To the untrained eye, football games haven’t changed much in fifteen years. Someone with little familiarity with the FIFA series might go back to the PS1 era and dismiss everything that succeeded it as a waste of time and money. FIFA 12, however, was something of a risk as far as taking sports games into the next generation was concerned. It implemented some radical changes to gameplay, some passive and some active, and took a lot of chances.
It wasn’t popular with some fans of the series, which has seen a steady rise in quality in the last half-decade to the point that it is now widely considered equal to, and according to many superior, Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer. This year’s instalment of FIFA doesn’t feel like a very radical advancement of EA Sports’ formula, but it refines, tweaks and adds just enough to make it feel like a honed and complete footballing package worth the high retail price.
The main meat of FIFA 13 will be instantly familiar to anybody that’s played a football game in the last decade. As an adaptation of a real-life sport, the key concept of scoring points and winning games doesn’t have a lot of room to change. Where the series has seen iterative improvement is in the mechanics of how the game is controlled. FIFA 12 introduced new gameplay systems for both defending and attacking. For teams on the defence, “tactical defending” completely uphauled the old system and gave players much more finesse over how they could shut the opponent down. It returns in FIFA 13 and is still a fantastic mechanic, allowing you to send AI defenders to jockey the opponent on the ball, to dive in for a tackle or to simply cover their runs. For attackers, FIFA 12 gave the player much finer control over dribbling, completing the organic movement football games have been aiming for since they ditched the eight-way run half a decade ago. In FIFA 13, these systems are applied to set pieces as well as open play, and you can now have a wealth of options on both sides of a free kick. Adding or subtracting players to a defensive wall makes all the difference at high-level play, and the tricky art of scoring a free kick is much more intuitive this year.
EA’s impact engine, also seen this year in the Madden series, was the least successful addition to the series in FIFA 12. Whilst it occasionally made for some gnarly-looking collisions, 90% of the time it just led to odd player hang-ups and glitches. Worst of all, however, was the way it failed to account for player collisions happening off-the-ball, essentially allowing players to purposely barge opponents over without reprimand as long as they didn’t have the ball at their feet. FIFA 13 improves the impact engine to a point where it feels welcome, but many old problems with it persist. Players push, pull and use their weight much more effectively this year, and it becomes particularly apparent when defending. Bulky central defenders will desperately grip the shirts of nimble forwards, slowing them and putting them off-balance, sliding into challenges feels appropriately risky for the first time; however the off-ball problems still remain. Thankfully, the referee is far improved on FIFA 12. They’re smarter, less intrusive and more willing to allow for physicality within the rules of the game to the point where they’re almost unrealistically into playing the advantage.
The way first touches work has been changed, with varying results. At first jarring and uncomfortable, the way the ball no longer sticks like glue to the feet of the receiving player brings much more unpredictability to ball control. Once mastered, however, it’s mostly a worthwhile addition, letting you deftly control the ball straight from a pass. The first time you dink a pass past a defender, swivelling round him to open up a shot on goal; you’ll feel like Messi himself. As with the impact engine last year, this new first touch system does occasionally stray outside the realms of reality. Every now and then, your player will receive the ball and for no apparent reason dink it straight up into the air just in front of them. It’s entirely due to the first touch engine getting over the top, and irritating when it causes what might have been a fruitful move to break down. Otherwise, controlling teams feels as weighty and crisp as ever. More than in previous iterations, players feel unique and different to one another. Ronaldo does that ridiculous stiff-armed sprint, controlling Balotelli feels like the Tank from Left 4 Dead and using Barcelona feels more like cheating than ever. Team personality was always one of the few areas in which FIFA struggled to compete with Pro Evo, but FIFA 13 shows promising signs the playing field is beginning to level in this regard.
