Although Electronic Arts' Madden franchise has become very popular over the past two decades, I feel that its FIFA series is really gaining ground on becoming the dominant sports title. Of course, it's always had a hefty following outside of North America, but I've noticed a lot of folks taking interest in the other football franchise lately — even people who I wouldn't have pegged as football fans. A lot of that has to do with FIFA being the most well-rounded, fun-to-play sports video game experience on the market. Thankfully, FIFA '13 keeps up with the previous entries in that regard.
The biggest gameplay improvements in this year's entry include better dribbling, implementing skill moves similar to those found in the last entry of FIFA Street, and the addition of First Touch Control. This appropriately dubbed mechanic allows you to control the way a player receives a ball, whether from a flubbed kick or an on-target pass, giving you more control when moving the ball downfield. It's not a huge boon or game-breaking element that removes skill from accurate passing, but it allows for more precise ball control than we've seen in prior FIFA titles. You can still screw up a pass, and part of the mechanic is based on the player's skill in handling the ball, but it's a nice, nonintrusive addition that enhances gameplay.
The skill moves for dribbling are not a completely new mechanic but are also nice; they feel similar to those in FIFA Street but are less arcade-like in appearance. The majority of the moves are performed while holding down one of the trigger buttons to slow down the movement of your player and allow you to keep the ball closer to you. Performing a combination of movements with the right analog stick unleashes dozens of special dribbling tricks. It can be a little overwhelming at first, since there's a lot to learn. You're eased into the experience with certain players, as all moves are assigned a star rating, and only a player of sufficient skill can pull off the higher-rated moves.
FIFA '13 is also swimming in modes, ranging from standard online and offline modes like Career and Exhibition and including the popular team-building 11-versus-11 online play, Games of the Week, Ultimate Team mode, and a host of others. Most of this is outfitted or enhanced by online connectivity and hidden behind terms like "EA Sports Football Club," which will pull daily stat updates from actual players and matches and incorporate those changes into the game. While roster updates aren't exactly a new concept, I've never played a sports title that opted to do them daily, and considering the update only takes a few seconds, I'm not sure why this hasn't been attempted before. There's also a very helpful display of the changes that have been enacted, which stats have either dropped or increased, and so on, so that you'll always be aware of how real life impacts your virtual world.
Of course, you're also stuck contending with EA's servers for this mode, along with your online player and Ultimate Team, and unfortunately, their servers are spotty at best. I've been dropped or disconnected numerous times, both in menus and in actual games, and that can get frustrating. The game has been out for a little while, so it's disappointing to see that these issues haven't been ironed out.
If the connection remains stable, though, online play is extremely well done. There's a variety of online modes, from online career, which allows for creation of a player character that can get stat upgrades by completing accomplishments in matches, to Ultimate Team, which allows you to participate in seasons and play against other user-created teams to move through the rankings. Career Mode online is particularly fun; you can opt to create a club with at least one other player, or you can drop in to random matches. The online community is still present; I had no trouble finding a match at any time of the day, which is definitely a plus.
Much as it is in this year's Madden entry, Ultimate Team is my favorite mode in FIFA '13. That's not too surprising, considering I also enjoyed it in FIFA '12 , but the card-collecting mechanic is a lot of fun and manages to scratch my "collector" itch. Give me random packs of cards to open, with the possibility of rare cards that have some impact on the game and my team's success, and I'll keep coming back for more. I also love that earning in-game coins is rarely a chore, and you're awarded coins for so many different actions that it doesn't take long to build up enough money for a gold pack or two. There's also the option of using real-world funds to purchase packs; I'm not a fan of that, but the choice is there for those who want it.
Ultimate Team also has a number of light RPG elements, with cards that can temporarily improve teammate stats, repair injuries, and provide new stadiums, new outfits, new balls, and so on. There are a lot of customization options once you start to unlock things, and there's a cool underlying element that boosts team morale if you're able to slot players into their correct position, along with outfitting your team with particular nationalities and players from the same real-life team. All of this is easy enough to read and follow, so even if you're not a big football fan, you'll be able to grasp the basics and pick up on the correct way of building a team.
That's a big part of what I like about this year's version of FIFA and the series as a whole. While there are definitely some minor improvements in animation, ball control and visuals, what really sells this game is the fact that just about anyone can pick it up and play it, regardless of how familiar they are with the sport. There's plenty for a hardcore fan to dig his teeth into: every major and minor club from just about every country, along with their current rosters. Even if you can't tell the difference between Messi and Ronaldo, you'll find the core game experience is really inviting and fun.
FIFA '13 provides some great AI, a fair challenge if you go for a difficulty beyond Amateur, and a lot of content if you're willing to delve into the various modes. The constant roster updates are a huge plus, and they provide constant feedback in how your current club is performing with respect to its real-life counterpart. The overall experience system, while baffling in its daily limitations, is a perfect incentive system that keeps you coming back for more. This is a fantastic entry in the series for hardcore fans and newcomers alike, and if you have a passing interest in the sport, you'd do well to check it out.
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