You have to marvel at the way Sky Sports News has turned transfer deadline day into a three-ring circus purely to serve its own ends. The entire event has become a conjecture-fuelled day of reckoning played out with urgently scrolling straplines, media-induced crowds milling around training grounds as if they were the sites of Papal conclaves, and a breathless finale in which presenter Jim White’s chair appears to turn into a transfer-stimulated version of the Barbarella Orgasmatron as ‘Arry Redknapp (the man to whom transfers are crack cocaine) attempts to do fifteen deals in the last fifteen minutes. It’s a master class in manufactured tension, and we love it.
In reality, many of the pre-season pressures on EA’s FIFA development team are similar to those on any professional football club. As any second-rate football pundit worth his weight in clichés will tell you, no one ever won a race by standing still, so each new FIFA comes burdened with the expectation that key improvements will make it the greatest incarnation to date. To this end, FIFA 12 is the biggest risk for the franchise since FIFA 08. In football terms, it’s the equivalent of Juventus dumping Roberto Baggio for Alessandro Del Piero – swapping something known and beloved for something that has the potential to be even better – and it’s sure to be a contentious decision.
Let’s start where you always should, on the hallowed turf. It’s here that the most earth shattering adjustments have taken place with the new tactical defending system marking a fundamental change in the way FIFA plays. At its most basic, tactical defending can simply involve holding down the X button to track an opposing player’s movements. The real skill, however, comes from using moves like jockeying and harassing attackers, or calling on AI teammates to provide support, to successfully set up tackling opportunities and snuff out attacks. It’s a deeper approach to those previously seen in FIFA, one that forces you to defend with discipline as a team, and where success comes from a Shankly-esque solidarity and work ethic.
Whether standing or sliding, tackling is now a cumbersome activity and often very much an all or nothing affair; something accentuated by the new precision dribbling mechanics which make skilful attackers even more elusive. It takes a while to reacclimatise yourself, but you need to do so, as if your command of these new defensive strategies is about as good as Steve McClaren’s command of a Dutch accent, under the glare of experienced players and higher level AI teams you can spend a lot of time chasing shadows in games that aren’t so much football matches as public floggings.
On the evidence of its chess-match-like games, where positioning and the retention of possession are kings, there will be many who, quite justifiably, happily hand FIFA 12 their laurels as the most realistic football simulator ever. And there’s little doubt that, in terms of technicality and free flowing beauty, it has no rival. Its footballing IQ is almost off the charts, but this also leaves the game with a small Achilles heel.
There’s a distinct hint of vanity creeping in to FIFA’s football. Every match, no matter who the teams or what their levels, is a little too uniform and pristine, and this somewhat antiseptic air to the action consistently produces the kind of football that would leave Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris weeping in disgust and Sepp Blatter nursing a semi. In striving to consistently recreate the highest form of football, FIFA has become slightly, unrealistic.
With attacking players often cosseted away behind invisible velvet ropes, the much vaunted new Player Impact Engine is rather sidelined. And when it does get an opportunity to show how believably it can reproduce two physical bodies coming together, it throws itself into its work with such gusto it’s easy to forgive its rather extravagant animations. In FIFA 12, it seems, every tackle has to be either a revisitation of Bobby Moore’s perfect challenge on Pele, or a car crash of polyester-clad limbs that should be accompanied by comic book style ‘Ooof’ and ‘Biff’ sound effects.
Where the impact engine really shines, is in the way it identifies points of contact between players to decide on specific injuries. It’s painfully accurate, as are the majority of FIFA 12 wonderfully luxurious animations, although the player likenesses are not so much impressive as disappointingly average. It’s a similar story with the commentary too, where Andy Gray is a bigger loss than expected. Both Alan Smith and Andy Townsend are about as incisive and effervescent as they are on the telly, and consequently neither is able to fill his boots.
Off the pitch, all of the fanfares are for the EA Sports Football Club, an enticing new overarching framework that rewards you with experience points for a multitude of accomplishments, whether it be competing against friends or completing the frequent real world challenge scenarios the game throws up for you, such as reversing the result of the recent north London derby. Gaining XP not only increases your personal FIFA level, your points are also donated towards the team you’ve selected to support in the fans’ leagues that feature promotion and relegation at the end of each week long season.
Career Mode returns in much the same vein as last year, once again allowing you to take on the role of a player, manager or player manager and bring your virtual pro along for the ride. Improvements feature a more global and vibrant feel to the transfer market (including a decent attempt at recreating that deadline day tension), the ability to set up scouting networks and some basic media and player interaction options. It’s still nowhere near Football Manager depth, but all are welcome additions, as are the new 10 season long Head To Head leagues for those looking for an extended online challenge, while the virtual card collecting Ultimate Team mode now comes included on the disk for the truly hardcore.
In the world of the annual sports franchise, where tiny tweaks are regularly honoured with unjustifiably large headlines, it’s impossible not to admire EA for having the courage of their convictions. For pushing for real change and aspiring to perfection rather than just another dressed up roster update. FIFA 12 plays a very specific, very deliberate brand of football that’s as easy on the eye as it is stimulating on the mind. It’s rigid dedication to expansive football can sometimes prove restrictive, but anyone after a glorified 5-a-side should definitely look elsewhere for their shallow arcade fun. The ultimate accolade for FIFA is that the yardstick we now evaluate it by is no longer Pro Evolution Soccer, but reality itself.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 3 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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