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Xaor's Corner: FIFA 13


FIFA 13 has been announced along with a long list of gameplay improvements – what will they mean for FIFA, and what’s missing from the list?

You can find all previous Xaor’s Corner articles here

First things foremost, I’d like to thank EA that they once again did a webcast to kick off the run up to FIFA 13, and that I was involved. To be able to hear about the new gameplay features at this early stage in depth from EA is an opportunity which shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The webcast lasted just over one and a half hours, in which Aaron McHardy and Nick Channon, the lead gameplay and line producers on FIFA 13, explained and illustrated the 5 main areas of gameplay improvement, as well as a handful of other improvements. During the webcast, Romily Broad, Senior Community Manager, requested a few questions from the audience, and though only a few questions were picked, it did allow us to get some of our most immediate concerns and questions answered.

Elsewhere on the blog you’ll be able to find descriptions of the many gameplay features that were revealed to us last Thursday, and I’ll try not to rehash those details here. I want to look at what these announcements, together, will mean for FIFA 13 – and I’m just as interested in what wasn’t said as what was. After many months of talking about FIFA 12, it’s time to start talking about the future.

Attacking Intelligence

It’s gratifying, given that artificial intelligence was an almost unanimous #1 priority across the core FIFA community, that it seems also to be EA’s first priority this year, at least for attacking AI. Personally, and I think many would agree, FIFA 12’s attacking AI was a real low point for FIFA – though AI has never ever been FIFA’s strong point, FIFA 12 was unmatched for the AI’s utter petulance when it came to helping out in attack.

The AI makes so few forward runs that almost everyone agrees on a massive increase for the Attacking Runs slider, the midfield would often just give up on the attack altogether, and what runs were made tended to be useless. It left you having to hammer the Player Run button and overuse one-two passes if you wanted to get anywhere.

In what must be one of EA’s most radical gameplay changes this generation, we now have a whole range of new behaviours and attitudes to expect from our teammates in attack. For me, I think the most profound revelation is that, where in previous FIFA games the AI was considering the endpoint of a potential run, the AI now considers the length of the run.

From Aaron’s explanation, it sounds like indecision was the root cause behind the lacklustre runs the AI provided. Small changes in the situation due to positioning of defenders and teammates would have the AI caught in a dilemma which would all too often mean that no run was made at all, or the run which was made was ineffectual.

The very first video example of this showed a player making a long run from just inside the half into the box, making a rapid turn to cut inside a defender and get on the end of the ball in to score. If nothing else, it looked like nothing I’d ever seen from the AI before. It’s always hard to know with changes to AI, but this sounds like one that is going to make a big difference a lot of the time for FIFA 13.

It’s only the start for the AI overhaul though – next up was a new behaviour of the AI that sees them understand better how to avoid running offside. Players will now see the situation, and stutter/slow to ensure they keep onside while they wait for the pass. It looks natural, and should mean that attacks are ruined less by poor AI choices. Another new behaviour allows players to make runs around defenders far more tightly. Where before runs would be created conservatively to avoid collisions, in turn ensuring that a lot of feasible runs were never made, a player can now make a subtle curve to negotiate another player more tightly, which should open up a lot more opportunities for the attacker.

There is another major change to the attacking AI, which is a feature EA call “Two Plays Ahead”, which, like the name suggests, means that players can think ahead further. In theory, this allows players to base their movement around supporting not the ball carrier, but the player they expect to be the next ball carrier.

This ought to mean that your teammates are supporting you far better than previous games. Before, players who weren’t likely to be involved by the next pass would position themselves not according to any burgeoning opportunity but due to the position of others on the pitch and their formations. Hopefully this change will see non-attacking players become more available in attack in FIFA 13.

Yet another new AI behaviour which  allows the attacker to recognise when his position or the run he is making is making him unavailable to the ball carrier, so that he can can abort the run, and swiftly get himself into a better position.

What it all means

Together the various features above all lead towards the goal of improving players intelligence, and importantly their ability to support you in attack by making runs and by getting into better space. From the little I’ve heard and seen, I’m already confident that these, unlike some AI improvements advertised in the past (Vision AI and Pro Player Intelligence for example, if anyone even remembers those are part of FIFA 12) will mean a lot come September.

