The gameplay producer of the FIFA franchise, Aaron McHardy, just cannot stop talking about the beautiful game - scratch that - hisbeautiful game, once he gets started. He is entirely consumed by the sport, telling us he used to play it at a reasonably high level, so he knows the sport from the inside.
Just give him a word and he'll run with it, use his entire body to tell us all about the underlying bells and whistles that will turn FIFA 12 into the best instalment the franchise has seen to date.
And McHardy has every reason to be proud as he has worked on some of the gameplay features that has cemented the series as the premier choice for football fans all over the world. Even die-hard Pro Evo fans will have to admit that FIFA 10 really left the competition behind, and FIFA 11 saw the introduction of Personality Plus, one of the features McHardy has worked on something that will be expanded greatly in FIFA 12.
It's hard to argue with facts and with 11 million sold copies of FIFA 11 worldwide and a market share of 75 per cent of all sold football games EA Sports have earned the bragging rights for the biggest and most popular sports franchise.
The key to the success, according to McHardy, "is a game that appeals to both hardcore and casual gamers. A game with a learning curve that helps the player along as he learns to master it and all of the depth opens up, and lets you play the game at many different levels". This is something that will remain true for FIFA 12, as it adds a range of new game mechanics with focus on timing and tactical decisions:
"One problem with previous FIFA games is that we haven't really made it fun to defend. When you you've lost the ball, there has been a tendency among players to just press the defence button to home in whoever is holding the ball and once you regain the ball the actual game starts again. We're changing this in FIFA 12, where the ambition has been to make it just as fun to defend as it is to attack," McHardy explains.
EA introduce a brand new physics engine for FIFA 12, something that the team has been working on for a couple of years and something they themselves claim to be the most fundamental change since FIFA 07 (the first game with the current physics engine). It's almost a reboot, and the reason for ripping up the foundation and changing things is simple. With time the limitations of the old system became apparent, and the changes the team wanted to make were simply not possible with the old physics engine.
Let's dive into the details and see just what's different. As previously mentioned there are going to be changes made to how you defend. Details were kind of scarce, but you will no longer be able to just push a button and home in on whoever is in possession of the ball. They have also added a timing element to tackles, so there is more skill involved. The objective has been to give the player more options on how to defend, rather than just pushing a button until he regains possession. Sounds like music to our ears.
There are new tricks to learn when attacking as well. The objective has been to add creativity to areas of the pitch that have previously been considered "dead" in FIFA games. If you've played a FIFA game more than a few minutes you will know that it's relatively hard to hold the ball just outside the box, whereas in real football this is an area where a lot of action takes place.
This has been solved by adding a new running speed. You can now run slower and this allows you several options - you can keep the ball right at your feet which makes it easier to dribble your opponent, but it also allows to switch pace and get past your defender with a sudden burst of speed. A nice addition we look forward to trying out ourselves.
One of the most talked about features of FIFA 11 was Personality Plus, a system that allowed for more differentiation between players of various sizes and skill levels. A fine addition on paper, that failed to make much of an impact on the actual game. It didn't matter much that Peter Crouch stood a few inches taller than the rest of the players. It was merely visual. In the updated version of Personality Plus, dubbed Pro Player Intelligence, Peter Crouch will have more of an advantage thanks to his physique, and his team mates will also take advantage of his height. Crouch will look to use his head, and his team mates will likely look to hoist a high ball in his direction. It almost sounds too good to be true. We did not get to see how this plays out in the game, but it's going to be very interesting to see just how far EA manages to takes this idea in FIFA 12.
EA Sports wants to inject more intelligence into their virtual players, and knowledge of strengths and weaknesses will factor in to the choices made on the pitch. Awareness is also something the team has worked on and star players will be able to read the game better and use their "vision" as EA calls it. Xavi, Kaká and Fabregas are examples of players who will be more aware of their surroundings than others. They will therefore be able to thread through more balls and perhaps even score from distance as they use their vision to make the best decision at any given moment.
Pro Player Intelligence will also be an integral part of the career mode, as your Virtual Pro will be affected by awareness and field of vision, and if you bring in a new signing to the club he will in turn affect how the plays and the choices the rest of the players make in any given situation.
McHardy gets overly excited once again as the conversation moves on to dribbling and injuries. The team has integrated a new "impact engine", that allows for many more outcomes and a more flowing gameplay. The engine will calculate information from many areas and it will take into account separate body parts. Where the result was previously taken from one frame, everything is now calculated in real time. This will result in a much more precise representation of dribbles and collisions than what was previously the case.
This more precise method will also result in more ways for injuries to occur. You can push and pull other players, control your dribbling by covering up the ball, and you can even injure one of your team mates. Injuries are also saved, so that just as in real-life you might get hit with recurring injuries. This will result in tactical choices in career mode where you may not want to push your player too far as you may risk injuries that could last haunt you through the rest of your career.
FIFA 11 introduced a wealth of new graphical details, something EA wants to take even further in FIFA 12. One of the areas that sees the greatest change is the presentation and menus. Mike Day, Art Director on FIFA, told us that his greatest challenge has been to make the presentation feel just right. Graphical touches are easier, as it mostly has to do with increasing the level of detail. Presentation is more about capturing the very essence of the game and the sport.
"With the new menus and the presentation of the matches we want to give the FIFA series a breath of fresh air. The current menu structure has been there for years, and we thought it was time to change things up a bit. Then we were faced with the fact that there was just too much information on screen, and that gave us an excuse to re-organise everything. The first thing we decided to do was to make navigation vertical instead of horisontal, which gave the menus a completely new look and feel."
Mike Day gives us a demo of the new menus, and it does truly come across as something completely new. FIFA veterans will no doubt have to look things over once or twice to get comfortable with this.
As you may have gathered FIFA 12 is full of new features and ideas, but there is one thing that really stands out and will be the deciding factor when times come to review the game - the new physics engine. On paper everything sounds almost too good to be true, but it's one thing to talk to the press about features and another to implement all of your ambitious ideas in a finished product. The FIFA series is, however, incredibly important to EA and we don't doubt that every effort is being made to ensure it will not just evolve, but revolutionise the genre. That's EA's words not ours, but come October we will find out if FIFA 12 delivers in all areas.