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FIFA 12: Revolutions and Reservations

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Also present for the webcast was community essay specialist Xaor. Below are his musings.

On April the 28th, as many may have realised from various twitterings from various people, there was an event for a small segment of this community to join a FIFA 12 related webcast where EA released, explained and illustrated some of the good news about FIFA 12’s gameplay. Aaron McHardy and Santiago Jaramillo, two of the gameplay developers and Romily Broad spent the best part of an hour and a half doing this so I wanted to thank them for that effort first and foremost. Any community interaction is appreciated and while EA have not been as generous as I would have liked over the last few months, this was a good start in the run up to FIFA 12.

Before I get onto revealing anything I want to disclaim that I have not played this game, I have not watched a game being played at length. I have seen small videos to illustrate the workings of some of the new features, and I have heard EA’s in depth explanations of how these work and what they believe they will mean for FIFA. I am in very little position to critique much they have said or shown. They did not show us by any means everything, and just because I don’t say anything about something doesn’t mean there won’t be highly significant changes to that area.

First, they talked about ‘tactical defending’. This is no small change, this is big, and it would not be a farcical PR comment to say that this could revolutionise the way FIFA plays. I cannot say that it will work well, but it definitely will be a huge change. It can be summed up with two major points: We finally have a tackle button and the ‘Pressing’ function has now disappeared

Replacing the old ‘heat-seeking missile’ system is a ‘contain’ system. Using the contain button, you will be able to lock into the attacker, but it will not press them. When containing you can move with some freedom – by pushing the analogue stick towards the attacker you will get closer to them and when pulling it away will make him track at a further distance. You cannot while ‘containing’ actually get close enough to make the tackle. Tackling will now be down to you. They hope and I hope to that this will end the ‘pressure’ problems that FIFA 09, 10, and 11 have been ruined by, and instead make the defending more like it should be. It will hopefully become a case where the defender will be containing, covering, waiting for the opportunity and where ‘pressuring’ will be a case of removing options rather than sprinting into the tackle at a thousand miles an hour. It should hopefully make tackling at a sprint much harder, but also make containing easier. This should be, and I do believe really could be a dramatic restructuring of how the game works. Gone is the worst part of FIFA 11 replaced with a system which should finally allow you and encourage people to defend properly. Having said that, the moment the movement of the ‘contain’ function seems quite unnatural: the defender mirrors the attacker almost perfectly and with immediacy, and this worries me quite a lot. FIFA has for a long time had momentum problems, and if there is one thing the webcast lacked it was any real indication that these momentum problems have disappeared. Looking at this new contain function I see something which would, if not for its unrealistic reaction/turning, be almost redundant for any decent player should jockeying be realistically balanced. When ‘containing’ you have no choice over lateral movement, and the player tends to put himself right between the ball and the goal. This is often not going to be as effective as what you could do manually, putting yourself between passes and so on. I even question whether we need the ‘contain’ button at all: it could easily become something which will either be overpowered in a similar way to the press button of the past, or utterly useless. I really hope to see over the coming months that EA respond to these criticisms and look into improving the naturalness of the contain system. It would be a great pity, given that they have made the brilliant move to re-implement a tackle button, to tarnish it with another unrealistic defensive crutch.

A new defensive feature they announced was ‘Push & Pull’. When behind a player, this will allow you to make much more aggressive interactions with him, tugging, barging and so on by using the standing tackle button. They did say that referees would be on top of this – and you could be called up for doing this too much – but it is a clear and further improvement to the physicality behind FIFA.

There are now also in-air ‘slide tackles’. Before players could only slide along the ground, which would often lead to your player sliding under a ball and causing an egregious foul. Now players can make tackles when the ball is bouncing up high.

Secondary man usage has changed up quite a lot too. As opposed to just charging after the player with the ball, it now refers to what you are doing with your selected player. If you are pressuring from one side, taking out one lot of options, the secondary player will focus on cutting off other options.

Next they talked about precision dribbling, which is a group of changes which should massively improve your ability to dribble. They described this as being able to maintain closer control in traffic, as well as giving ability to shield while still dribbling. They showed us some real world examples which were inspirations for this feature, and then a few testbed videos of how it will work. In FIFA currently you pretty much can only dribble in front of yourself. You push the ball forward and run after it. With FIFA 12, with this contextual close control dribbling, you will be able to make lots of tight sideways touches, moving the ball and your body without actually going any real distance. This is something which has been vitally missing in FIFA for a long time (and something which the other game does really well), in terms of tight dribbling and moving in the final third this will represent a big upheaval for the series.
Precision dribbling will also allow for the first time some movement when shielding. FIFA 11 gave us the ability to jostle when moving on the ball, to hold players off and so forth, but FIFA 12 will allow you to do this when shielding a player from behind. Shielding in past FIFA’s has left you as a sitting duck, but now it looks like, with close control allowing you to manipulate your body around the ball and the shielding improvements, that proper hold up play, and skilful, incisive dribbling without skills will finally be possible.