You can tell just by reading this review so far that FIFA 13’s focus is largely on tweaking the formula set by FIFA 12 rather than inventing any new systems of its own. To compensate, EA has changed some of the ways the game delivers its content to give a false illusion that there’s more to do. Gone are the main menu practice arenas from past games, now replaced with a skill games mode that provides a series of increasingly difficult challenges. Whilst there’s nothing particularly wrong with them, the menu practice arena was far better at entertaining you for a couple of minutes at a time. It enticed you to complete goals to improve your created virtual pro, whereas skill games only allow you to choose specific real-life players. With FIFA 13, the franchise moves closer and closer to becoming some kind of pseudo-social network. There’s a whole meta-game with EA Sports Football Club that accrues points for your team of choice, stacking them up in virtual leagues that change regularly. You still earn experience points and level up by playing, but in FIFA 13 the game actually gives you tangible rewards for doing so by allowing you to spend points on unlocks. For hardcore football fans, they’ll come as a real treat, and the inclusion of classic kits and teams is something the FIFA series has missed for some time.
Much of the marketing focus for FIFA 13 was on its appearance and sound design. EA Sports talked some big talk about making it a more immersive, less grating thing to look at and listen to. Much to my surprise, it’s largely a success. FIFA 13 is the first sports game of all time in which I don’t immediately turn my television down and jam on a podcast. Last year’s commentators return, providing a pairing for every player – the dry and efficient Alan Smith and Andy Gray, or the unintentionally hilarious, over-emotive Clyde Tyldesley and Andy Townsend. The actual dialogue is given increased weight due to live player updates that comment both on the overall talent of certain players, as well as those currently unavailable due to injury.
Stadia have also been given a much more loving treatment this year. Crowds are rowdy in support of the home side, and a larger number of grounds have been given the full virtual workover. As a Tottenham Hotspur fan, it gave me incredibly cheap but long-lasting thrills to see White Hart Lane so well realised, the organic-sounding crowd chanting “come on you Spurs!”. There’s a similar level of neat touch applied to most of the largest clubs in British football. The best of these came when; playing as Manchester City at The Emirates stadium, every touch Samir Nasri made came with a cacophony of boos and whistles. These little touches, whilst not at all integral to the gameplay, are incredibly evocative of real-life sport, and actually introduce sound design as a valid focus for sports titles in the next generation.
In terms of visual design, the graphical quality of the game is largely the same. Crowds still quickly lose any illusion of realism if actually concentrated on, and there’s not any noteworthy improvement to player animation or fidelity. Menus are crisp and bright, but the main menu still suffers from the chronic EA Sports issue of spreading too many different modes and options across too many different submenus. EA should think about hiring a few of those guys at Codemasters to give them a helping hand in designing intuitive, clean menus.
There’s such a wealth of things to do in FIFA 13 that first-time players are certain to be intimidated and confused. Although single player career modes have seen some changes, all of which are ultimately inconsequential, EA have really leant on online play and it shows. For those with addictive personalities, the Ultimate Team mode is back; mostly identical to how you’ll remember it from previous iterations. Skill challenges are high-score driven, the EA Sports Football Club is a form of passive multiplayer that keeps you involved in the community without even trying, and Pro Clubs has been expanded to include much of FIFA 12’s popular Head To Head Seasons mode.
Combining these two facets was a wise choice by EA. It effectively doubles the player base of one mode, keeping the competitive bragging rights of Seasons, along with the teamwork-heavy maelstrom of Pro Clubs. Bring a few friends of a similar skill set to yours, and Pro Clubs Seasons is one of the most rewarding online experiences going. If you get bored of this, there are the new EA Sports Match Day features to play around with. This uses your internet connection to update teams based around current form, which I’ve found particularly useful for teasing my Liverpool-supporting friends who, according to FIFA 13 as of the time of writing, aren’t doing so hot. It’s simply a novelty for now, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all for this to be expanded to include career mode next year.
There isn’t a better sports title than FIFA 13 out right now, and I include any and all varieties of sports in that claim. There isn’t a single release out there that has the depth, variety and longevity to match it. Whilst the general opinion is that Pro Evo Soccer 13 was a return to form for the flagging Konami franchise, EA have done more than enough with FIFA 13 to ensure that I, and all the other FIFA players who jumped ship when Pro Evo took a nosedive, don’t feel the need to switch allegiances again.
As a final aside, go check out this game’s sales. My wallet hurts.