FIFA 13 produces all-around thrills

FIFA 13 produces all-around thrills

Published Sep. 27, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

A fine balance trembles at the heart of every sports game. It’s a constant, fiddly calibration to make a game that feels authentic yet also fun and accessible to play. Lean towards the former, and the experience could be as dreary as an afternoon sat on the damp terraces of Grimsby Town; favour the latter, and you might create fantastical fun but soon it’ll feel cheap and unearned.

Saying that, sport is a world in which the fantastical frequently comes to pass. Headlines can’t be written. Tiny Davids slay gigantic franchises. And the reason for these unbelievable headlines? Unpredictability. It’s one of the key innovations of FIFA 13. It’s a risky, potentially game-breaking change, resulting in frustration and irritation, but those of both part of football. Thankfully, the balance is spot-on.

This unpredictability is at its most obvious when it comes to first-touch controls. Your players are no longer endowed with supernatural skill when it comes to taking balls out of the air or running onto passes at speed. If you don’t use your skill, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll fumble the ball and lose possession.

It makes the game immediately less accessible. You’ll groan when your player takes a heavy touch when you’re through on goal, but that’s something which happens every week in the best leagues around the world. Yet it never becomes game-breaking or frustrating, and this is thanks to a rationale behind it all. Several factors conspire to determine the quality of your first-touch: speed of the pass, spin on the ball, the speed and relative skill of the player receiving it. Over time, you’ll come to learn how to improve your first-touch – for instance, don’t run on to a pass at full speed, or perhaps knock it on using the right analogue so you don’t have to take you finger off sprint.


This isn’t the only gameplay innovation. Last year defending was a focus for change with the introduction of ‘Tactical Defending’. FIFA 13 concentrates on improving your attacking options. Dribbling has learnt from recent FIFA spinoff FIFA Street, and has incorporated it’s free dribbling mechanic, which allows the player to have tighter control of the ball when you hold down both triggers. It takes a while to meld this with varying your pace on the ball and using precision dribbling (introduced last year) but once you learn how to use them in tandem, it become useful for skipping past players on the wings. But again the balancing seems right. Using this tighter dribbling mechanic doesn’t ensure that you’ll beat your man but used in the right context it can be extremely useful.

Attacking has also been improved by revamped offensive AI. When going forward, you’ll have more support with your teammates making intelligent runs off the ball, even curving their runs to stay onside. It’s most noticeable when you’re on the break. A player will tear down the opposite flank, or run in between defenders, screaming for a pass to played. It makes games more exciting and open, letting you score goals that you simply couldn’t before due to a lack of movement.

The whole game feels more physical, too. The Player Impact Engine – one of last year’s marquee features – has been tightened up, and I haven’t experienced any of the awkward, often humorous collisions that it occasionally produced it FIFA 12. This feeling of physicality, of brawn and weight to players, comes mainly from the fact that the ball no longer feels magnetised to the player in possession. Players can collide and jostle with each other as they chase free balls. When you’re in defence, and receive the ball, you’re more inclined to punt into to row Z for fear of taking a bad touch and the striker breathing down your neck. While improved attacking AI makes games more fluid, the added physicality can also make them scrappy affairs at times, with passages of play in which neither team can really dominate possession. The combination of these two elements introduces the variety you would expect in the real-world game.

Graphically, FIFA 13 isn’t a huge improvement on its immediate predecessor. But it does benefit considerably from new contextual animations – basically, players recover from challenges and react in situations as they would in real life – sliding to keep a ball in play, for instance. It just helps sell the illusion that little bit more.

The changes this year aren’t as bombastic as last year’s headline features but they definitely not the product of restless tinkering. While FIFA 12 is still fun if you go back to it after playing 13 for a decent amount of time, play genuinely feels more restrictive and slightly mechanical in retrospect.

FIFA 13 is extremely generous to those who want a more committed football experience, not just a quick kick-around. It’s a game swollen with content. Be A Pro, Ultimate Team, Tournaments from around the world… It’s still all there. And there’s even more this year. Skill Games are a really fun addition, covering all the fundamentals of the game, from crossing to passing to shooting. It even lets you get up to speed with the game’s new tactical free kicks, in which you can use decoy runners. Each discipline has different bronze, silver, and gold challenges. They’re not much a teaching aid, however, more an opportunity to practice and commit key skills to muscle memory. Once you’ve earned your stripes, a ‘Skill Challenge’ is unlocked for that discipline allowing you to post a high score to share with your friends.

It’s worth mentioning that FIFA 13 incorporates motion controls with varying degrees of success. Kinect works well. It's been implemented unobtrusively and in a way that makes sense. You're now both player – controller in hands – and manager, barking orders and tactics from the side-lines of your sofa. You can switch tactics during a match. Preset commands initiate strategic changes such as switching wingers. You can also map key motivational phrases - "We need to win this" - to prompt a combination of tweaks to formation, mentality and so on. Substitutions can be made using Kinect but this is where it gets a little messy to use mid-game. Say 'substitute' and you'll have to drill down through a series if menus in the corner in order to make the right switch. It's too distracting to use during a tightly-contested match and probably best saved for when the ball goes out of play.

PlayStation Move, however, is incorporated less elegantly and less successfully. You use a Move wand to move your players around the pitch and point to where they should be passing the ball. It's difficult to pick up and having the colourful arrows used for aiming the Move controller frantically buzzing around the screen really undermines the illusion of the real game that FIFA strives towards creating.

Presentation is slick and superb as you’d come to expect. It does a good job of aping the bombastic style of Sky Sports, with dazzling idents and having additional sideline commentary giving you updates about injuries during matches.

In recent years EA has strived to make its games into living, breathing organisms – experiences that persist once you switch off your console. One of FIFA 12’s biggest innovations was Football Club, a series of topical challenges that were refreshed throughout the season. It returns, of course, but this year we also get Match Day, a service which attempts to keep FIFA 13 in touch with the season as it unfolds. When you boot up FIFA, you can turn it on with a click of a button and a short update will rebalance the stats of teams and individual players according to how they’re faring in the league. For example, if a player hits form and starts scoring every week, his stats will soar. With features like this it’s hard to assess their lasting value from the outset but if EA remains committed to it throughout the year and it’s sensitively curated, then Match Day is ingenious and you’ll wonder why it wasn’t done sooner. FIFA 13 really aspires to be a true extension of the sport it simulates.

So FIFA 13 is a refinement of a winning formula rather than an entirely new equation. While the gameplay changes are more subtle, they really consolidate upon the success and innovation of FIFA 12. But that success hasn’t bred laziness – there are new features, new services, even new leagues. If you’re a fan of the sport or FIFA in general, it’s hard to imagine a game that you’ll enjoy more this year.