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Xaor's Corner: The Hardcore Question


According to the critics, FIFA 12 should satisfy the hardcore like no game before it. Does it really? See all previous articles here.

It’s been a long time since FIFA 12 released in late September last year, and even longer since I first played it at the end of May last year. Since then, I’ve used many of these fortnightly articles to go into depth on areas of FIFA which I think aren’t fit for purpose, and though there are plenty more I haven’t got to yet, I’m going to use this opportunity to step back from the minutiae and look at the bigger picture.

I know that many disagree with my sentiment, but I feel FIFA falls a long way short of providing a satisfactory hardcore experience. In the first of two articles, I’m going lay out what I think the problems are and why they have arisen, and then in the second, I will propose some solutions to these problems.

Flawless? Realistic? Arcade?

If there is one thing which is practically synonymous with FIFA these days, it’s critical acclaim. You can hardly watch a football match without being reminded that FIFA 12 is a game of ‘Flawless Football’, which is strange, because I can’t think of many adjectives which fit FIFA less.

FIFA claims itself to be a definitive simulation of the sport, but it’s hard to agree. Far too many areas of the gameplay are simply alien to their real world equivalents, such as the locomotion, passing, and artificial intelligence. It lacks strategically too, FIFA is an end-to-end frenetic experience which rarely pauses for breath, and almost never rewards patient play. FIFA may look on the surface to be the most realistic football game yet, but you don’t have to dig deep to find dreadful inconsistencies with reality.

So instead, perhaps FIFA is a great arcade game? Certainly I’ve heard the arcade accusation levelled at FIFA plenty of times before, and there is nothing wrong with a good arcade game: some of the best games I’ve played this generation are games which don’t aim for realism and instead nail competitive, addictive, balanced and fun game mechanics, but does FIFA fit that bill?

Not for me: there is an almost endless list of little and big grievances which with a degree of sad inevitability conspire to pervert any sort of fair competition in the game. Luck is far, far too big of a factor in almost every goal scored and not scored, there are hordes of exploits and a complete lack of balance between different strategies and play styles. Worse still is the farcical assistance system leading to a control system which gets it absolutely the wrong way round: rewarding those who take no responsibility for their play at least as much as it helps those who need it.

Unfair? Scripted? Fun?

The core of any great competitive game (arcade or otherwise) is fairness, and that’s what FIFA lacks most. I can be sure that any frequent FIFA player knows precisely what I’m talking about: Rebound goals, pinball tackling, superhuman saves, the casino of aerial battles, mental AI, shocking refereeing, and so on. What’s more, you can be absolutely sure that practically every game you play will contain multiple instances of the above. Can these things happen in real life? Yes, they can, but in FIFA they all happen far, far too often, and it is massively detrimental to the game.

Some go further, casting each of these under an umbrella of ‘scripting’, and I could imagine how FIFA would give someone that impression. I’m not convinced, instead I tend to believe that the high degree of effective randomness (or else factors outside of your control) in the way FIFA plays leads to a sense that one player or the other is getting cheated by the game. Luck can ‘come around’ as much as it likes, but when given any particular goal there is a significant chance it was caused by the game at least as much as the players, then you’re bound to feel your losses are undeserved.

If you watch the replays of the goals you score (assuming the replay is long enough), you will be amazed at how many of them involve some of the very unfair elements which you blame when you concede. Someone who is good at defending will rarely get scored against because of their own errors, nor because they are outplayed or outwitted, but because of these lottery moments. With experience you can learn to predict, and sometimes prevent getting scored against in these ways. However good you get though, there are always goals which slip into the net.

Playing FIFA is just that: battling against lots and lots of things which really don’t make a huge amount of footballing sense, and really aren’t particularly fair. That means that it’s perfectly possible you could play really well, fail to score, and be beaten by a rotten goal. It could be explained by a scripting conspiracy, but it could be at least as easily explained by a game which is dictated by many mechanics which are either random, or uncontrollable. I don’t think FIFA is scripted, but it’s definitely unfair, and that’s still damning for a competitive experience.

That isn’t to say that it’s not fun. I play a lot of local and online multiplayer on FIFA 12, and I still find playing good football satisfying. Scoring a great goal is still a big thrill, and there is a delightful degree of shadenfreude when you score a particularly silly one (it’s hard not to laugh when the ball hits the post, ricochets onto the keeper, and then into the goal in consecutive matches). There is a limit to this though: enjoying FIFA is always a battle between fun and frustration, and it simply shouldn’t need to be that way.

Casual? Hardcore?

But why? Well, some of FIFA’s problems are practically inexplicable, like the many of the AI issues that plague FIFA 12, but I think that a significant portion of the problems are caused by EA’s unwillingness to make the game more difficult, or less accessible.

A perfect example of this is Pro Passing, which first featured in FIFA 11. In theory, Pro Passing should have been the end of ping-pong-passing, and turned FIFA into the thinking man’s game. We all know how that turned out, something I wrote about in detail here: error is applied on the wrong passes, too much in some areas and much too little in others (e.g. blind passes). When error is applied it’s always as slowness, rather than inaccuracy leading to the passing game in FIFA becoming lethargic, while rarely punishing stupid passing.

Pretty much the same thing happened again in FIFA 12 with tactical defending. Here, EA finally listened to the deafening pleas of their community and decided that the broken pressure system had to go. This would signal the end of the homing missile tacking which we’d all come to know and hate – it would make the defending patient, thoughtful, and skilful again. It might have worked if it wasn’t for the homing missile’s replacement: the contain function.

The contain function was how EA would soften the blow for casual gamers, giving them an automated function which would no longer hone in like a missile, but instead jockey the attacker. The issue? The containing defender reacts impossibly fast to the attackers movements making the defender more like an impassable force-field than a jockeying defender. I’ve also gone into more depth on this issue before here. Long story short, the contain function is as much of a crutch as the press functionality ever was. When used well, the contain function is thoroughly overpowered and incredibly dull to play against.

In both cases, EA had decided on features that their hardcore community wanted desperately, but in both cases the features were greatly underwhelming upon release because they were toned down to be friendly for all. The same can be said for many other features, like Personality+ and Vision AI, and of course the assistance system, which is the best example of all.

I can’t think of many features in gaming which have been dealt with so badly, for so long, as the assistance system in FIFA. We now finally have a working filter on ranked matches, they’ve added some new settings, and tweaked the balance a little bit, but the main facts remain as they always did: the system is unbalanced, unfair, unrealistic, and in some senses flat out broken, things I’ve elaborated on here, and here.

It’s a divisive issue, so I’m sure almost everyone will hate me for saying it, but it would be better to have a single realistic and balanced setting with no choice at all than to have the choice we currently have. While the current system does work for some – those who genuinely need a high level of assistance, the group of assisted users who want a crutch, and the group of manual users who want it to be more about their dexterity than footballing reality – it doesn’t work at all for those looking for a realistic, or well balanced game.


EA’s problem is that they are constantly being pulled from pillar to post. They do genuinely want to satisfy a vocal hardcore community, but also the quiet but enormous group of more casual gamers who make up the majority of their user base. They don’t ignore the hardcore – if they did you’d never have heard of Pro Passing or Tactical Defending – but they seem unable to satisfy the hardcore while having to satisfy the casual base simultaneously.

I would argue that until this problem is solved, it is highly unlikely there will ever be a major jump forward in terms of realism or balance, and therefore coming up with a solution to this problem is imperative. In the next part, I will try to answer that question with some solutions. Until then I’d be very interested to hear your opinions: am I right about FIFA’s problems and their cause, and, what would you do to solve them?

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