So the 2012 model is gearing up to improve on last year's splendid FIFA 11 - a game widely seen as creating clear blue water between the series and perennial nemesis PES - and we were both relieved and impressed by what Producer Dave Rutter and his team had to say when we were given a first look at the 'revolution' inside EA Canada's HQ in Vancouver.
The revisions kick off with the all-new Impact engine, which will improve collisions between players and stop them clipping each other. There'll be no more ghostly fisting - that is, putting a player's arm through Rooney's back as he shields the ball, of course - although should you wish to boot the squat scouser high into the air, you should still be able to do so, as a wide variety of knocks, pushes and pulls are available. Defending players will now lean into and push the opposition to gain advantage.
Alongside the new physics come two broad changes to gameplay which will affect every single match you play from now on: new 'tactical defending' and 'precision dribbling'. Yeah, the devs love a catchy title, but these terms basically refer to the refurbished areas of the in-match gameplay.
Using X to lock onto an opposition player and launch a 'heat-seeking standing tackle' is now more redundant than Arsenal's trophy cabinet. A new 'contain' move will instead have your defender jockeying with the attacker, maintaining a correct defensive position at all times, and in perfect position to block. It all sounds a bit Dad's Army, but we agree with the devs that it does potentially deepen the defensive experience.
We're not sure how worthwhile broadening the role of being a no-nonsense centre-back or weasel fullback is (will it really encourage people to play as defenders in online Be A Pro matches?) but we're willing to give it a go.
Opposing this new art of defending is more precise dribbling. The devs used the example of Diaby of Arsenal using eight skilful touches to keep the ball just outside the opponent's penalty area. In FIFA 11 if you tried eight slight touches with him, you'd end up shifting across two-thirds of the entire pitch.
Now, you can caress it as the pro's do. Likewise new contextual dribbling will see speedy wingers and ball magicians nip out of tight situations. Top players with good control stats will find it easier to negotiate the sidelines and keep the ball in congested areas, such as outside the penalty areas. And in conjunction with the new physics and dribbling you'll see a new pace to the game, with players such as Messi and Walcott really coming to the fore, able to nip away from mistimed challenges.
The presentation of the game has come in for a much needed overhaul too, with new menu screens (yep, the big one, they've gone and done it), broadcast presentation (with Sky Sports-style match build-ups including little montages of the teams in action to really ram home that you're actually about to play a game of football), and even a new camera angle (which becomes the default).
New camera techniques being used around the clubs by EA's motion capture teams means a real revolution in terms of the players' faces. We could barely notice a difference between Gael Clichy's real face and his virtual counterpart, with even tiny facial scars accurately mapped accordingly.
'Pro Player Intelligence' is another progression - it's basically the further improvement of the player AI. Creative players will (finally) act creatively, with Xavi playing eye-of-a-needle passes across the pitch instead of hoofing it long or always short. Teams will look to use Crouch's aerial advantage rather than playing the ball in behind for him to run onto. Your Virtual Pro teammates will respond to your abilities as you play.
In all, we were pleasantly surprised with what's on offer this year, with Rutter hinting at further innovations regarding the game's audio, online and career modes. Dong-dangler Wayne Rooney will still be a cover star, along with Iniesta and Kaka, for those who care about such things, and no, they haven't announced who's going to replace Andy Gray on commentary duty.
It looks like there could be some more good times around the corner for EA's behemoth. We'll now have to see if it all comes together with some hands-on time.
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