of the fact that the improved physics and impact engine means that incorrect timing is more damaging than ever. Passing physics have changed as well for the better. You must direct and guide passes better than ever. No longer can you simply will the ball over to your teammates with the greatest of ease. Much of this is like having to learn to ride a bike for the second time, but melding all the changes together in one year rather than spacing them out over several mean you can buck up and rip the bandaid off at once rather than peeling it away over time.
The last major change happens to the career mode, which has exploded into the massive multi-dimensional experience you always would have hoped something like this would be. Most club football fans see many of their favorite players shuffle through their year representing their club and their country in friendlies and tournament qualifiers simultaneously. FIFA 13 career mode allows you to do this from both the eyes of the player, and the manager level. As a player, you can suit up for your nation if you are revered enough to make it, and as an up and coming manager, you can lobby your skills into managing your country too. This adds a bigger element of fun and accomplishment to your career mode journey, and with diversified logic in trades and transfers, makes it a bit trickier to capture the true value of your player, now based off more variables than ever.
If career mode is not for you, the exhibition modes are still around, though renamed Match Day. Match Day is a feature not unlike the 2K Sports MLB Series, where they attempt to mirror current rosters as much as possible, accounting for injuries and suspensions in order to match up your experience on-screen with the one you see unfolding before you. Struggling teams and players will see diminished in-game performance (this does not bode well for Vancouver Whitecaps fans on release day) and hot teams will ride their hot streaks onto your Xbox (again stressing at this point that this does not bode well for Whitecaps fans on release day.) You can build your gamer card up while enjoying many of the same features as last year, including the frequently updated challenges based on the happenings that week.
Just like the Madden series, FIFA has integrated Kinect features, and I believe those that own one should definitely hook it up and give it a go. The features seem to work much better than Madden, where it recognizes your voice pitch with better consistency. It will make your life much easier with its functionality and ease, and as previously mentioned, if you have a foul mouth, it will definitely have an impact on your career mode storylines, and the respect you get from officials on and off the pitch. Remember that a few swear words could also impact your playability in real-time too, as players can be booked for swearing depending at referee discretion. This does not happen very often, however, do not be surprised if it does.
The skill games are the final thing to re-visit from the preview from earlier this month. FIFA 13 implements a series of different skill games to help you improve your in-game performance while adding a bit more replay value. While skill games are not new to sports games in general (they comprise a huge portion of Virtua Tennis, for example,) these are catered more to help you improve your accuracy and abilities of certain skills. If you need to learn how to lob the ball better, there is a game for that. If you need to learn how to aim the ball better, there is a game for that. If you need to learn how to pass the ball better, there is a game for that. While I have had a bit more time to let the skill games sink in, and I am not so enamored with them as I was when I first started playing, these are just as difficult as the highest difficulties of this game itself. While you can easily attain bronze medals with little to no effort, the difficulty spikes up once you get to silver and above, to where a small percentage of players will probably carry platinum level achievements on all skills. The games have helped me not just learn the things the controls are capable of (even though I play the FIFA games every year, I'm far from good at them) but eased learning some of the new in-game physics a lot. Give them a shot.
Outside of that, much of the features that remain are ones that carry over, or that you have come to expect and enjoy from previous versions of FIFA. FUT Mode is back, and while EA press releases said that would be easier for inexperienced players to build a better team, my opinion is that it was easy enough in FIFA 12, and I did not see any difference. There are more tournaments, and match types to choose from, and the tutorial is neat, but really, if the major change is the season pass, or the ability to buy 2 dozen different types of packs, it?s really not ?easier? perse. It still requires the same amount of time investment to be able to attain some of the higher level packs, and savvy players might end up using their coins toward player auctions again instead of packs. The new mobile app is a nice touch, and will be neat to try out in the next few months (an iPhone app for EA FC will allow you to look at FUT options and access your profile at any time) as well.
Graphically, the game appears to have settled in as far as the 360 can take it, which is a lot if you compare it to the first couple FIFA titles, but not so much in comparison to ?12. Again, we?ve now reached a point where processing limitations may have about capped, so this is probably as good as it gets. There are still a few things I notice here and there which I will touch upon in the final rankings, however. I still believe that World Cup 2010 South Africa (and FIFA 11) had the best all around graphical interaction in the stadium, but the game looks much crisper on the field now. I do miss the egregious use of crowd shots and fans dressed in their respective kits though. Nowadays, all we get are shots of the players milling about the field while substitutions load before it all goes down.
