Last year FIFA consolidated its reputation as the pre-eminent football video game, but nothing wilts faster than laurels rested upon. That said, a pitfall awaiting such annual franchises is the pressure to innovate simply for the sake of it, to make this year's iteration substantially different from the last. And so this year FIFA returns with a glitzy marquee of new gameplay features and innumerable tweaks.
Thankfully, the much-hyped trinity of Player Impact Engine, Precision Dribbling and Tactical Defending wasn't empty bluster or beguiling hucksterism on EA's behalf. Individually, each feature quietly revolutionises the game's already-solid gameplay for the better. Yet taken together, they radically reshape the game.
First up, tactical defending perhaps poses the biggest challenge to veteran fans of the series. Since the release of the demo it's been divisive and has more than a few naysayers. Replacing the 'pressurise' defensive system, wherein you could launch fullbacks like Tomahawk missiles, tactical defending is a much more sophisticated approach to defending and ultimately it engenders games with a more authentic rhythm. Instead of bludgeoning teams with an overwhelming tide of pressure that requires little skill, you use the defensive cornerstones of 'contain' and 'jockey' to marshall the opposition when you lose the ball. If done correctly you'll be able to restrict the other team's movement, eventually forcing mistakes. It's more engaging, and you actually have more to do than ever before when you're not in possession.
Whilst in previous games tackling was an ever-dependable tactic to regain possession speedily, in FIFA 12 tackling is, as it should be, a last defence. You have to decide expertly when to stick out a leg. Mistime it fractionally and you'll be left in the wake of a gloating winger as he scampers towards goal. So whenever possible, stay on your feet or you'll get brutally punished.
Tactical defending schools you in the admittedly less glamourous part of the game. It rewards you for being more defensively minded, for marking your man, and for maintaining your shape while those around you lose theirs. And while that might not be as immediately exciting as dancing around defenders with Messi, it does significantly alter the tempo of matches. Games open up, allowing passages of play much closer to the real thing, and as consequence you can be much more creative going forward.
For the curmudgeons out there resistant to change, you can switch back to the 'pressure' system of yesteryear. But once you adapt to tactical defending you can't go back. Last year's system seems crude by comparison, stifling the flow of matches and suffocating skill.
This heightened realism is only augmented further by Precision Dribbling, which is arguably FIFA 12's greatest addition. Subtle and seemingly insignificant, precision dribbling is, when mastered, an indispensable part of the gameplay. Basically, it enables you to control the ball deftly in close quarters but it really has a wealth of uses.
Despite its name, dropping into Precision Dribbling (which can be done by manually pressing L1/LB) allows you do so much beyond just dribble. Of course it doesn't instantly transform every player into Iniesta (which would be nice but ultimately unrealistic). But use it sparingly and discerningly and it can buy you that extra half a yard to unleash a shot from the edge of the box or thread a defence-dissecting through-ball.
The final part of the much-hyped trinity is the Player Impact Engine, a complex algorithm two-years in the making, which simulates player collisions with unparalleled realism. And for the most part, it makes good on this ambitious promise. Occasionally it produces anatomically-improbable encounters or some faintly-erotic embraces in the middle of the park but such mishaps are rare and entirely excusable, since what it gives the game is immeasurable. Yes, I'm repeating myself, but it invests players with almost-tangible mass, so when they collide they react, for the most part, like bodies crashing at speed, reacting according to velocity and the angle of impact.
The only potential problem I experienced was the inability of referees to correctly interpret some of these sophisticated collisions. Instead of easily dividing challenges into 'foul' or 'no foul', the Player Impact Engine adds a whole spectrum of ambiguity into the mix, and the ref makes mistakes. But this is a problem not exclusive to FIFA 12, its an issue inherent to football itself. What would a game of football be without the odd suspect decision to rail against? Accidental or intentional, it once again brings the sim closer to the reality.
In addition to such major gameplay changes, there are myriad new features in the new FIFA 12 but some of the standout ones include improvements to the Career mode. For those who spend hours in the manager's dugout, the drama is said to be much closer to the real thing. And while that may be the case, it certainly teaches you to play careful attention to the statistics
For most, progress is tediously slow, but player logic has been improved and the game does its best to simulate various aspects of the modern game – from the drama of transfer deadline day activity to the petulant whimsy of the modern-day footballer. A scouting system and youth academy have even been thrown in for good measure too, but all of it is displayed in such an insipid manner, in layers of static menus, that it can be a fairly bland, sterile experience.
EA Sports Football Club promises to provide players with challenges ripped right from that week's newspaper back pages. Whether this is a successful feature, I can't say at this moment because the servers don't go live until after launch, but if EA supports this feature all-year round – as it has done with previous online features – with innovative scenarios it really could prove to be a wonderful addition. Only time will tell.
Presentation is another one of FIFA 12's many strengths. Everything is slick and sumptuous, from the team selection screens to the brilliantly-polished graphics that preface each match and FIFA's access to official licensing means it remains unrivalled in terms of authenticity. From the stellar Barcelona to the humble Accrington Stanley, teams look the way they should. The likenesses of the top players are at times uncanny, though they do suffer from dead-eye syndrome from time to time. Stadiums and lighting effects help sell the illusion too but crowds, while convincing from a distance, look suspiciously-related when seen in close-up shots.
Just one of the subsidiary modes is Ultimate Team – wherein you earn, buy, sell, and trade players in the hope building your very own Galácticos – is available for the very first time at launch. Since its launch with FIFA 09 it's been a huge hit, with millions of in-game card packs being purchased. So it's no surprise that it's been included on the disc this year. You'll start with a fairly meagre bunch of players, and through hard graft or by splashing actual money you can improve the quality of your team. Previously only available as post-release paid DLC, the inclusion of Ultimate Team makes FIFA 12 even better value.
But no matter what mode you choose to experience in FIFA 12 you still get the same incredible gameplay.