Naturally, I have my reservations. Though I think this implies that players are going to be far more intelligent, I still have doubts when it comes to both to the tactical side of this, and how influential individual and team personality will be in these features – those worries however are insubstantial relative to my concerns regarding Defensive AI.

I entirely agree with EA that Attacking AI should be a top priority, but I am bemused by the fact Defensive AI is not similarly high on the list. From what I gather from others who experienced the webcast, I’m by no means the only one who felt this. However much I want to trust the reassurances from Aaron when this question was put to him, I find it hard to – the defensive AI is insufficient in FIFA 12, I can only imagine how useless it will seem when it is being torn apart by genuinely intelligent play.

Some worry that this might throw off the balance of Attack v Defence, and that FIFA will become a silly goalfest – I’m not actually that concerned about this. EA have been pretty good over the years at ensuring that scorelines are kept within reason – the overarching balance between attack and defence is usually not too bad. I am mostly concerned that the nature and balance of defence, which is already far too dependent on the user and individual players rather than a team based approach, will worsen. I wrote a lot about this topic in previous articles here, and here.

Lateral Contain

An announcement unrelated to AI furthers the argument – EA have improved the contain function so that you can now (somewhat) control the lateral positioning of the containing player. I don’t actually disagree with the change in itself, but I am worried that contain, which is already quite exploitable, might become totally overpowering.

The only reason in FIFA 12 to not use contain all the time is that its lateral positioning is dire. Due to its unreal reaction speed and a general lack of momentum/inertia in movement (I’ll come to that), contain can be like a forcefield. Add in lateral movement, and you could feasibly almost never stop using it. Where this will leave the jockey vs contain button is hard to know – if the necessary tweaks to the responsiveness of jockey and the reaction speed of contain are not made, then the balance of defence could worsen further.

On the bright side, there is plenty of time for EA to do what they can to address these various concerns, and if we can impress upon them how important we think this is, there is a good chance of them doing just that.

Complete Dribble

The second major priority sees one of the longest standing facts-of-FIFA torn down – no longer will the movement of the player directly follow the ball. EA are freeing up the angle of ‘facing’ from the angle of ‘movement’ for the first time. FIFA throughout this generation has been defined by increases in freedom – the ball being dependent on physics rather than canned animations, manual controls, 360 degree dribbling, analogue sprinting – complete dribbling is the next step.

In the previous few years EA have added dribbling modifiers to give you more choice over how your players dribble – FIFA 12’s Precision Dribbling and FIFA 10’s Skilled Dribbling. Complete Dribbling is not the third in this set, but an overhaul, like the name suggests, which has ramifications for those features, and dribbling in general. In EA’s opinion, this is a change of similar weight to 360 degree dribbling.

The new technology leads to a flurry of new possibilities that simply did not exist within FIFA until now, and bringing possibilities that were deeply hidden behind complicated and often quite clunky control mechanisms to the fore in a much more accessible manner.

The most obvious change is that you can now face up to a player for the purpose of beating him. One video example showed Ronaldo coming inside from the corner, facing up to a defender and using side steps to beat him. Another shows Messi moving down the wing with a defender containing him from just inside the area. Messi faces the defender while continuing to move down the wing, before breaking into a sprint to make the yard he needs to cross.

Complete Dribbling will also serve to give shielding the shot in the arm it has needed for years. Shielding in FIFA previously, while not entirely impossible, is very tricky to pull off effectively. While shielding in FIFA 12, your player follows the movement of the ball when you make a touch, which means that the player you are shielding off has an opening to make a tackle – in FIFA 13, a shielding player will be able to move the ball while keeping his back to the player. This is a change which many will neglect, but I reckon it will free up some footballing tactics which are practically impossible as of now.

Complete Dribbling also packages the most obvious feature to be influenced by FIFA Street’s ‘Street Ball Control’, which is the second iteration of Precision Dribbling. Precision 2.0 does not lock your movement entirely like with Street Ball Control, but it does allow you to precisely move the ball around while keeping yourself facing up to a player.

What about how this is controlled? To a limited extent, automatically based on context. That’s something I know a lot of my readers won’t like to hear, but I think EA have got the balance right here. Facing up will happen naturally only up to the point where it doesn’t hinder your ability to move as you want. For example, if you are jogging, your facing angle will only be able to deviate from that of the ball by around 45 degrees, meaning that you can keep at jogging pace.