Let?s take a look at the final ratings.
Graphics: 8.5/10. The pitch looks fantastic. The menus and GUIs do too. The arenas themselves look great, but FIFA?s only graphical problems continue to be the player sprites and the crowds. NHL 11 was the first game I can think of that gave off the ?full arena? atmosphere, even though everybody was doing the same thing and waving towels in ways only people with broken wrists could do. World Cup 2010 cleverly disguised a lack of live movement with the crowd animations in between. The stadiums always look and feel like they are half empty in this game, and the player movements are a bit choppy. The shadows on the pitch look really jagged, and the players move a bit oddly sometimes. The players and their jagged features don distract from the game at all, but playing a major game in front of a half-empty arena is always a bit of a buzzkill. I think there just needs to be a bit of cleaning up for next year?s title, and this will be a total package.
Sound 9.5/10. Sound appears to be the one department there wasn?t a lot of work on. Most of the commentary appears to have transitioned over from last season, though I?ve noticed some neat things with Kinect functionality. I decided to challenge a few plays verbally after whistles, and the game was smart enough to pick up on it and commentate based on my frustration, which I thought was great. With nothing better or worse outside of that, however, it seems fitting to just give it the same rating as last year. I really wish EA would send some sound techs all over North America and Europe capturing the chants and ambience of the major clubs, or, even easier, gather the input of fans the world on message boards and get some hired voices in studio to create more club and arena authentic chants. It seems like too much to ask for all major arenas and stadiums, but I don?t know that it?s too unreasonable to ask for a few chants from each major soccer team in their home games. The FIFA series? value on the virtual stock market of gaming basically surpasses all other sports games, and I?d really like to see them sink a few bucks into revamping the in-match atmosphere now that they?ve got most of the other sound stuff under control.
Controls: 9.5/10. The controls take shape much better this season. The unforgiving nature of FIFA 12?s controls make more sense now, and even though they hold you just as accountable as last year, there?s a reason behind it now. The new Kinect controls are really good, and though it could use a few more options (like the ability to change positions on the fly a bit better) and a bit of cleanup, it definitely beat Madden if you compare the two. My only problem with FIFA 13?s controls? They?re a bit too sensitive at times. Pressure sensitive controls are always one of the most touch and go things in sports gaming, and there are times where barely touching the shoot button will send the ball sailing into the hot dog guy. That?s always the most annoying part of a perfectly crafted soccer play, though I guess to be fair, you do see it about 20 times per real game, so in a way, it?s an accurate representation.
Gameplay: 9/10. EA seems to understand that FIFA?s gotten to a point where the wheel doesn?t need re-inventing, so to speak, so they?re just looking for ways to keep dressing it up. The skill games are great, and the enhanced career mode is brilliant. I?ve been playing this series since the Panasonic 3DO, and I?ve always had a lot of enjoyment out of it with the exception of a few titles. I?ve been around to see FIFA go from a basic pickup game to an exhibition and fantasy soccer game player?s dream. This title is slowly evolving to include your voice, and soon, I?m sure your motions will matter too (I?ll be hiding the valuables for Kinect goalie mode if it ever becomes a reality.) Gameplay-wise, the game draws many parallels to last year?s, but I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the way the game has changed for the better, even if it does mean you can?t get away with what you could in previous years.
Now comes the awkward yearly question of whether FIFA 13 is worth the immediate upgrade if you have FIFA 12. It?s all relative to the upgrades. You want better roster support and a better dose of realism affecting your game? Then yes. Have you been waiting for your players to do the all-encompassing act of representing club and country? Then yes. Do you spent your entire FIFA experience playing nothing but a mix of exhibition matches, challenges and FUT? Then no. Nothing?s going to change that the primary purpose of FIFA is to play a soccer video game. There are just so many different ways to do it now that you just pick one and roll with it. FIFA has long been the way to ?roll with it,? and despite a few scares here and there, doesn?t look to relinquish that spot anytime soon.