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Xaor's Corner: Defending Part 2

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Part two of a detailed examination into FIFA 12’s defending. This time covering AI, first touch, shielding and stamina.

See all previous articles here, and the first part here.

Last time, I covered a variety of areas that, in my opinion, are damaging FIFA’s defending. It became remarkably clear when I was writing the article that I had far too much to say for just one. I’ve already commented on pressure, locomotion physics, tackling, jockeying, the contain function, and interceptions. Without further ado, onto the rest.

First Touch

A prime tactic of high pressure users is to press particularly hard on the first touch. It makes sense – a players control on their first touch is usually at its lowest, so if there is any time to make a tackle, it’s probably as the player makes his first touch. Unfortunately though, FIFA’s first touches make this all too easy, and often nonsensically.

First touch in FIFA is a topic in its own right, so I’ll just cover the relevant part now. In my mind, the user doesn’t have enough control over the first touch. Often, you won’t really be able to dictate how your player traps or controls the ball at all, and this happens most often when you receive the ball from the air.

This leads to two prevalent problems: first, that sometimes, regardless of what you do with the controller, your first touch will give possession away pointlessly.  A typical example would be when you are chasing down a throughball with the attacker more or less alongside you. Your player gets there first, and slows very slightly as he pushes the ball ahead, only for the attacker to automatically steal it. The attacker doesn’t even have to tackle, and though you can usually avoid the situation with a clearance, it doesn’t seem particularly logical that in instances like this you can’t at least try to direct your first touch.

Secondly, and more generally, a lot of high pressure users have got very used to the predictability of these first touches, and will actively anticipate them, running to where they think your first touch will fall based on experience with a very high rate of success. Both of these issues come down to an unnecessary and irritating lack of control over the first touch. While there are plenty of things about FIFA’s first touch that is unrealistic in the receiver’s favour, this particular thing is not, so hopefully a package of changes to improve first touch would address these complaints – particularly as the World Cup 2010 game was much better in this area.

Shielding

A closely related problem to first touch is shielding. Amongst many changes made in FIFA 11, presumably as a side effect to the physicality improvements, it became much harder to shield the ball and hold off a player from behind, especially when receiving the ball. It’s too easy for a defender to get around you and nick the ball, and far too rare that a player running into you from behind results in a foul.

In FIFA 11, it was changed so that players try to shield a player who was along side them automatically and though some players are a little too proficient in this. I think a similar level of automation with shielding from behind should apply when stationary, receiving a ball, and when moving slowly so that you can hold up play a little better. Hopefully, this would aid players further in playing around high pressure tactics.

Stamina

Another area inextricably linked with the ability to use high pressure is stamina. Stamina, particularly in a one match basis, is represented very weakly in FIFA. It’s very rare to find yourself struggling with tired players to the extent where substituting a less able but fresher player is worth it, even if you are pressuring very heavily all match.

I know that most Career Mode players complain that it’s very hard to keep players fit over a number of games, but that is a separate issue to the effect over a single game. Over a single game, the fatigue incurred due to heavy pressuring needs to be increased, and the disadvantages of having low stamina need to become more pronounced.

Defending vs. the FIFA Philosophy

I’ve been through a large number of topics already regarding defending, but even if each of these areas were improved dramatically, I don’t think we’d be close to seeing the end of the major problems with defending. FIFA would be a dramatically better game, particularly if motion physics get the upgrade they deserve, but it would still be lacking in a very crucial way.

Defending, much more than attacking, is a team based operation where it is imperative that each player is doing their duty, but this is diametric to how FIFA works. The control you have over your team in FIFA is mostly centered around your selected player. You have only very vague controls to indicate to teammates what to do (secondary contain and the player run trigger), and very little good happens without you directly causing it.

The majority of what your team does in defence is down to the AI. Unfortunately, as we all know, this isn’t exactly one of FIFA’s strong points. The only thing you can absolutely rely upon with your defensive AI is its unreliability.

The reality of defending is that most of how you defend is not going to be acted out by you in real-time on the pitch, but by the AI, and there is a pretty hard limit on how much control we can have over the non-selected players. This is why having a strong tactical basis to the game is important: because a significant part of succeeding in FIFA should be down to tactical nous.

Artificial Intelligence

Reactions

Much like the locomotion physics issues described in the first article, the overly high reaction rates for the AI is a very pervasive problem. It permeates almost everything the AI does – whether it’s the AI you play against, your teammates, or even your controlled player doing things automatically, and I’ve already gone through the worst afflicted area in the article on goalkeepers.

In almost every case that I can think of, it feels that the AI reacts that little bit too fast. We’re talking about tenths-of-a-second differences here, but in terms of defending it just excacerbates the same issues that the lacking simulation of momentum does. Generally, if the AI does react (often with interceptions, as discussed previously, they don’t) it reacts very fast. This creates a schism between how fast we can react for the things we control, and how fast the AI reacts for the things it controls.

The contain function is the most obvious example, but I can’t help but feel a slight addition to the reaction & decision rates of AI players across the board would do wonders, and it’s important to realise just how many things fall under that category. Some cases are obvious, but others like players’ ability to react to ricochets and lock in to the ball need attention too.

It’s a very complex area to get bang on – human reactions are complicated, and it would be totally infeasible for EA to simulate (at this time) the way that anticipation and visibility plays into reactions, but that isn’t necessary to better the status quo. The primary goal should be that the way the AI reacts should be as similarly to how we do as possible.

Positioning

Defensive movement and positioning is a considerably more nebulous and pressing problem. Currently the defensive positioning on show in FIFA is horrifically poor and culpable for the majority of unfairly conceded goals. Again, you have to be sympathetic to EA here because nothing is simple when it comes to AI, but the poorness of the defensive AI in FIFA 12 is remarkable.