Though the facing angle is chosen contextually, you can use the controls (no precise details on what they’ll be) to allow your player to use the full power of complete dribbling, allowing the whole range of facing angle to be used, potentially sacrificing movement speed. You still won’t be able to control the direction yourself, and I suspect some people will dislike that, but I struggle to imagine any better way.

What it all means

Complete Dribbling and the number of features which are housed under it should make for a significant improvement to the visual believability of FIFA’s gameplay, and also give us yet more freedom to use the ball. EA believe this will free you up to use simple dribbling in a more effective manner, and to finally and truly be able to play like the world’s best player, and FIFA’s new cover star. I think it’s an exciting group of changes – to be able to finally face up to beat a man, and to finally be able to use shielding properly is an exciting proposition.

Unfortunately, I cannot help but feel that EA are building a luxury mansion on a bed of sand. I have no problem with Complete Dribbling in itself, but it’s not the change to movement I wanted, nor the one FIFA needed most.

For a long time I, and many others, have argued that unrealistic motion physics are the key to many of FIFA’s biggest problems. Though there is no doubt that freeing up facing angle from movement angle will add a lot to the enjoyability of dribbling in FIFA, I am almost certain that continuing problems with reactions being too quick, acceleration being too fast, and turning from pace being too easy will detract greatly from the enjoyability of movement, and the realism of the game as a whole.

Perhaps though, EA are justified in the decision. The movement system in FIFA is probably more deeply embedded than any other, and changes here would have tremendous ramifications to the large number of systems which have been built ontop of FIFA’s movement system. It’s a huge pity, given that FIFA 07 and FIFA 08 were characterised by more realistic movement systems which were then sacrificed on the altar of responsiveness, but I’m starting to feel that we may have to wait for next generation to get the change I really desire. Fortunately, that is no longer that far away.

I also think there are more areas of ‘freedom’ that EA can expand into in the future. I really dislike the way that when sprinting we’re still constrained to a maximum 22.5 degree turn, regardless of the player, the sprint speed, or any other context. I would love to see either that the limit would vary dependent on these contexts, or perhaps more ambitiously that the limit could be removed altogether and that dribbling error could punish turns which were too extreme. Along the same line of thinking, we have analogue sprinting, but why can’t we have the same level of control over pace across the entire movement spectrum?

First Touch

When I found out that First Touch was one of EA’s top five priorities I was at once surprised and overjoyed. It’s taken far too long, but finally EA will be considering the first touch with the dedication, like shooting and passing, that it deserves. Now, every first touch made in the game will be calculated for error dependent on contexts like the speed and angle of the ball coming in, the player, the weather, the height of the ball and so on. The error will be “unpredictably predictable” rather than fully random, so you ought to be able to prepare for a difficult touch so that you don’t get punished by it.

It’s a simple feature to describe, but the effect on the way we have to think when playing may be larger than with any of the other announced features, and it will have a very big effect on the balance of the game, and the internal balances of attack and defence. Before I get into that, it’s also important to point out what this has allowed EA to do with passing. For FIFA 11, EA announced a feature which, much like First Touch, was right up my street – Pro Passing. The feature was to end ping-pong-passing and make FIFA’s passing game thoughtful and patient like I’ve always wanted it to be.

I think history would attest to the fact it never really happened like that, and part of the reason for that is EA’s weakness when it came to implementing significant passing inaccuracy. However, another large part of this was that the lacking simulation of First Touch constrained EA’s ability to make passing how we want it, or how they wanted it. For example, it’s pretty much impossible to overpower a pass with Pro Passing – bad passes are always given error to make them slower than optimal rather than faster. The reason is that faster-than-optimal passes are actually better in FIFA than optimally paced ones, as the first touch will be good regardless.

Now that EA have built a proper simulation for First Touch, they can finally make Pro Passing do what it was meant to do in the first place – and the possibility of overpowering passes will be part of FIFA 13. I don’t think EA are likely to go the whole hog and increase passing accuracy as I’d want, but I’d imagine First Touch improvements will make what inaccuracy on passes there is more relevant anyway. Pro Passing may turn out to be one of FIFA 13’s best new features, in much the same way that Jack Wilshere may be treated like a new signing for Arsenal come next season.

