Review: FIFA 12
In the words of the third-best manager in English League history: ‘Some say that football is a matter of life and death; I assure you it’s much more important than that’. This is why every year, without fail, millions of gamers get excited when autumn arrives. The trees turn from green to brown, shorts are replaced by jogging bottoms and EA Sports release the latest game in the behemoth that is the FIFA franchise.
Over the life-cycle of this generation of home consoles, FIFA has not only gone to the top of the football tree, it has left its competitors behind in a swamp of Ultimate Team Pack wrappers, dreaming of the day they too can get a full 11v11 online match running.
Although I have been quick to champion the possible return to greatness of the other big football franchise (review forthcoming), it is pretty clear from the sales, the forums and my friends list that FIFA is still the daddy. Question is, does it justify this position? Read on to find out.
Rags to riches
As always with sports games there is no true story mode; although, FIFA 12 does try to circumvent this fact with a new-and-improved Career mode, that lets you begin on a journey encompassing almost every aspect of the beautiful game. The Career mode allows you to progress from a teenager breaking into the first team, through to a role as player manager and on to just being the gaffer; the only thing missing is a stint on Soccer Saturday with Jeff Stelling and the boys.
Menu options are slightly different depending on which phase you are in; as a player, you can view news stories from your club or around the world, to see who may be joining your team and, potentially, taking your place. ‘Calendar’ shows your team’s upcoming fixtures and ‘Statistics’ is where you can see all the relevant league tables, cup tournament information, form guides and goal scoring charts. Finally, ‘My Career’ gives you a breakdown of your complete history: appearances, goals, assists, clubs and transfer fees; it’s all here.
When you have finished reviewing all the relevant info and want to advance, the game simulates the relevant days where there is no activity. When you go into a game day you get the option of playing as your chosen player or controlling the entire team, as in the standard match modes.
If you opt to play as a manager you get a few additional options in the menus. ‘Squads’ takes you into a sub-menu where you do all your team management, such as picking your team for the upcoming game. ‘Squad Report’ provides a full detailed view of the various stats on each member of your club; ‘Squad Ranking’ lets you check form guides; you can also see details of any current ‘Injuries’; change the ‘Squad Numbers’; or go and view all of the players’ ‘Contract’ info, where you can also offer them a new deal should you deem them worthy.
The ‘Transfer’ menu gives you access to the transfer market to improve your team, as well as allowing you to ‘Transfer List’ the players you no longer want for sale or loan. You can also negotiate the breakdown of your budget, with a slider that separates the percentage between transfer allowance and wage budget. Last of all, you can access your ‘Youth Academy’ to manage the next batch of first team players. From here you can also get yourself a scout and send him out to find the next Lionel Messi.
The other differences you get as a manager are a mailbox that pops up between games with various messages of support (or criticism) from your board, or transfer offers from your peers. When game day rolls around you either play the match yourself, or opt to sim it. It’s not quite at the same scale as the dedicated Football Manager series in terms of content, but there is certainly more than enough depth here to keep you occupied for hours on end. Gamers of a certain age with positive memories of one Sensible World of Soccer will surely have a few nostalgic moments, with the way the game allows you to delve into the off-field aspects of the sport.
It’s only a game
Outside of the career mode, other single-player game modes include your standard Exhibition Match, which throws you into a single-player head-to-head game, where you can choose the team and opponent of your choice. ‘Tournaments’ allow you to set up and compete in any of the huge amount of featured real-life League and Cup competitions from around the globe, or create one of your own.
Finally we have FIFA Ultimate Team; for those that do not know what this game mode entails I have two things to say: firstly, where have you been for the past four years, and secondly, prepare to lose your sanity!
In my humble opinion, Ultimate Team is one of the most addictive game modes ever. It starts with you receiving a pack of player cards that allow you to just about get a team together, and what follows is an endless quest to build a team better than Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid all rolled into one.
To do this you need to buy card packs with Coin earned in the game or purchased from the Marketplace. Card packs come in Bronze, Silver, Gold or Special variety at an increasing cost depending on what you want, and give you a mix of cards covering players, formations, training, staff, balls, stadiums, kits, badges and contracts.
Once you have a group of players you’re happy with you can take to the field and play either a friendly or a tournament; both can be online against another FUT player or offline against the CPU. Coin is earned depending on the outcome, and this is then ultimately re-invested in your team.
As well as the card packs there is an auction area, where you can go and specify a particular type of card you want in order to try and perfect your team, or sell the ones you no longer want. Your club area gives a breakdown of all the cards you currently have in your possession. You can build multiple squads within your club, and will likely need to do this, as tournaments require different criteria to enter; for example you must be under a certain level, or all a particular category (Gold, Silver, or Bronze).
In the background throughout your time with FIFA 12 is the other big new feature: the EA Sports Football Club. At the start of the game you pick your favourite team, and then no matter what game mode you are in you gain XP for your performances, which increase your level. This level, along with your match performances on or offline, goes towards your club’s level, even if you are playing as a different team.
There has been some criticism of this, with suggestions it will be biased towards the bigger clubs with more supporters. However, the game works out the club level on the average to counteract this and as my performances so far have been decidedly average, I have certainly contributed to my beloved Manchester United struggling somewhat.
The club also allows you to keep track on your mates, as a press of the back button on the main menu takes you into the hub and a list of news stories that says who’s won or lost, what XP they’ve unlocked, and a comparison of your current league and level to theirs. Additionally there are the Challenges, which are updated regularly with real-life scenarios for you to try and emulate or reverse all for more XP.
