There’s little of permanence in professional football these days. One minute you star striker’s signalling his undying allegiance by kissing the badge every time he scores, the next he’s off to your bitter rivals for less than the price of a replica shirt. One week your team’s future looks secure under the ownership of the local boy made good, the next it’s been taken over by some chicken magnates who can only afford to put a bunch of turkeys out on the field and a lame duck in the manager’s office.
Of course, change isn’t always the harbinger of misfortune. Pep Guardiola’s glittering tenure at Barcelona – one that saw him temporarily usurp Gaudi as the city’s favourite visionary architect – was predicated on progressive football thinking and had the masses thronging to Catalonia’s other famous cathedral to witness the miracles being performed by Messi & Co.
Since 2007, EA Sports’ FIFA franchise has comfortably retained the title of ‘world’s greatest football game’ thanks to a policy of frequent, and often significant, change. But being the best, means your position is constantly under threat. With the former Galáctico of the genre, Pro Evolution Soccer, making an impressive return to form this year, and its team leader, Jon Murphy, even doing a good line in faux-Mourinho provocative statements, EA would swear on its shareholders’ lives that FIFA 13 represents yet another revolution for the series. The clever thing about it, though, is that it’s not.
Initially, the on-field changes are barely noticeable, and there’s certainly nothing that fundamentally alters the series’ ethos, like Tactical Defending did last year, for fans to acclimatize to. Instead, the two most important improvements once again see EA tinkering around at soccer’s sub-atomic level, adding extra realism by way of some subtle rebalancing.
The new ball control system brings a more authentic fallibility to first touches. Factors including a player’s individual skill (or lack of it), whether he’s under pressure from an opponent, sprinting or standing still and the pace, spin and trajectory of the ball, all combine to ensures that successfully receiving possession is no longer a formality. In basic terms, EA have inserted the Djimi Traoré gene into the FIFA footballing population and, for most players, the practical effect is that their initial control is now often more messy than Messi.
To compensate for this blunting of players’ ball skills, their enthusiasm for attacking has been greatly enhanced. In FIFA 12, offensive moves would often frustratingly peter out due to a lack of options. This year, whenever you stride into the opponents’ half you’re almost always accompanied by a phalanx of eager AI wingmen, busting a gut to get forward in support and screaming for the ball. FIFA has already successfully replicated the importance of players’ speed, strength and dribbling abilities, and made defending more considered and less cavalier. Now, perhaps the most basic skill necessary to be a footballer, first touch, and the most advanced, reading of the game, finally get the recognition they deserve.
One of my main criticisms of matches in FIFA 12 was that they were unrealistically pristine. In FIFA 13 these alterations make them scrappier, more volatile, unpredictable and exciting. They elicit the same kind of exasperated groans and anticipatory roars that echo around stadiums and from the depths of living room armchairs every time a player fumbles away the ball or triggers a quick break. They capture the current fashion for the importance of retaining possession and killer counter-attacks and the way real contests are decided by a combination of vision, skill and split-second decision making.
A select squad of other small enhancements add to FIFA 13’s convincing performance across the 90 minutes. Dribbling controls have been sharpened courtesy of EA’s work on sister title FIFA Street, while the Player Impact Engine has eliminated more of its comedy collisions. Despite the commentary seeming more stilted than ever, you also now have Alan McInally interjecting with updates from other games and a James Alexander Gordon tribute artist reading the classified scores for that complete Saturday afternoon feel. In fact, all that’s missing is an in-play betting option and the priceless opportunity to punch soccer’s self-styled Spanish Inquisitor, Geoff Shreeves, in the face.
Quick skills games covering all facets of play from passing to free kicks mark another smart addition. Part teaching tool, part serious skill test, they even pop up randomly in place of loading screens to give your finger and brain a pre-match warm up and are much more engaging educational devices than the unnecessarily draconian tutorials in PES 2013.
Off the field, this season’s enhancements are perhaps even more elusive. The Career mode benefits from the addition of international fixtures and management along with slightly deeper player/club interactions, but its rough edges still leave it a slightly artificial experience. Meanwhile, the EA Sports Football Club, like all serious operations, now has a shop selling items like flashy new boots, shirts and goal celebrations that should be shameful purchases for any grown man, but remain undeniably alluring.
It’s Ultimate Team, however, that benefits from the most investment. EA melding of FIFA with a trading card game provides new single-player and online seasons, Team of the Week challenges and Manager Tasks – UT’s equivalent of RPG side quests – to suck you in and the money out of your wallet.
It would be extremely easy to be cynical and say Ultimate Team is profiting purely because of the profits it generates through card pack sales. The thing is though, every week FIFA 13 also updates the stats of all players and teams in the Premiership to reflect their current real life form and recreates a Game of the Week for you to replay. It’s completely free DLC once every seven days, all you need is an internet connection. So, despite its negative associations, if Ultimate Team continues to fund services like these, then long may it prosper.
FIFA 13 is undeniably more of an upgrade for connoisseurs rather than casual football fans. There’s nothing here that risks wrecking the series’ winning formula, just a selection of extremely intelligent and well implemented advancements that broaden and deepen FIFA’s appeal. In the on-going and unavoidable rivalry between FIFA and PES, the latter’s best showing years makes this season’s face-off like Man City vs. West Brom. A legitimate contest, but still one with a clear winner, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 3 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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