The effect of the new system, assuming EA get it right, should mean a noticeable change for pretty much every first touch and trap you make, and this should have a sizable knock on effect to the balance of different tactics and playing styles in the game. Certainly, EA believe that this change will mean that long balls over the top are far less exploitable, as it will be much harder for the attacker to get the ball under full control quickly, making it more likely he’ll lose the ball, and that the defence will be able to get back in time to avert disaster. They also gave the example of how this now forces you to use first time clearances far more in defence, much like in real life as alternative approaches will now be much riskier.

But I think it will mean much more, at least if EA make first touch error noticeable enough, forcing more patience when moving into attack, and hopefully making FIFA’s match flow more believable. It should no longer be so easy to go from defence to attack in an instant, meaning that proper midfield play should become more necessary, and hopefully the attacking intelligence improvements will lead to midfield play becoming more viable.

It will be interesting to see if we will also have a bit more control over the players intention with the first touch than I often find in FIFA 12. In FIFA 12 there were far too many instances (usually when the ball is trapped from some height) where you had no ability to choose where your player would move the ball. My hope is that we will have control to try to make the first touch we want, but that more ambitious touches will be met by more error.

Tuning will be key with this feature – history suggests that EA have a tendency to under do error – and this would be my fear. The new first touch system will come with a difficulty curve that some may not like, we just have to hope that EA have the courage to make this feature count. This will be the third time EA have used this form of contextual error – the final step would be to roll out similar error across dribbling too, and that is the kind of feature I would expect from the next-gen.

Impact Engine

With FIFA 12, I was one of the Impact Engine’s strongest critics. For something which was hyped to High Heaven, it was a lacklustre, buggy feature which added almost nothing to my experience while continually making it worse. Some may feel aggreived to see the Impact Engine being a major priority again for EA, but I definitely think the state it was in for FIFA 12 justifies them taking some serious time over getting it right this time around.

A lot of work has been done to polish off the rough corners – improving players ability to disentangle themselves when in a pile, and reducing joint strengths to remove the occasionally explosive collisions. Last year has taught me to not believe until I play, but it’s really important that EA have recognised these problems and are making the effort to fix them.

It is also relieving to hear that they’ve been working on the referees too. The Impact Engine seemed to make FIFA’s referees, who were relatively stable in FIFA 11, go completely haywire. Off the ball fouls are entirely neglected while penalty decisions seem to be about as often wrong as right. There is nothing exciting about getting this right, but work and polish to refereeing AI should reduce the frustration of FIFA by a few notches.

It also seems that EA are starting to deliver on the promise they made next year that the Impact Engine would act as a base for better physicality-centric technology, first and foremost with upgrades to Push & Pull, a feature that was so useless in FIFA 12 that I’ve almost never experienced someone use it.

The effects of push & pull should now be much more pronounced, and much more likely to cause problems to the attacker. They’ve altered the logic so that the defender knows better when to push and when to pull, and the effects being pushed and pulled can lead you to be off balance for a shot, to stumble, or to be brought to the ground altogether. So long as the referee is capable of keeping this under control, this will hopefully give us a more believable physical game.

Jostling and push & pull between off the ball players will be present in FIFA 13 too – hopefully this will replace the bizarre collisions that take place off the ball in FIFA 12, which usually sees one, or both of the players inelegantly falling over. I’m hoping that as an added bonus this may make set pieces feel a lot more alive, and a bit less preordained.

Players will also be able to use their body in a variety of other ways to fight for possession, getting between the man and the ball and muscling the attacker out. With all this extra physicality though, EA must be careful – FIFA is already a game far too focused around physical attributes and strength more so than any other attribute. Making strength more useful could well throw the balance yet further off.

Tactical Freekicks

I don’t really have much to say about EA’s fifth major priority. The ability to change the number of men in the wall is a worthwhile improvement, as is the ability to reform the wall after a jump and the option to have a man close down the taker from the wall. The rest of Tactical Freekicks’ features though seem like gimickry or bells and whistles, which would seem fine if there weren’t far more pressing issues for FIFA as a whole, but also for freekicks and set pieces.

If EA were going to put this focus on freekicks, I cannot for the life of me imagine why they would leave the core of the freekick system (the shooting, crossing and goalkeeper mechanics) the same. The system for freekicks which we’ve had for this entire generation is painfully unexciting, prevents all variety, and is easily exploitable.

Being able to have two dummy runners is a feature which will be nice to have, but soon forgotten – how often do you actually see a dummied freekick anyway? While encroaching the wall may foster some heated discussion on whether it’s really logical for EA to allow blatant cheating in the game, especially when diving isn’t allowed, realistically it’s a feature on a practically unnoticeable scale relative to Attacking Intelligence, First Touch and Complete Dribbling.

So long as none of these features are easily exploitable, there is nothing to be upset about, but I still can’t quite believe this is worthy of the top five priorities. I would just maybe put a true freekick overhaul in my top ten, but these changes don’t get close to constituting a serious overhaul.

Other stuff

Towards the end of the webcast Aaron sped through some final short announcements, some of which I’ve already talked about like Lateral Contain. Alongside those, there were promises about more human CPU AI which is something EA desperately need to focus on – unfortunately this is the kind of thing EA say pretty much every year. I think most people would agree that playing against the AI is not a very endearing experience right now in FIFA, and it’s the kind of thing that could have a whole article written about it. Particularly, Aaron highlighted them being slightly less Godlike when it comes to carving themselves out of tight spots, especially on the lower difficulties. It’s good stuff, but it hardly purports to be the change necessary to make playing against the CPU exciting to play against again.

There are also new celebrations, and I’m hoping that these will be more natural than a lot of the celebrations that have been added in the past. I’d love to see more natural team based celebrations which get across that exhilarating, raw emotion that comes from scoring a goal – ideally, it would be good if celebration animations would incorporate three, four, five players, rather than the maximum of two you get right now.

You can now shield out of play, which is one of those nice authentic bonuses, so long as it works a higher proportion of the time than FIFA 12’s quick throws. On the more substantial side, there are now passing animations which get the ball in the air to avoid interception, which should make the pass choice on assisted settings a little less frustrating, and off balance/under pressure shot animations, which look superb from the short clip we were shown.

There were a few other announcements, mostly so threadbare that it’s hard to form any opinion, and I would imagine there will also be a fair few tweaks and changes that EA haven’t yet elaborated on, and of course with around four months ’til completion, there should be some leeway for even more additions and improvements.

The Big Picture

Naturally, playing just a single game of FIFA 13 would tell me more than all the words and short video examples in the world. It’s really difficult to base a prediction upon these kind of details, so take what I say with a pinch of salt. On the whole, I am pleased with the changes EA are talking about. Some of the announcements focus on solving FIFA’s biggest problems, and others should ensure an experience which feels fresh.

I’d certainly agree with EA that both First Touch, and Attacking AI should be amongst the top five priorities – and improvements to the Impact Engine are an absolute necessity. Furthermore, while I wasn’t expecting or particularly wanting Complete Dribbling, I think it sounds like a serious innovation and one that will impress come release. Just the one of five major changes, Tactical Freekicks, falls flat for me.

I still think EA are making a mistake to not focus more heavily on defensive AI, and to not incorporate serious changes to the basic movement physics, and I’m certain FIFA 13 will be held back by the lack of improvement in these areas. However, to be fair to EA, there is a limit to what can be achieved in one year, and they do seem fairly confident that the defensive AI can survive against the new attacking AI. When you compare the changelist for FIFA 13 against the ones for FIFA 11 and 12, I think FIFA 13’s is probably the most exciting of the lot.

Far too many of the major features touted for those games ended up being pretty insubstantial in the released game, whether you’re talking about Pro Passing, Personality+, Pro Player Intelligence or Vision AI. Tactical Defending and the Impact Engine were both talked up as major revolutions, but the latter took the game at least as far backwards as forwards, and though Tactical Defending certainly changed things, it hasn’t had the overall effect on gameplay that most would have wanted.

With FIFA 13, we should find the biggest AI improvement FIFA has had this generation, a new degree of freedom in dribbling, and the much needed implementation of first touch error. Hopefully, this will be the game where the Impact Engine stops causing major problems and starts delivering on the claims EA made about it last year. This may end up being the most positive thing I say about FIFA 13 – but I’m pretty confident in this iteration. Combine these gameplay improvements with upgrades throughout the different modes, and the suggestion that we may see altogether new modes too and FIFA 13 is well on its way to justifying its pricetag.

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