Xbox 360 Review

FIFA 12

Boof. Eat my goal!

Bobby Moore effortlessly robbing a rampant Pele in 1970. Paul McGrath's heroic triple-tackle against Roberto Baggio in Ireland's World Cup '94 run. The mighty Ledley King sprinting 35 yards to scoop the ball cleanly from Arjen Robben's feet in 2006. It may not enjoy the glamour of goalscoring, but the art of defending has offered up its fair share of thrills over the years.

You'd never guess that from the FIFA series though. Tackling in EA's globe-straddling soccer sim has always been a bit second-string, a slightly inexact science. Closing in on the player with possession using the tackle button, it was the A.I that decided when, or if, your defender would attempt to rob the ball.

Sliding tackles were a little woolly too, with the odds stacked against success. Sure, the occasional last-gasp lunge could see you nick the ball from your opponent's feet, but you were far more likely to send someone sprawling across the turf. As a result, most advanced players ignored sliding tackles entirely.

It was all fine really. We were used to it. But FIFA 12's introduction of tactical defending changes everything. Now you have complete control over pressing and jostling, over doubling-up on strikers and over exactly when you put your boot in. The result is a completely revitalised system.

So, a press of a button now sees your defender attempting to contain the player in possession. They'll stick close - the exact distance is adjustable through the right stick - but they will not make a challenge until you press tackle. Timing is everything. Get it wrong and you'll either inelegantly concede a foul, or they'll waft past you like a fart in the breeze. Get it right, however, and you'll feel like a superhero.

Alongside this profound change, slide-tackling becomes a viable option once more. Indeed, in FIFA 12 the refs will often turn a blind eye to even the most crunching of tackles. They really are noticeably more lenient. Perhaps this is EA's way of opening it up a little, encouraging everyone to rediscover the art, with the intention of tightening it up a little in future iterations.

This rejuvenated tackling system, most obviously the nicely implemented standing tackle, comes at a cost. For a while you will feel completely lost. It's so radically different that your thumbs will do the same stuff they've has been doing for years purely out of habit. But bear with it, you'll get there in the end. The reward is an immensely improved sense of control and the opportunity to pull off the kind of tackles that will live long in the memory.

You can turn it all off if you're playing against the AI and go back to the system used in previous iterations, should you choose. But considering that the FIFA series has had to endure countless accusations of stagnation, it would be ridiculous to gripe against such a profound change. Especially when the results are so rewarding.

Indeed, it's not just the defensive system that has changed. In a number of respects, FIFA is a vastly different beast to its predecessors. At the heart of this is the Impact Engine, an animation and artificial intelligence system that aims to create realistic, on-the-fly physical reactions from players.

Limbs now move around in a decent approximation of their real-life counterparts and amusing pratfalls are more common. Push tiny hero Jermaine Defoe in the direction of big lump Joleon Lescott and he'll bounce off like a pissed mum on a bouncy castle. Indeed, you'll occasionally find yourself with little clumps of players laying prostate on the floor as the tumble over one another.

The benefits of the Impact Engine, however, are quite pronounced. FIFA 12 is an altogether more fluid game of football. It wasn't that long ago that the series felt like a string of restricted sequences stuffed with canned animations. No longer.

Konami's Pro Evolution was always the looser experience. When something random, and entirely realistic would happen in that series, like the ball ricocheting off of umpteen legs before bobbling into the net, a friend of mine would always say "only in Pro Evo." Not any more. FIFA 12 feels so much more organic than ever before. Even seemingly minor changes like quick throw-ins and free kicks contribute to a flowing tempo, from which the game gains greatly.

What this all results in is a game where you will have to earn your goals, making careful use of close control and the skill modifier, alongside carefully-timed bursts of speed to make your break. Sticking the ball in the back of the net is oh-so-satisfying. It's a little more slow-paced and technical perhaps, and certainly less accessible, but this is the most assured FIFA in some time, a game that lays the foundation for an unparalleled future success.

Away from the pitch, FIFA 12 is once more bursting with content. It's simultaneously richer and more streamlined, with slicker menus and reduced loading times, but also broader, with more game modes and features than you could shake a fake Sheik at.

At the heart of it all is EA Sports Football Club, the importance of which is made immediately apparent: A swish video introduction plays the first time you load up the game. It is, essentially, a version of EA's Autolog feature from Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, or Battlelog from Battlefield 3, the purpose being to give a social impetus to proceedings by comparing and contrasting your results with those of your friends.

It also features an RPG-esque XP system in which the points you earn in each match contribute to a worldwide league table of real world teams. Given enough decent fans, even my beloved Wycombe Wanderers achieve the glory that they deserve. It's doubtful, but who knows, you do get more XP for giant killing feats, after all. This blurring of real life and the fantasy of the on-screen action has always been a strength of FIFA, but the addition of further friend-baiting social elements will no doubt prove to be engaging.

Another of the stand out modes is Head to Head Seasons. Spread across 10 seasons of 10 games, it's a great alternative to the grind of endless ranked competitive matches, an extra element of impetus to push you from game to game. In those 10 seasons you can be promoted or relegated and compete in cup competitions, all against real opponents, with the aim being to finish as high up as possible at the close of the 10th season. It wouldn't surprise me if this is the mode that most players gravitate towards over time.

Ultimately, it is easy to take FIFA for granted. For years now it has offered incremental improvement on what was already a compelling experience. It has been refined and augmented over and over and over. But this year brings a marked improvement, a leap rather than a step in the right direction. With both the defensive and attacking elements of the game as rich and as nuanced as you could possibly hope for, plus more modes and features than it is possible to even list here, it's hard to argue against its qualities. The result is one of the finest football games ever created and in turn one of the greatest sports games ever made. It's that good.

94%
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