I haven't touched one of EA's FIFA franchise titles in a couple of years, so FIFA 12 and I met like old friends separated for a spell. Still, the last version I played was no slouch, already pulling some ways in front of longtime fan favorite and PS2 soccer sim standout, Pro Evolution Soccer. I certainly wasn't thrilled with the abrupt reminder of how tough professional difficulty against FIFA's AI can be. First diving into the Kick-Off menu for some quick matches, mediocre Swansea pounded my inept handling of juggernaut Arsenal 9-0. I won't even go into detail about how Manchester United rolled over me — it's enough to say, "like I was standing still."
The high-end modes of the FIFA franchise in its current state don't present a game favorable to casual players. If you're accustomed to starting off any new sports sim on pro difficulty, but you've not regularly played EA's FIFA in the last year or so, be prepared to swallow your pride and crank down the heat. While the amateur level borders on too easy, you're best off starting there for building up confidence, then move up and play at semi-professional for a while before even attempting a pro match.
EA is clearly aware how hard the game can be: At the first load, failing discovery of any save game data from last year's version, FIFA 12 requests you rate your own level of talent before getting started. At that point, I perhaps underestimated my former skills with the franchise, labeling myself an absolute beginner. Later, sufficiently beat up and entering into career mode at amateur difficulty, I was warned that choosing amateur or semi-pro settings would prevent me from uploading my season stats to EA's worldwide leaderboards. I don't know why I cared. I'll never amount to anything in the FIFA franchise's global context; out there are players with otherworldly skills, gamers you'll swear sold their souls to play this title as well they do. But notification I'd be forever barred from submitting stats for that season got my attention, and I incautiously chose to enter my initial Career mode season as a professional. After a preseason of friendly matches getting shut out by teams that could have been from a Milwaukee preschool league, I finally acknowledged my deficits and lowered the difficulty setting, leaderboards be damned.
If you've been playing lots of FIFA, or you'd rather learn by trial of fire than slow improvement, go ahead and aim high. Anyone set to dismiss this title as overly difficult and too hard to control without first trying the amateur or semi-pro difficulties hasn't given the game a fair chance. Unfortunately, during Career mode, only the in-game commentators recognize your exceedingly poor performance at the highest difficulty settings. The game doesn't analyze your laughable stats and suggest you consider a difficulty level commensurate with your FIFA Soccer experience.
Arriving at the opening screens of FIFA 12, you get a chance to do a lot of shopping before playing a lot of soccer. Live Season mode, which provides regular updates to the game with real-world league season stats, requires you buy at least one league's season from the Xbox Live Marketplace. Depending on the league, these run the equivalent of five or eight dollars each. Another option is to buy the whole bunch together: Forking over $25 for a year of EA Season Ticket will get you all the leagues, plus the other Season Ticket features. If you've acquired the game in any form other than brand new, you'll also have to buy an EA Online Pass to access Xbox Live multiplayer and other FIFA-specific online features. This is, of course, on top of buying the game and paying for your annual Xbox Live Gold subscription. While many gamers have cried foul over publishers charging for online access, I've been tolerant of these extra fees, understanding that a vast, profitable used game market provides them no revenue, though they must support online play for gamers with secondhand copies. I've reached my limit with it, though. In the first few minutes of FIFA Soccer 12,I could have easily spent enough money to get a decent seat and a beer at a home-team MLS match. Throw in the price of the game and the Xbox Live subscription, and you may as well sign up for a recreational adult soccer league instead.
Unfortunately, all this huckstering makes an ugly first impression for an otherwise very nice update to an already quite good sports sim franchise. Certainly presentation isn't the game, but the face of FIFA 12 has been prettily made up and the whole menu system overhauled to excellent effect. The changes bring the soccer series' presentation more in line with the other games in EA's catalog of good sports titles.
Far from the merely superficial, the changes in this year's title reach deep into the game's animations and physics. Notably, the Player Impact Engine now delivers much greater realism in how player models both look and perform during matches. You can see and feel the difference right off. It's impressive.
No less significant to gameplay is FIFA 12's new emphasis on "tactical defending." In years past, experienced soccer gamers have complained that a great deal of the franchise's approach to defense feels too automated, sometimes with almost randomly generated results. In a constant-action sport where all gamer-controlled positions play at least some degree of both defense and offense and switching between the two regularly occurs in the blink of an eye, improvements to defensive control are no small matter. In American NFL and NCAA football sims, offense is the big draw, and some gamers just go through the motions on defense, accepting default play selections. In soccer, you can't do that. There are no discrete plays per se, and, laying back when called to defend, you'll lose to the AI or a human opponent every time. Thankfully, the new, more interactive defense system not only salves a lot of sore spots in the constant-player crowd, but it's also easy to learn and control for gamers who are new to the FIFA Soccer series.
As more of an enhancement than a total reworking of the existing underlying gameplay mechanics, FIFA 12 features something called "precision dribbling." There's a medium-length laundry list of improvements provided by precision dribbling, but ultimately and most importantly, the refinements allow much tighter control of the ball while moving around the field (or "pitch," anywhere outside the U.S.).
Although it's really most appealing to obsessive-compulsive soccer sim fans, FIFA Soccer 12 Ultimate Team mode's new trick is worth mentioning for all potential players because of its strides toward total integration of console games with the rest of our lives. Ultimate Team on consoles now interfaces with FIFA Ultimate Team Web, allowing gamers to manage their teams from anywhere with a Web connection. You can fiddle with the fine-grained details of Ultimate Team management from your smartphone on the bus on your way to work.
All of FIFA 12's graphics look great, as I'd expect from latter-day installments in the franchise. My young, somewhat soccer-obsessed son was even inspired to tell my wife, "It's just like watching soccer on TV." I first thought, "Well, no, not really." I quickly realized that if you're not ridiculously jaded by constant gaming media exposure to every gee-whiz AAA shooter in development, FIFA 12 is, in fact, just like watching soccer on TV. Superb virtual camera work, good audio effects and broadcast-quality commentating well round out the illusion.
This year's FIFA title returns with the online play excellence that gamers expect from EA sports titles. The only real issue is one largely beyond EA's control, as no other developer or publisher has yet managed to fully resolve it. The problem is that when jumping in here and there for online matches, you're going to regularly run up against people who've practically, or perhaps actually, devoted their lives to playing this franchise. It's unavoidable, even though player ratings and matching systems attempt to bring together two — or more — opponents or co-op teammates best suited for one another.
FIFA Soccer 12 is rich with fathoms of deep features, and the well-designed improvements to both presentation and gameplay make it a worthy upgrade for owners of last year's edition. I must, however, repeat that I could do without the heavy-handed sales pitch for extra content, especially right off the bat. Despite all the modes and overwhelming level of detail in match settings, team-building and leagues, FIFA 12 shines brightest, and is by far the most enjoyable, when you're playing with or against a friend or family member sitting in the same room. If offline multiplayer, even in simple quick-play exhibition matches, weren't so much fun, this title, though exceptional, would not rate as highly with me as it does.
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