It’s upon us again, that time of year when a high percentage of men take to the sofa, order pizza and sing the immortal words of the Adam and Joe football song, “Ball ball ball,footie footie footie.” Yes, FIFA has returned in its latest iteration, the imaginatively titled FIFA 13. This year has seen the choice for the armchair athlete become more difficult with a very impressive showing from Pro Evolution Soccer 2013 but FIFA is more than able to rise to the challenge.
FIFA 12 took a lot of risks, from the implementation of the physics based Impact Engine to the huge change to the defensive game with the shift to Tactical Defending. This time around there are no significant changes of those magnitudes but what we do have is a beautiful distillation of everything that made last year’s version so memorable. It is a cliche to say that this is an evolution rather than a revolution and to a degree that undersells the quality of this interpretation of the beautiful game. The Tactical Defending is back again and as a product of it being introduced last year there is no difficult breaking in period for seasoned FIFA players, you will feel right at home with attempting to keep a clean sheet.
It can be almost overlooked at times when we talk about FIFA, as we have become so used to it, but praise must be given once again to the utter quality in presentation that EA Canada have managed to apply consistently across the entire game. From the slick menu system to the pre-match build up everything feels considered, the production is as glossy and professional as any broadcaster. The commentary this year has also evolved to try and make the experience that little bit more involving. Martin Tyler and Alan Smith are back as the main commentators as well as Clive Tyldesley and Andy “How does he get commentary work” Townsend. Overall the commentary is par for the course, not wanting to mix sporting metaphors, but this time around Geoff Shreeves offers some commentary from the sidelines. It’s a lovely touch, should a player get injured the standard commentary gets interrupted with a report from Geoff, it’s just window dressing really but the overall effect adds to the experience.
The most notable development this year seems to be the improved AI, some would assume that better AI is inevitable with time but EA have really pulled it out of the bag. On the attack you will see a much improved game of football with your teammates making runs, pulling defenders away or exploiting the holes in defence that you can see. The goal of AI in football games is to make them play like the player, to see what the player sees and while it isn’t perfect this is as close as football games have come. You will still have the odd moment of your striking partner deciding to try and hold your hand mid-attack rather than making a run or your keeper dribbling the ball rather than picking it up but these are very isolated incidents. FIFA 13 is a much more exciting game than last year’s offering as it feels much more fluid, you do still get the good old midfield stalemate at times but once you get a break forward the reward will feel even more deserved.
Also adding to the organic feel of how a match plays out is the implementation of the First Touch Control system this time around. Your individual player’s attributes will now affect how they receive the ball and move forward, elements such as how much defensive pressure they are under, power of the pass and the method of the pass. It’s an interesting addition that will not be to everyone’s tastes, some may feel robbed as a clever build up play falls apart due to a player’s bad touch. What is fantastic about it is that there is a real sense of unpredictability throughout, not so much that it becomes a random sequence of events but more so that you have to be aware of who to pass to and how you do it. It already feels very refined and it will be interesting to see how this functionality develops in future releases and the balance between arcade and simulation is a feat in itself and it should be applauded.
This year’s FIFA is replete with extra features, subtle improvements but it is also probably the most accessible game of the entire series. For the uninitiated Fifa can be a daunting experience as beyond the simple button presses there are techniques that, while requiring beat’em-up styled multiple button presses, will improve your game. However, the manner in which EA Canada have tackled that problem is very clever. What you now have are skill games- these are small challenges that will teach you the basic techniques and then build upon your skills as you progress with more intricate skills. Everything from simple passing to precision free kicks is covered and it takes great lengths to bridge the gap between comfort of assisted controls to the scary world of manual control. What is fantastic about this is that they have a mode dedicated to this format but also this is what you play in between matches while you wait for the game to load. Adding to the cleverness of this approach is that it is very addictive to try and progress through the levels of difficulty and it becomes as addictive as the likes of Kick Flick Football. It feels like EA have been astutely aware of aware of the rise in popularity of the handheld football experience with gamers but rather than make a superfluous mode out of it they have delivered it as a package that helps amateur players but challenges experienced ones.
You would not be far wrong if you were forced to describe FIFA 13 in one word and you chose the word ‘substantial’. The sheer amount of ways to play the game is impressive and in no one area does it fall short of being accomplished or properly realised. The Ultimate Team makes a reappearance and its popularity with the average FIFA player seems to indicate that it will be the main focus for players, if it hasn’t become that already. The Career Mode has expanded this time to allow you to play or manage at an international level, again it’s a small tweak but it serves the audiences needs and lengthens the replay value. Acting almost as an umbrella for the game is the EA Sports Football Club and it is no longer the nice idea never properly developed as in FIFA 12. Here you will find challenges galore, from competing with friends to taking part in real life and very current scenarios you will build up XP and rewards that feed back into the game. Unfotunately this functionality comes at a cost, because of the connectivity you will find that a 'quick match' will take a close to frustrating time to get going due to downloading the most recent information from the database. It is a minor gripe but you will find yourself hitting 'rematch' rather than exiting games to change teams. There has been a proper effort to make the FIFA experience a non-static one, for example real world match results, player’s performance or league positions will be reflected in the commentary. It may seem like a bit of a dressed up gimmick but there is a pervading sense of the game being something beyond a game in isolation, it is constantly being informed by the football landscape that fans follow.
This is the the best version to date of FIFA and quite possibly the best football game ever made to date. In many ways there is nothing bold here, but the sum of all of the incremental steps is something extraordinary. It is hard to imagine how EA are going to make a more complete game than this but we can rest easy knowing that this time next year they will have a go at it. The race for the top spot is now not such a clear cut one and that is not to criticise FIFA 13 as Konami have pulled something out of the kitbag this year that most of us didn’t expect. That is what makes FIFA’s dominance this year even more impressive. This narrowing of the gap also can only mean great things for football fans as I would imagine that now both franchises will have to innovate next year rather than refine, and that is a very exciting prospect. So for now we are spoilt by choice but we can spend the next twelve months enjoying the beautiful game in the most complete package ever. All together now, “Ball ball ball,footie footie footie.”