There are two new features that have been the main focus in the run up to FIFA's release. Firstly, we've got the new physics engine. Second, tactical defending.
The Player Impact Engine captures the physics of football beautifully, and this new engine does a good job making collisions and situations on the pitch look very realistic. One situation where a player climbed up onto the back of an opponent was so spectacular that we found ourselves admiring the move over and over via replays.
Only on rare occasions the engine produce some strange situations, bits of unintentional comedy. And every now and then infractions that should have been called as fouls were not recognised as such. When it happens, it'll be the cause of some frustration.
Another innovation with the new engine is realistic injuries. A nice feature, but players are hurt way too often, and it is especially noticeable in multiplayer matches. During one session there was at least one injury for each team in every game - things like rib fractures and ligament tears. And it wasn't because of excessively rough play either. A realistic spacing of these injuries per match would have been welcome as well.
The new tactical defending is a very interesting proposition at first glance, and the tutorial for it makes it look very simple and effective.
By pressing a "passive" command, your player will focus on the ball carrier and hold him at a constant distance of around two metres, which is great for blocking off the passing lanes. Tap the shoulder button and you call for support. The shot button lets you lunge in to try and snatch the ball, but does requires timing.
However unlike what is presented in the tutorial, actual implementation during a game is rather complicated. Not only is it tiresome to wait for the perfect moment to grab the ball, but you won't always be successful even if your timing is correct. Technically-gifted players managed to dodge our attempts with great composure.
Even after dozens of games on an average difficulty setting, I had to concede around a half dozen of these duels. Although this may be good enough against strong teams, it seems to be an overcompensation for our tastes. Fortunately, you can turn off the tactical defence in the options and make use of classic defending. The feature in itself isn't a bad idea, and it adds a great deal of added simulation into the game. It is however doubtful that it'll get much use by long-time players.
Visually FIFA's still the reigning champ. Stadiums have been faithfully recreated and crowds are as animated as you've seen in a football game. Animations are also great, aided by that new physics engine and thus game looks much improved.
Player models, however, are a different story. For all their quick-footed play they look lifeless; skin looks like wax, and their facial expressions at times are disturbing, as if they're awaiting an exorcism off the pitch come full time.
When it comes to audio, FIFA 12 is at the top of its game. There is a tremendous atmosphere in the stadiums that will give you goose bumps, and that is particularly true of the chants from the stands. Even the atmosphere during live broadcasts can't match this. The soundtrack is decent, but lacking that extra spice to put it over the top, but that's just personal taste.
Overall, FIFA 12 feels a bit slower and more sluggish than its predecessor. The players often take too long with the ball, making a quick passing game difficult to achieve, which in turn leads to annoying situations and turn overs. The pace of the game is complicated by the fact that you either have to deliver quick but weak passes or hold the button down to deliver harder balls. The new distance meter doesn't really help either.
But even if FIFA 12 feels more heavy-handed than its predecessor, it still remains a very good title capable of portraying the beautiful game. The freedom it affords you when handling the ball is one of its best aspects, as is the range to how much aid you want with shots and passes. Our money - and yours - should be on EA this year.