It was a change of direction met with enthusiasm by critics and consumers alike. At the FIFA Showcase event in London last month, EA were quick to point out the Metacritic scores of last year's installment for both console and PC. They're good numbers, and EA has every right to boast. Not only was the critical response to the game entirely positive, but it also struck a chord with the game-buying public; FIFA 12 went on to become the best selling sports title of all time.
So where do you take a franchise that seemingly has nowhere else to go? Just as it is for one of the top teams that FIFA depicts, standing still is not an option for the series. Aaron McHardy, FIFA's gameplay director, was on hand to explain some of the more significant changes we can expect to see when FIFA 13 kicks off in October.
McHardy and his team are aiming to create "a true battle for possession". The wholesale changes made last time are not needed here, so FIFA 13 is going to be a refinement of what has come before; more evolution than revolution this time around. They hope to achieve this "battle for possession" by introducing a series of subtle, but potentially far-reaching changes.
One of the more significant adjustments to the winning FIFA formula is the redevelopment of the First Touch control system. Whereas before players would always receive difficult passes with unerring control and deft assurance, now several factors are taken into consideration to determine the success of such a move. Watching average players pluck out obscene passes as if they were Dennis Bergkamp just isn't realistic, and EA are keen to eliminate the near perfect control that most players seem to currently posses.
Whilst more and more games are searching for increased accuracy and precision, McHardy and his team are embracing the unpredictability of the sport and are trying to bring that to their game instead. The revised First Touch system will put more pressure on the defending team, forcing players to assess each pass individually. Pressure from opponents, pass trajectory and player skill will all influence how well players receive the ball. As a result there's going to be more loose balls for strikers to chase. It's lucky then that EA is equipping defenders with some new skills to tackle this dangerous threat.
Player strength is being redefined for FIFA 13, which in turn should create more realistic collisions and movement. In previous iterations, a player's strength was represented as a simple one-size-fits-all statistic. This number defined the physical capabilities of the player in question, but there was also a side-effect when this was married with the Player Impact Engine: Muscles in the upper-body were excessively strong, resulting in some unrealistic collisions.
In short, the improved depiction of player strength should give gamers more tools to dispossess the opposition; stronger players will be able to block off offensive runs, and defenders will analyse the size and strength of a forward and then use this information along with their refined physical skills and improved balance to make informed decisions as to how best to tackle a player.
Improved player collisions and refined physical attributes should make movement in and around the tackle much more realistic. EA had real trouble with collisions on the ground in FIFA 12, as players found it difficult to untangle themselves afterwards. Hopefully these improvements, and some new post-collision animations, will mean things like this don't happen very often in FIFA 13.
EA are hoping that off-the-ball battles between players vying for space, and a more realistic First Touch control system will create a more competitive experience on the pitch. These adjustments will make playing too defensively a very dangerous tactic; realistic defensive pressure should ensure players try and keep their play positive. And with so many factors now influencing how successful a player will be when taking control of the ball, passing is going to be riskier from here on in, but then with more risk comes more reward, and hopefully a more satisfying experience.
Tactical free kicks are another interesting ingredient that have been thrown into the FIFA 13 mix. New depth will be added to set pieces, creating another interesting facet in the battle between defence and attack.
Players will be able to fake shots, running over the ball to create spaces in the defensive wall. These dummy runs can be countered by defenders rushing from the wall, adding additional players to the wall, and by creeping the wall forward to shorten the distance between defenders and the kick-taker (although we were warned that pushing too far forward can result in a card from the referee).
This time around EA wants the free kicks to feel more like a game of cat and mouse. They're giving us the tools that they hope will encourage players to be creative with how they approach set pieces. Instead of just trying to hit the ball up and over the defensive line, there is now the potential for elaborate and strategic play. With new improvements on each side of the wall, this looks set to become a much more integral and exciting part of FIFA.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to be revealed was the improved attacking intelligence of players. A new positioning code has been written to help players analyse space more intelligently when looking for runs. Players trying to find space in the attacking third will now look further ahead than before, making decisions with more information. In previous titles players would re-evaluate their runs based on the action unfolding in front of them. If a player got in their way, the run would be adjusted to compensate, creating a zig zag path as the AI changed its mind time and time again. Strikers will now bend their runs around defenders as they hunt out space in the opposition half, creating much more authentic movement.
Community feedback indicated that gamers wanted more variety and more opportunities from the game. As a result we can expect more intelligent AI controlled team mates. Players will change the direction of their movement when the situation dictates it, and they'll bend and stutter their runs so as to stay onside. Best of all, players will start looking to the future; basing their decisions on the actions of not only the player on the ball, but also on the player most likely to receive the ball from him. This shift towards forward thinking play is going to mean more runs, more support and more chances to score.
Dribbling gets a series of minor tweaks. 360 directional mobility remains intact, but FIFA 13 will see a shift towards forward facing dribbling. It means players will be better positioned to make threatening attacks and take on defenders.
Players in control of the ball will also be better at shielding it and holding a position on the field. It will also be easier to change direction at slow speeds and then explode past defenders using pace. These tweaks promise to create more football-realistic situations and give players who don't use the skill controls on the right stick a chance to enjoy dribbling on the left.
On top of the more prominent changes, there are several gameplay fundamentals that are being refined for the newest iteration. Importantly, referees are going to be better equipped to make correct decisions, hopefully ironing out one of the most frustrating side-effects of the Player Impact Engine. There is going to be more lateral mobility in defensive containment, and some new pass types are to be introduced (we were shown dinked ground passes and lofted through balls). As usual there are to be several new animations (including off-balance shots, 180 degree shots and new celebrations), as well as new goal line clearances. There are also several "gameplay nuggets" (little touches of realism inserted into the game to add depth and immersion to the experience) waiting to be discovered, although McHardy wouldn't give much away when we asked him for specifics.
From what we've seen so far, FIFA 13 is shaping up very nicely indeed. Unlike its predecessor it doesn't promise to redefine the franchise, this is a case of gentle refinement. The success of FIFA 12 has vindicated EA's decision to revolutionise the series via Tactical Defending and the Player Impact Engine, and FIFA 13 promises to expand and improve on their all-conquering vision of the beautiful game in a variety of encouraging and exciting ways.
EA has a clear set of goals: They want unprecedented quality, and they want that quality to be as polished as possible; they want to make a game that can be built on and expanded; and they want their game to be important to the fans that play it. They're doing the latter by further linking our experience in FIFA 13 to our favourite clubs via a variety of online modes and options. It's proving to be an intoxicating mix, with over one billion online games played on FIFA 12 so far.
The EA Showcase was a chance for the developers to show off some of their latest moves. That these moves look like they're going to seriously improve what is arguably the best football game on the planet is very encouraging. FIFA 13 is all about balancing the established with the new, as much as it is about attack and defend. If they can find the right balance, it's likely that EA will have once again assembled an unbeatable team ready for the season ahead.