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FIFA 13: Hands On

Arteta picks the ball up just inside his own half. He takes a step to the right, sending Yaya Toure the wrong way, his slide tackle hitting empty pitch.

A gap opens up just behind the Manchester City fullback, who rushes in after Toure. Arteta sees the staggered run of Gervinho and fires the ball into the space on the left. Gervinho picks up the ball at full pace, the bend of his run allowing him to collect the ball and advance forward at pace. Kompany steps up, Gervinho squares the ball the Robin Van Persie, who takes a touch before promptly running to Joleon Lescott.

"That was a terrible pass" says the spectator stood behind us. And he was right. Should've taken the shot with Gervinho, rather than trying to pass the ball into the back of the net. Same old Arsenal then.

We played several games of FIFA 13 at our recent visit to EA's office in Guildford. Whilst the new mechanics were turned up to 11 so they were obvious even to the casual eye, the impact that they have on the ebb and flow of EA's beautiful game is certainly noticeable.

FIFA 13
What colour kit will Van Persie be wearing in FIFA 13?

We can expect much more subtle versions of each of the new gameplay mechanics when they appear in the inevitable October release, but fans of the franchise can rest assured that the changes are positive, and if what we've seen so far is indicative of what we'll get with the finished product, EA will likely have another winner on their hands.

Going Forward

There were a few debatable offside rulings during the handful of games we were able to squeeze in during our time with EA, and this stopped us from being able to fully assess the effectiveness of the changes being implemented in FIFA 13. We were warned about a likely glut of bad decisions; and so steeled ourselves for an afternoon of frustration.

We needn't have worried too much. Offsides weren't called that often, so it was never overly intrusive. And even when we were caught on the wrong side of the last man, we were still able to use the replays to watch the behavior of the players as they sought out space on the pitch. Informative.

In a nutshell: Going forward in FIFA 13 is more exciting than ever before.

FIFA 13
The best player in the world. After me, of course.

Improved AI means that players stagger and stifle their runs so they can stay onside until the killer pass is made. Through-balls into the channels are more effective than they were in previous entries to the series, because players now make more intelligent runs into the available space.

The reworked offensive options are subtle, but they do make a tangible difference. When the offside-related kinks are ironed out, we're likely to be left with a refined set of attacking tools to play with.

Another revision was the presence of a more balanced attacking threat from each team. Now that AI controlled players are basing their decisions on more information, in particular by preempting the runs of supporting players and not just the man on the ball, a subtle increase in our attacking options was noticeable.

FIFA 13
An unrealistic scoreline for sure. Arsenal should be winning this one easily.

This improvement isn't magic sauce that transforms the game beyond recognition. It's more of a minor tweak that brings more of your team into play during each attack. Unless you were looking for it (which we were), you probably wouldn't even notice. But attacks now have more substance, and more width, with additional players moving up the pitch in support of each play.

A Nice Touch

The biggest change was undoubtedly the inclusion of the new First Touch system. The implications here are far reaching, both in terms of attack and defence.

From an offensive perspective, it adds a dimension of speculative play not present before. When receiving a long ball from midfield, a striker can no longer be expected to take control of the ball seamlessly. Instead a snap decision has to be made, and the space around the attacking player becomes all important. Do you push the ball past the defender as he rushes out to intercept? Or do you knock the ball back towards the relative safety of your own team?

FIFA 13
How embarrassing, we seem to be wearing the same coloured boots.

The choice between conservative and aggressive play will offer choices to gamers with a variety of different play styles. Those who like to build possession and dominate territory will have to factor in the likelihood of being able to receive the ball successfully; it might not be worth making that long pass after all.

On the converse side of playing styles, those who prefer implementing a long ball strategy, and snapping attack into defence, will have to consider which direction to send the ball upon receiving it. This decision will likely impact the overall success of the attack; put the ball into space and suddenly the defence is wide open, but play the ball to close to the defender and possession will have turned over and you'll be on the back foot.

Another factor that wasn't immediately obvious, but will likely make an impact in games from time to time, was the danger now inherent in throw-ins. Those who have played a significant amount of FIFA over the years will know that on occasion, for some reason, we all like to inexplicably give the ball away via a sloppy goal kick. It usually results in a goal, followed by a head hanging in shame.

FIFA 13
Heads!

The new First Touch system means that sloppy throw-ins now run the same risk. It was always possible to intercept a lazy throw, but now, unless the defender receives it perfectly, there is a real chance that he will be dispossessed as he chases after the loose ball. It could prove to be a nauseating side effect of the new system, but hopefully one that wont rear its ugly head too often.

Cat and Mouse

One area of the game that has been unmistakably revamped is free kicks. EA is doing this with the introduction of Tactical Free Kicks. It's going to take some time to master the toolset being handed to us, but what we've seen so far points to a reinvigorated approach to set pieces. And about time too.

Kick takers can now sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the defending team by placing two men behind the ball. These supporting players can make dummy runs over the ball, creating even more moments of tension during set plays. It's no longer a given that players will automatically try and put the ball over (or under) the wall.

FIFA 13
Improved AI means we're likely to see more through balls in FIFA 13.

Defenders aren't without options either. Players can be easily added to the wall, creating a smaller target for the forward to aim at. You can also send players rushing out, particularly useful if the attacking team plays the ball short in an attempt to make some space for a shot.

When we played, we were able to highlight a player in the wall and use them to drag the defensive line towards the dead ball. If the wall encroaches too far, the highlighted player runs the risk of being cautioned by the referee, so a careful approach to shortening the gap must be taken. We didn't actually see a player booked for this particular infringement (we were playing to win, after all), but caution is the watchword. Nobody wants to have an already carded player sent off for encroachment.

An Evolving Squad

Is FIFA 13 going to be better than the FIFA 12? That's the question on everyone's lips (you'd think a year on year improvement was a given, but longstanding fans will know the bitter truth regarding that one). We're going to go out on a limb here and say ‘yes'.

FIFA 13
Yaya knows where he wants the ball.

The smaller changes made to the formula will perfectly complement the wholesale alterations made last time around. Tactical Defending invited us to experience a whole new style of virtual football, where possession was king and containment was the name of the game. The Player Impact Engine made FIFA 12 the contact sport that EA has long been trying to replicate.

This year it is the complete opposite. The First Touch system is the closest thing we have to last year's significant changes. However, this new system shouldn't present a massive hurdle for fans, indeed, many of us have been knocking balls into space for some time now. It's a mechanic that will encourage intuitive play, and coupled with a selection of tactical free kick options and improved AI, we can expect the ‘battle for possession' that EA are desperately hoping to achieve with FIFA 13.

These changes look like bringing a new level of richness and depth to the FIFA experience, creating unpredictable encounters that look and feel organic. Frankly, we can't wait.

FIFA 13
Laying down at work. Tut tut.
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