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It's all change for FIFA 12 as David Rutter reveals a year of revolution over evolution...
You know FIFA's Producer, David Rutter is serious when he talks about a "Trinity of innovations" and a year of revolution over evolution for FIFA 12. Sure, each iteration of the game comes with its various buzz-words and gimmicks, but FIFA's strongpoint over the last few years has been how well it's executed these promises. Empty marketing spiel and shallow features have had nowhere to hide during the Rutter era - experiencing one of his presentations is a bit like watching Alan Hansen break down sloppy defending on Match of the Day. He'll role detailed development footage of the game, pausing and slow-mo capturing intricate details that you'd likely miss during the full pace of a match to show precisely where the EA Canada studio has improved and innovated over the last year, and man have they been improving and innovating over the last year.
Rutter's "Trinity of innovations" for FIFA 12 comes in the form of an enhanced Player Impact Engine, a new Precision Dribbling feature, and perhaps the most game-changing of all three innovations, Tactical Defending. Don't be fooled by their back-of-the-box phrasing though - these are significant steps forward for the series that make this year's instalment the most different gameplay experience from one year to the next since FIFA 06: Road To FIFA World Cup was released in 2005 (yes, we know it was rubbish, but it was also a radical change from previous-gen builds). Under the new Tactical Defending advancement, gamers can no longer use the right trigger and A/X button together to automatically tackle their opponent, nor can they hold down the B/O button to apply pressure with an AI team-mate.
We'll let that settle in for a moment, as it's kind of a big deal... If you're an avid FIFA gamer, then you're probably confused as to why EA has removed your primary defending strategy, and you're right to be confused. The new features will radically change the way everybody approaches a match when they're not in possession and here's how: replacing the previous auto-tackle controls is a pressing system. Now, when you hold down the right trigger and A/X, your defender will effectively 'press' an opponent, keeping their back to goal and holding a short distance between themselves and the attacker at all times. It's then possible to alter the distance that your defender holds from the attacker with the right thumbstick, and you can also make an AI team-mate press opponents in the same fashion by holding down the B/O button.
Effectively then, all tackling in the game is manual. You can carefully haul in a player or contain and shepherd them into position with the new press controls, but actually moving in to make the tackle is entirely manual. What's more, a missed standing tackle can really hamper you: defenders are left rooted to the spot and precariously positioned for a skilful winger to knock the ball passed them, steal a few yards and get goal-side. Similarly to the Pro Passing feature of FIFA 11, Tactical Defending is designed to stop players spamming and exploiting certain techniques in the game. Where Pro Passing eliminated the ping-pong passing effect, Tactical Defending will eliminate the practice of swarming your opponent with two defenders as soon as they touch the ball. It brings a more authentic, steady pace to the game and encourages smoother, more refined control and movement of your players.
Because of this, Precision Dribbling works in tandem with Tactical Defending to a degree; it's another way in which EA Canada is swaying the upper-hand towards possession play this year. The system takes its cue from players like Man Utd's Darren Fletcher, Barcelona's Javier Mascherano, or Man City's Yaya Touré and the way in which they'll expertly hold up the ball to retain possession and provide attackers additional time and space to move into. By holding down a shoulder button (our preview build had place-holder controls), players will take smaller touches and keep the ball under their control more effectively by shielding it from opponents. It may sound similar to existing control schemes that allow gamers to dribble at a slower pace and make defter touches but the key difference here is defensive. Used with the right kind of player, Precision Dribbling is much harder to break down. You can effectively keep your back to an opponent while taking smaller and sharper touches, thereby making it very difficult for them to get a tackle in. It's a system that's much more effective for defensive midfield duties, although a trade-off comes from a much slower pace to your player's movement despite the increased control.
The final point of the "Trinity", an improved Player Impact Engine, is admittedly a touch less revolutionary and more a case of enhancement and refinement. In a nutshell, the new system displays more realistic collisions between players. No longer will you run into another player at full pelt only to instantly come to a standstill but remain steadfastly upright like some kind of cyborg. Equally, if you're just leisurely jogging along and happen to graze an opponent's thigh, you won't do a somersault and collapse in a barrel-rolling heap. EA Canada has clearly spent a lot of time identifying these kinds of unrealistic collisions and replacing them with a system that's considerably more believable, and it showed in the wider range of animations we saw during our hands-on. Promises of a more realistic 'True Injuries' system to accompany this, where injuries are modelled depending on the stress and force that's applied to muscles and joints in collisions, also promises to add plausibility to the whole package, as do new 'Fatigue Injuries' where players are liable to pull-up with strains if they've run themselves ragged for most of a game.
But that's not all! Rutter also spoke of a "second tier of innovation" during the presentation, the first arm of which is Pro Player Intelligence. Explained simply, this basically boils down to improved AI and can be seen as something of an extension to last year's Personality+ advancement. Through development footage of a feature dubbed "Prego Fantastico" by its creator at EA Canada, we were shown how the AI will now detect specific threats and use them to its advantage. The example in question showed a series of crosses into Peter Crouch, all of which were delivered directly onto his head as the AI had identified him as an aerial threat. When Crouch was replaced by David Silva, however, the AI detected that he was weak in the air and tended to cross into his feet.
Another example we were shown of Pro-Player Intelligence illustrated how the vision of players like Xavi and Fabregas is being more accurately simulated in this year's game. It's an area that FIFA has struggled with in the past - the world class distribution and passing of players like Gerrard and Lampard has never really managed to emerge in the series previously and, more often than not, the extra something that players like this posses in the real-world gets lost in the translation to game code. With FIFA 12 though, we were shown dev footage of vision cones that extend in all directions from a player's position - the higher that player's vision stats, the larger the cone. In effect then, Gerrard or Iniesta will be able see that striker making a darting run through the defence 40 yards down-pitch and, because of this, they'll have a much better chance of accurately looping a ball through to them. Titus Bramble or Matthew Upson, on the other hand, will not. Rounding off the "second tier of innovation" is an overhaul of the menus that FIFA has been using over the past few years so, in short, expect a lick of paint.
The inspired enhancements and innovations just keep coming year-on-year for FIFA. Every time we see a pre-release presentation these days, we come away thinking, 'Yep, these all sound like very smart ideas rather than nothingy gimmicks', and FIFA 12 is as much that way inclined as any of its predecessors. Also, given that this is effectively the first sizeable reveal of the game, there's going to be many more details to come at E3 and beyond. Colour us excited.
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