Like a great deal of
suspended adolescence losers plugged-in members of my generation, I'm a fan of video games. More specifically sports video games. Or more accurately soccer/football video games if I am going to be completely honest. My interests used to be far more varied, but then I reached that age where my attention span actually starts to return to the realm of the post-21st-century human and things like going to a Farmer's Market or going to an art gallery is something worth putting the controller down and stepping outside for a bit.
Lame, I know.
The point is, the time I do spend playing video games these days is devoted solely to the FIFA series. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that I went and picked up the newest incarnation on Tuesday, the day it was made available for release in North America. It's been a busier than normal week so I haven't had as much time to play as I would have liked (though according to my wife I've done little else) but I do feel like I've logged enough time so far to make develop a reasonable opinion.
One important note; this review will focus pretty heavily on Career Mode. If you're looking for feedback on Online Mode, you'd probably do best to seek it elsewhere.Presentation
This is likely the first thing most people notice when they first fire up their gaming box of choice, and FIFA 12 does not disappoint. In a word, this game is gorgeous. A slightly altered camera angle brings the game into closer focus, and the level of detail is absolutely stunning. The presentation (at least outside of Be A Pro mode) in the last version of the mode was quite good, but at least for me there was something of a tendency to focus play on the bottom of the screen due to the difficulty in viewing angle when things shifted to the top. That's very much a thing of the past, and from a non-functional and purely aesthetic standpoint FIFA 12 impresses greatly. The shadows from the awnings are noticeable but unobtrusive, the detail of the kits is glorious (speaking of which I hate Villa's white shirts more than ever) and the animations are crisp and seamless.
FIFA 11 was a sharp looking game, but FIFA 12 blows it out of the water in every sense. The gameplay is of course of primary importance, but the interface, menus and player cards are all similarly improved. (Kudos to whichever employee of EA Sports that managed to nail down actual photographs rather than rendered headshots, by the way.) This is just a pretty, pretty game to look at.
Having played for a few hours now, I can say that the leaps made in terms of the AIs ability are stunning. Passes go where you'd actually intended, which is a pretty tremendous improvement. Unfortunately defenders now seem aware of basic logic; this is also a pretty tremendous improvement but also incredibly frustrating, in the best possible way. Attacking players make runs that don't make you want to bang your head against the wall. AI controlled defenders don't make stupid, overly aggressive and easily evaded commitments. Keepers are no longer super-human in their intelligence and decision making, but they're also not completely befuddled by relatively pedestrian chips.
In short, every major issue that I've had with the AI in past versions of FIFA has been sorted. That's not to say that things are perfect; give me a few weeks and I am sure I'll find something that drives me crazy. That's just the nature of sports gaming. But what's important is that the developers recognized the existing flaws and were quite comprehensive in addressing them. It's still annoying that the slowest and most bumbling defenders can chase down the fastest of strikers, but at least now there's some hope of evading their grasp. And if defensive players get too obvious in their desperation they'll be called for a foul, something which corrects one of the most controller-destroying flaws in the FIFAs of old.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this is where FIFA 12 has come under the most severe criticism. And to be certain, there's definitely some major adjustments to be made. Where playing defense in previous versions involved one button for the most part, the new defensive controls involve the entire controller. It's a difficult leap to make. But the more I play, the more I am of the belief that if there's a flaw in the system it's that the game's designers have made things a bit too realistic too fast; whereas in the past one would view defense as the phase of the game that lasted 20% of the time and involved avoiding yellow cards, penalties and winning back the ball you're now forced to put just as much thought and skill into defense as the attack. EA almost certainly could have found a more user-friendly way to transition to a more involved defensive control scheme but they're on the right track. and if it gets too frustrating, you an always switch back to the old system.
It's not just defending that takes some getting used to however; there are some quirks in the attacking phase as well. Most pronounced is the actual importance of the directional button on terms of crossing; the aim has been zeroed in to a greater degree, and if you're haphazard in your target the ball is going to end up being drilled embarrassingly out of play. There's also the fact that pinballing around the midfield is no longer an option; there's a reason that such displays are greeted with "OLE!"s in real life, an the difficulty of re-creating that sort of dominance over your virtual opponent is far more representative of reality. The opposition will press, find a seam in your defense and make you look like an idiot.
This, for me, is where the leap the series has made with most current incarnation really shines through, Most everything is totally revamped; there's once again a scouting network but it's far more fully fleshed out. There's a youth system as well, which gives an incentive to push past those first three or four European Cups. You can't just collect superstars and hold them in reserve any longer; even mediocre players will call you out for not giving them game time. If they're unhappy enough, they'll do their best to force a transfer.
And playing time isn't the only thing that causes players to move along. Once a player feels as though they've grown to big for their britches, they'll hand in a transfer request. If the board decides that it's in the club's best interest and you don't move swiftly enough, they'll sell the player right out from under you. This happened to me with Barry Bannan, and it was really, really annoying. But it's also the level of realism which I've been craving for years.
And for the record (and it's hard to believe this was ever actually a concern people had) yes, players do progress. Very young players move at a nice clip. Players that are of an age that might expect to get regular playing time will grow slowly (but still grow) if left to rot in the reserves, but they'll come along at a wonderful pace if given time with another club on loan. And then of course there's the Transfer Deadline Day. Just a truly brilliant feature.
So, How's The Villa?
Well, they're not all that good. At least in comparison to other EPL teams. They're at 4-stars overall, about as low as a team can get without being a regular relegation candidate, but as far as a good team to guide through career mode they're still a good bet thanks to their youth and the financial flexibility EA Sports seems to think we still have, A few players are probably underrated, a few players are probably overrated. In general though, Villa's standing seems about right. It's just a shame those shirts don't render better than they look in reality.
This game is just brilliant. Go buy it. (And no, I am not being paid. It's just that good.)