On the pitch there are a lot of positive things to say about FIFA 12. You genuinely can build up possession and pressure by moving the ball around in true Barcelona style. That’s not to say it’s easy to do this, especially if you remove some of the assists the game switches on as default, but when you get it right the sense of satisfaction is right up there.
As I mentioned in my demo impressions last month, the new tactical defending is a bugbear of mine and despite many, many hours put in, I am still not comfortable with it. The main issue I have here is that the press button, or pressure as it’s now called, causes you to move towards the man on the ball with a real sense of urgency and determination, only to hit what appears to be an invisible forcefield around the player as you get to a point that you might be able to make a tackle. This leads to far too many occasions when your opponent appears untouchable and just walks through your defence to score.
Naturally, the way to counteract this is to try and utilise the second man press while you keep the team shape with your own man, but again there is a major flaw here. Your man often runs past the ball completely, and as soon as the opponent passes, the second man changes and you end up looking like you’re chasing shadows. I am perfectly happy to accept that part of this is down to user performance, but a football game where you can’t effectively go and win the ball back with your controlled player is basically flawed.
In addition to this I have noticed some serious pacing issues within the game; by this I mean the player’s pace at times is laughable. I have no problem when Gareth Bale steams past Brede Hangeland, but when Nani is out-paced by Scott Parker you know something is wrong. This leads to situations where it looks like your player is running in treacle, as his legs move but he still doesn’t seem to go anywhere.
My other major gripe is with the AI. Another of the new features this time round is ‘pro player intelligence’, which promises to improve the AI by enabling the players to recognise the ability of who is in possession and make runs appropriately. As good as this sounds, it only seems to affect the AI on the CPU-controlled teams, as your players just stand still unless you press the LB button to send them on a direct, straight run, which often does very little to help you.
What this all leads to is a game that punishes you for playing at anything above the medium difficulty levels, as the combination of the supposed invisible force field, the unbalanced CPU AI and the lottery-style pace issues take a great deal of fun out of the game.
Great vision from the lads
As ever FIFA looks like a true champion, with player models looking even more like their real life counterparts than before. All of the big names are here with every kit lovingly recreated, and alongside the star players we have some of the world’s best stadia. The menus have the usual EA Sports polish with an easy-to-navigate interface, and pre-game, the TV-style presentation adds an even greater level of style and class.
The player animations on pitch are also very good overall, with realistic tussles for the ball going on at every juncture. Actions such as overhead kicks, or trying to pull back an opponent (X), are extremely smooth and look very impressive. I do have some issues with the new ‘Player Impact’ engine, though, which leads to moments when players seem to fall for no reason. I know this isn’t unlike real-life football and it does seem to have improved slightly with the updates we have already had, but it does still happen, and therefore has to sit as a negative.
The crowd goes wild
The menus are filled with the usual EA Sports Trax which you can pick and choose as you wish, and you can also customise your music for various other areas of the game including your team’s pitch entry.
Matchday commentary comes from a mix of Martyn Tyler, Clive Tyldesley, Alan Smith and Andy Townsend, and there can be no arguments about how well the vocals have been captured. Unfortunately, neither Smith, nor Townsend are the most enthusiastic co-commentators, and the main commentary does repeat far too often, as well as having too many occasions where it does not follow the action at all.
It seems that EA Sports have decided that they need to cram as many traditional phrases as they can into each match, so even as you’re knocking in your fourth or fifth goal you might hear something like ‘finally, they’ve got the breakthrough!’.
It’s all about teamwork
Online, FIFA offers another huge variety of game modes outside of the Ultimate Team games. Ranked and Player matches have been replaced by Head-to-Head seasons and Friendlies. Here you get ten matches per season, and are given a target number of points to get promoted or avoid a relegation.
Having entered into the season match and picked your team, the game then tries to match you with a player at a similar level and, far more importantly, one who has picked a similar star team. This is my favourite new addition by far. One of the most infuriating things about playing sports games online (and something which has plagued FIFA as much as, if not more than other games) is the fact that every other game you play is against one of the world’s major clubs, which means if you pick someone like the MK Dons you may as well give up before you start. I am very happy to report that so far I have played against a different team with almost every match, and I haven’t seen Barcelona, Chelsea, Inter Milan or Liverpool once.
The other big online mode comes via the Virtual Pro feature. You create a player from scratch and then take your individual online, to either join up with 21 other random players in a Pro Ranked match (where each person picks a side before the mad rush to get one of the two striker positions), or join a Club for a more structured match-up.
Anyone who has played the Clubs mode over the past couple of years will tell you this is a thoroughly enjoyable and massively fulfilling option; when you get a decent Club set-up going with friends, it can often distract your attention away from all of the other game modes. One of the big draws for me, especially this year, is that it takes away a lot of the negatives of the normal game, such as the tactical defending and the funny speed issues.
Result just in
There is absolutely no doubt that FIFA 12 is a very well-presented and largely enjoyable football sim. It has an absolute mass of game modes and settings, guaranteeing that there is something here for every football fan; from the most basic pick-up-and-play attitude right down to the Football Manager-style Career, all are covered.
As always, the full licence will keep purists happy, with clubs, players and kits from almost every league in the world available for you to use, as well as all of the major national teams (and a fair few average ones) to choose from.
However, on the pitch there are just a few issues that let the game down, much like Arsenal’s defence. The new defending controls are awkward, the AI is incredibly biased to the CPU, and the speed of players is, at times, a complete lottery. Although these aren’t game breakers either individually or collectively, they can seriously affect the enjoyment level at times, and for that reason FIFA 12 gets a: