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Xaors Corner: Initial Demo Thoughts

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It’s Friday, which means we have another article from Xaor. If you’ve missed any of the others you can find them all using this handy tag.

Initial Demo Thoughts

Finally, the world has got its hands on FIFA 12. For most, this will have been the first time they’ve played it – for me it’s a case of getting back to playing the game for the first time in two months, seeing what’s changed, and what hasn’t. A fortnight ago I wrote a list of what I was hoping to see from the demo based on what I’d experienced in July. I have to be honest and say that out of that list of things most hadn’t changed at all, with the exceptions of flair passing which has had its effectiveness reduced heavily, the shooting which feels better than ever, and the goalkeepers which achieve the best balance I’ve seen in a football game for a long time.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week reading the impressions of people in the community – it’s been interesting to see how people have come to terms with the new changes. In particular, there has been a lot of discussion about tactical defending. It’s been pretty heated discussion – some are convinced that the old system was absolutely fine and much better – and plenty argue that anyone who hasn’t fallen in love with the new system must be a pressure-abusing noob who has lost their crutch. Personally I see tactical defending as something which has brought FIFA forward leaps and bounds, but that tactical defending has some definite issues which will need to be resolved at some point.

If FIFA 12 is in any way revolutionary, it is tactical defending which makes it so. By removing the dominant force (automated pressing) from FIFA, it radically and utterly changes the way the game is played – and this trickles into every nook, cranny and facet of how the game plays. On the positive side, reducing pressure like this has massively increased the time that you get on the ball, making FIFA much more realistically paced. It now feels that the offensive is in charge of attacking, of making the moves, and the defence is trying to prevent them (as opposed to before, when it felt that the defence was actively attacking the offence).

Tactical defending highlights some major problems in other areas of FIFAs gameplay. Most clear of all is the AI, whether it’s the CPU AI which is blatantly superhuman in both dribbling and defence, or the defensive (and midfield AI) which is completely unhelpful at helping you to play. I spend most of my time in defence holding the secondary contain button down, knowing that if I don’t I will be ripped to shreds by the attack. Problem is, this creates a tricky situation where I have to closely watch which player is ‘secondary’ so that I’m not pulling my defenders out of position. It really should not be like that – I am one defender. I have the ability to swap between defenders, and to make the closest man ‘contain’, but this is not even close to enough to actually make my defence defend adequately. Add to the AI woes the other major issue, which is the recurrent lack of realistic inertia in movement. While this is something that is noticeably lacking in previous FIFAs, in FIFA 12 its exclusion take a huge toll on the balance of defending.

When a player is moving in real life, various circumstances mean that it is most easy for him to continue moving in the same direction. This is mainly for two reasons – first that dribbling straight is easier than turning, and secondly because changing direction requires energy input (changing direction is a form of acceleration even if your speed doesn’t change). As a defender, they know that, if the attacker is going to turn, they are going to want to turn as little as possible. The more they have to turn, the more awkward it will be for them. Using that, the defender can position themselves to deal with the biggest risk, knowing that if the attacker does something else the difficult of making such turns will allow the defender time to deal with it. In FIFA, at any pace under sprinting (and the jog speed is quite fast) you can turn at very high angles without worrying about any even momentary lapse in speed. These factors mean that the balance between the dribbler and defender doesn’t feel quite right. The CPU is superb at exploiting this with massive turn after massive turn, at high speed, simply running rings around your every step.

AI, and the mechanics of movement are the two biggest issues in FIFA now for me. They too need radical upgrades and revolutionary changes as the defending did – because currently however good tactical defending itself is, the rest of the game isn’t nearly up to the same standard of realism.

Tactical defending itself does have some issues – the automated contain function reacts far too fast to be realistic – it moves almost frame to frame with the attacker. Otherwise, the automated contain function is nearly useless due to the stupidity of how it positions itself and how far away from the attacker it positions itself. For me, I hope that as a package of refinements to tactical defending the contain button is removed – to be balanced by jockeying being made much more responsive.

It’s a revolution – but like most revolutions, it’s a bit messy. I’m sure that some will accuse me of complaining because I don’t know how to defend – but frankly I think those would be people who are closing their eyes to some fairly big questions about how tactical defending works. It is worth questioning whether EA’s gone too far in balancing the defenders causing a situation where FIFA 12 would be dominated by attacking. It’s now very difficult to play anything other than a very loose, deep defensive game due to the AI – and I am really worried that passing it around the back will become a major exploit.

Of course, tactical defending is not the only big change in FIFA 12. For me though, it is the only one of the holy trinity which has really excited me. Precision dribbling, while a pleasant addition doesn’t add a huge amount to my game. It gives me a little more space and time to turn and think – but the dribbling as a whole still feels overly restrictive and unnatural. It does what it does well, but it’s a minor addition to an increasingly over complicated dribbling system – and I worry that when EA finally decide to properly re-implement inertia into their game (it was last done well in FIFA 08) a lot of this work is going to be lost to the massive upheaval it will cause.

The physical mechanics of movement like inertia, momentum, first-touch error and so on are still totally flawed in FIFA 12. This affects almost every single moment of the game, and it damages the experience tremendously for me. So many things which happen in football simply cannot happen due to it – too many things to recount in this article (I’ll return to the topic in depth at some point).

The last part of the trinity, the player impact engine has also disappointed me. There are still hordes of glitches which no doubt most will have seen. Personally, and probably controversially, I think that the impact engine has caused at least as many problems as it has solved. I see a number of really dodgy collisions a match and the refereeing seems to have got worse because of it. I don’t feel that the player impact engine has so far shown itself to be a worthwhile cause – there was nothing especially wrong with the collision physics in FIFA 11, and arguably there is quite a lot wrong with them now.

The trinity aside, a word must be said about the AI which is still tragically bad. It does a few things better than it did in FIFA 11 but those are few and far in between – they seem slightly cleverer when they make runs, and slightly better at positioning the defence in a line, but that’s more or less it. I still see absolutely incredible defensive AI errors, and these are still the main reason I concede goals. Defensively there seem to be some major issues in terms of lateral positions – and this means that I spend a lot of my team defensively trying to fix the holes they are making for me.

FIFA 12 is not the game I wish it was – there are too many areas untouched, and some major problem areas like passing which are now going into the sixth-year-in-a-row of being dire – and some of the improvements are nowhere near as groundbreaking or important as they were claimed to be, like the Impact Engine. But it has also made some very important steps, especially with tactical defending, and, through this EA has shown willingness to make big, courageous changes if we shout loud enough, which is why this year we should push harder than ever to get our feedback heard.

I feel a bit unconvinced with FIFA 12. It’s an improvement on FIFA 11 – Hell: It’s probably the biggest single improvement over the previous title since FIFA 08. It’s a game which feels very different to its predecessor too – and this important to keep the franchise feeling fresh when it had arguably been stagnating a little over the last few years. I don’t think that FIFA 12 is going to make FIFA 11 into something superbly realistic or particularly deep strategically – but it does make a very big step towards being both of those things. Roll on the full release.

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