Take any goal and watch the replay and I will guarantee you that at least one (if not more) defender or midfielder will be woefully out of position and quite probably not doing anything about it. Most changes to FIFA’s defensive AI over the last few years have been sidesteps or even backsteps to the point where I spend more time trying to fix what my defenders are doing wrong than actively defending in any way.

It’s quite hard to know where to start – it’s with things like this that I most resent not being able to show video examples – because there is a huge variety in the ways that the defensive AI conspires to screw things up. How often do you see defenders strolling around as the attacker strikes into the net? How often does just one player cover a run on his own, breaking your defensive line? How often do just two or three players pull up to offside trap leaving you helpless? What about the midfield, which seems to have no interest in helping out whatsoever?

The sense I get more than any is that my defence does not work together, nor with me. They seem to work as individuals with very little awareness of what the others are doing – they don’t fill the gaps or cover each other.

Recently, I’ve noticed more and more how poor the defenders are at laterally positioning themselves to deal with the current threat. Their width is far, far too static – I’ll sometimes be defending an attacker at the edge of the area and yet have my left and right back inexplicably to the left and right of the area, not marking anyone. These are duties which transcend whatever tactics they may have been given – real defenders will do almost all of these things without fail.

This isn’t just the ‘shocking defending’ that Alan ‘Broken Record’ Hansen will critique with all the expressive capability of a lemon every weekend – I suspect most of us would give quite a lot for our defenders to make those type of mistakes – you see defensive errors in FIFA every game that you might struggle to find in a Premier League season.

Defending in FIFA is a farce – you’re trying to control a defensive unit that might comprise 6 or 7 players – you can never just try to play as one of them as you will be ripped apart by the simplest and most overused tactic of hitting the player run trigger and sending a ball over the top. To defend against this we have to repeat the mundane activity of covering each run they make, when this really ought to be something the defence does automatically.

It is critical that EA put a lot of focus on improving the defensive positioning in FIFA. I make a lot of criticisms of FIFA and suggestions for how to fix it that are relatively simple, but this is not one of them. It’s going to take a lot of time, and a lot of effort, but it will be worth it because convincing AI is key to a convincing sim.

Improving our control over the defence

Tactics

The main way that we should be able to affect how well we defend is not necessarily through what we do on the controller as one cog in a machine, but through the way our team is set up and how that relates to the team we are playing against and the way they are set up.

This is (like many of the major topics I’ve brought up) something which extends far further than just defending, but personally I’m not sure what the real benefit would be of continuing to work with the current tactical system. I’m not a fan of how users interface with the system through the tactical management screens, nor how this does (or doesn’t) translate into what you then see on the pitch.

It’s very difficult to ever get the desired effect. Many valid formations and tactics are practically unusable, with most successful players online using a very small number of very similar tactics, typically utilising high pressure, deep defence, negligible midfield, and three or four heavily attacking players. If you elect not to change the formation and tactics, you can be absolutely ruined from the start because certain styles of play (ironically the most traditional ones) are inneffectual while others are suicidal.

In another article perhaps, I will go into a lot more detail on this huge topic – I couldn’t possibly do it justice here – but improvements (or arguably a total overhaul) here are necessary for FIFA’s defending to be truly ‘tactical’, because ‘Tactical Defending’ didn’t get it close.

New controls

Improvements to the artificial intelligence and our ability to influence this through tactical changes would have a revolutionary effect on the way we play FIFA, but I don’t think that has to be the end of the story. I also think there is plenty of room for us to have more control over the way we’re defending while playing.

If you look at the defensive controls in FIFA 12, it’s clear that EA aren’t utilising the controller as well as they do for attacking play. The RB button is unused, and, as I argued in the first article, the contain button could probably go too.

I think there’s quite a lot of room for interesting ideas here, and I’d be particularly interested in hearing if anyone had any better/different ideas for what could be done with the unused buttons. For now, these are two of the ideas I’ve had.

Offside Trap

I don’t know how many people use the offside trap button (up, up on the d-pad), but it really takes the biscuit in terms of working horribly. Aside from the extreme clunkiness of actually using the d-pad in the first place (the Xbox 360’s d-pad is infamously poor), the control itself is so unpredictable and so risky to use. Usually, the defensive line will not only move so far up that it plays off the first man, but it will often go up as far as the current ball carrier, leaving him through on goal!

I do however think that the idea of having a button to intitiate a trap is a fairly good idea, even if trapping should also happen automatically if the teams tactics are set up to do so.

Ideally, such a function would not be on the dpad, and, as it happens R1/RB is unused in defensive play, and preferably the button should have a lot more control than just ‘Do an offside trap’, like the old version did. Instead, the defensive line should only move up so long as you had the button depressed, and, also, no further than your selected player, which would give the button a secondary function of allowing to to solidify your defensive line.

Two standing tackle buttons

One of the comments I made part 1 was that standing tackles are very unpredictable in where they will fall, often worsening the situation by tackling it back to the same attacker or a different one. Possibly then, having the ability to differentiate between a stronger tackle and a weaker tackle could give users the extra control they need to indicate how aggressively they wish to win the ball. One would attempt to get the ball away from the attacker, whereas the other would specifically attempt to gain possession rather than just kick it away. Tackles of the first type would be more likely to succeed, whereas tackles of the second would be safer and less likely to give possession straight back.

Conclusion

It may seem unreasonable to expect that EA should put as much effort as this article and the previous one argue is necessary just one year after the revolutionary change in Tactical Defending and the Impact Engine… but then defending is half of football, and right now FIFA’s defending is far inferior to the attacking side of the game. Tactical Defending may mean we have to put a little more effort in than before, but it’s still a long way short of being particularly fun, particularly realistic or particularly balanced.

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