A video which I found impressive was of an attacker passing a defender by turning on the ball, flicking it between his feet, and then moving off past the defender. It was similar to an improvised roulette, but it was all activated through the left stick, and it was that video which made it clear how substantial this change should be.
Next, they talked about the impact zones/impact engine. They say that this represents the biggest technical upheaval of FIFA since the next-gen engine was created: they have ripped out the old collision detection systems and replaced it with something a lot more organic. The old system they explained couldn’t really deal with multiple collisions – in the sense that when two players collide there will be multiple parts of their body clattering together. In old FIFAs, they would take into account the most significant collision only – meaning that collisions after this were neglected, causing lots of clipping and players being affected unrealistically. The new system can deal with this, and players are affected by each collision as they happen. The results in all honesty look like things the Euphoria can produce (having only seen a few collisions). There are of a much greater variety and much more credible reactions. The number of possible collisions is now nearly endless, we saw a purportedly once-in-a-million head-over-heels event, and a lot of other collisions in situations where FIFA used to fall down. Though this might sound as if it will just affect what happens after the tackle happens (and thus mostly aesthetic) it seems to actually go a lot further than that. Collisions now have an effect on the tackler and the tackled player – and tackled players seem to have a lot more resilience. They can now deal with being tackled in certain ways, stumbling but staying on their feet, and trying to use body movement to avoid the brunt of a tackle. Before, players would be running into a tackle and just continue running into it, whereas players will now do what they can to avoid, or at least cushion it. This means that players can dodge incoming tackles with body swerves: another factor which should nullify hyper-pressuring, as small body movements could easily avoid a fast-flying tackle.

Because they now have a lot greater understanding of the stress on each area of the body, they can now massively improve the way injuries work. Meaning we’ll have repeated impacts, bent knees and rolled ankles. Players will also now have the possibility of re-injury, where on coming off the back of an injury they can be more easily reinjured to that area again, and even self injury, where drained players may find themselves pulling a hamstring: we saw both of these in action. Fabregas, off the back of a knee injury was wearing a brace, took a small knock, and then was down again. Another player who had run the length of the pitch with the ball and then back makes a poor touch, stretches for the ball, and then pulls up with an injury. Animations will now show with more clarity how players are injured, and they’ll hold parts of their body in pain.

All together, these new improvements (and a lot more for the future promised off the back of the new Impact Zones) represent some quite substantial evolutions for football games. They say it permeates into every area of the game, and from what I have seen I can believe that. This isn’t quite the euphoria engine, but it’s a mighty big step towards that kind of thing, it looks beautiful, and I feel it will have a quite considerable effect all over the game.
Finally of the big four things they had to talk about was Pro Player Intelligence. This is a series of changes which change the way the AI thinks based on its own abilities, and the abilities of its teammates and its opponents. This means that players play to their strengths, and their opponent’s weaknesses. Defenders will try to guard against the strengths of the attackers, and playmakers will try to use their teammate’s abilities to get to goal. As example, we saw a testbed video of a player bombing down the wing, with Peter Crouch in the middle. In this situation a cross was played in quickly. In an exact same situation, but with David Villa replacing Peter Crouch, the winger decided to turn back and pass towards the top of the box. It’s the kind of feature which theoretically will work wonders, but could easily be almost unnoticeable. Without seeing a large amount of gameplay, it’s hard to judge.

An area they seem to have put a lot of work into is the ‘vision AI’ feature, a vision system which represents the players understanding of the area around them. Players can no longer see directly behind them – better players have better knowledge of areas to their left and right, and can see further faster. An illustration testbed video showed us exactly how their vision map was working: it appears like a series of wedges spreading around the player. As the player turns, their map will grow and shrink to represent what they can now see. A player like Fabregas has a higher angle of vision, and his vision wedges grow much faster than other players. Due to this he will ‘see’ passes which are further away much faster. On turning he almost immediately will grow aware of the other players. JS Park on the other hand, when turning becomes aware much slower and doesn’t ‘see’ the same pass until it is too late. The growth of the wedges is affected by each threat or opportunity that the player sees.

It will be interesting to find out how this affects the controlled player: but it should at the very least mean that players who still, even with Pro Passing, are dramatically under useful, have an extra advantage in their arsenal when it comes to lengthy passes. Hopefully it will also truly be the end to the spin-passes which have grown to be a popular hate figure in the last few FIFAs.

With the first few announcements it’s easy to be cynical, sceptical, excited, hyped, over hyped, and so forth. What I’ve seen excites me, but I remain sceptical. What I’ve heard about so far will not be enough to make FIFA 12 a great game, but it’s theoretically a very good start. EA have shown immense courage to actually rip parts of their enormously critically acclaimed game to pieces, renewing their defence system to a depth I simply didn’t believe they would, and totally replacing their collision system. FIFA 12 is already showing qualities that not only FIFA has never reached but no game before it from any studio has reached. This isn’t to say that it will be the best FIFA ever made, but it is to say that they have made a number of great steps. However disillusioned you may be about FIFA 11, it’s not time to give up on FIFA 12 or EA just yet. Some of my biggest problems have been looked at, but some others remain unknown quantities, hopefully in the run up to FIFA 12 we will hear even more good news.

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