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This year's FIFA dishes out a defensive masterclass that Alan Hansen would be proud of...
Playing football video games has always been a bit like having a conversation: it's just much more fun to talk than listen to somebody else natter on – half of the time you have to feign interest in what the other person is saying and wait politely for your turn to speak. Similarly, attacking is where most of the enjoyment of a football game comes from – the other half of the time you're using a limited range of defensive controls to laboriously chase down your opponent and win back possession. But EA Canada has set out to change all of this in FIFA 12, no longer marginalising defensive play to the 'auto-pressure' commands and slide or standing tackles synonymous with footie games over the last decade. The developer has set upon itself to add more variation, nuance, and tactical depth to the defensive control suite of its latest FIFA and all credit to it for doing so.
All credit because it's a bold step for a series that has been criticised by some of its fan-base for introducing features that are deemed a bit too realistic. Last year's introduction of Pro Passing, for example, prompted some members of the community to lament the ping-pong passing of years past – apparently Pro Passing messed with their tactics of spamming the pass button to pull off strings of one-touch passes that would be near-impossible for any actual football player to do in reality. Likewise, those gamers who usually defend by using one of their CPU team-mates to automatically pressure the attacker while they block off passing lanes with a user-controlled player may well struggle with FIFA 12's changes. And, consequently, these gamers might decide to vent their anger at not being able to beat everyone online anymore by sulking on various forums across the net.
You'll find none of that here on TVG though – we love added realism and depth, and we're totally enamoured by this year's new Tactical Defending system. Simply explained, the system takes a massive chunk out of your ability to 'auto-pressure' opponents. There are still controls to initiate an 'auto-press' of sorts, but it's nowhere near as effective and can't be solely relied upon to break-down opponents. Now, new control options such as 'Jockeying' have to be taken advantage of if you're to have any hope of containing the other team. It's much more about standing off the attacking player, keeping your back to goal in a good position to make sure the attacker can't turn you, and ushering them away from potentially dangerous areas. The standing tackle has been tweaked with less manoeuvrability so that you're penalised more for missing with it – running straight at a player and sticking your foot in will now leave gaping holes for the other team to exploit if you don't get your timing right. Consequently, new controls have been added that allow you to tug on an opponent's shirt and subtly impede them if they do manage to get by your defender (although using them too excessively will result in cheap free-kicks and penalties).
The upshot of all this is that defending is much harder; it requires a much higher level of concentration and tactical thinking. This reviewer could happily take on all comers at the 'World Class' difficulty setting last year but now struggles with the 'Professional' setting that's one rung lower. While we understand that this might be frustrating for some at first, the long-term rewards are well worth your persistence. There's a greater focus on possession play and, when counter-attacks do happen, they're harder to defend against – the attacking AI feels much sharper and we have a sneaking suspicion that this is more a result of what EA Canada has taken away with Tactical Defending than what it's added elsewhere. It's genuinely a new way to play football games which invigorates an area that's been stagnant for far too long. In fact, repetitive defensive controls had become so engrained that criticising them no longer occurred to us – as with fast food clerks, we'd just assumed that their continued listlessness was inevitable.
Moving onto FIFA's flagship modes, it's more good news for this year's iteration. The Career mode has come forward in leaps and bounds, making good on EA's claims of a deeper managerial experience over last year's lacklustre offering. You'll find a much more believable transfer market now, marking an end to the ludicrous loan deals and by-the-numbers transfers of FIFA 12. Other teams will perceptibly attempt to 'high- or low-ball' you with offers, which means you can often get a high price for your players if you hold-out in the negotiations. In fact, everywhere you look there are improvements: European tournaments have been added, as have a wider range of player statistics and youth teams with a dedicated scouting system; form and morale indicators are in there too, resulting in disgruntled players when they don't get the playing time they think they deserve. Certain players appear more prone to low morale as well – for example, Craig Bellamy's morale remained ambivalent regardless of the amount he played or periods of good form he enjoyed. Whether or not the system gets realistic enough to have Carlos Tevez refusing to play from the subs bench is another question altogether, but FIFA 12 is unquestionably peerless outside of a Football Manager game in this regard.
It's the subtlest of touches that make the Career mode so impressive this year though. Deeper interaction with the press allows you to praise team members or criticise other managers and players, which is a decent enough addition. What we really weren't expecting, though, was for EA to have added lines to the in-game commentary that note these press interactions and prompt open discussion of the issues between Martin Tyler and Alan Smith. Having a tailor-made hub for transfer deadline day is a good addition too, with by-the-hour increments for you to get last gasp signings made and Sky Sports-style updates on spending throughout the league in each transfer window.
It's this kind of polish that brings out the shiniest of Career modes for this year's FIFA, although we've got to say that while the managerial elements are top-notch now, the player and player manager options still feel shallow and tacked-on. There's none of the appeal that once featured in EA's previous Be-A-Pro Season mode (which was folded into the Career last year); no fighting through the reserve team or playing for a place on your national squad, and no objectives for each game or season. The hollow shell that remains just feels like a way in which EA integrates your all important 'Virtual Pro' into the Career just to make the feature persistent throughout all of FIFA's modes. It's now all about levelling-up your Virtual Pro for competition in the online Pro Clubs mode, which is probably appealing enough for some players but it leaves us confused by the lack of continuity. Quite why, as a player manager, you'd decide to put yourself in Barcelona's first team when you've got the ability of a Macclesfield Town player is anyone's guess.
Apart from this though, we're struggling to find any other significant criticisms of this year's instalment. You could argue that the new Player Impact Engine is a bit clumsy at times, but it adds a lot more to the game than it detracts and will now be well positioned for refinement in the coming years. To split another hair, the game's player rating system remains a touch clinical and overly harsh, which often affects player form and morale adversely – last year's Be-A-Goalkeeper mode remains largely unchanged too and is crying out for a few more ideas. Nonetheless, the many positives far outweigh these minor negatives and there are a load of other new features that we haven't even had the space to go into here but are all good news: an improved Creation Centre, the quite brilliant Ultimate Team mode which ships with the game for the first time, and a new Precision Dribbling feature to name but a few. Following last year's slight blip, FIFA is back at the top of the league again.
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