FIFA 12

It's harder to write a FIFA 12 review than you might think. It was doddle when Pro Evolution Soccer was a viable contender, but it's been a fair few generations since that particular franchise has been in the same stadium, let alone on the same pitch.

So, unless PES 2012 presents a dramatic and vast improvement over its recent forebears, the only rival to FIFA 12 is FIFA 11, and therein lies a quandary. Where last year's edition was a massive leap forward for EA Sports, FIFA 12 merely builds upon the excellent gameplay of its most immediate forebear. It layers some new features on top, with varying levels of success, but, to a bystander, superficially comes across as a similar experience, bar a hair implant here or there.

None of this matters, of course, to the masses of FIFA fans who would buy the latest edition simply for a player and team data update, but can this year's edition justify its £55 recommended retail price to those who only like to dabble?

To be honest, yes. Yes it can. To football fans, at least. And that's because, although enhancements seem initially fractional, once you've played 30-40 games, as we have, you get a real feel that EA Sports (and its Canadian development arm) has finally found the secret to making not just a football game, but a game of football per se.

The most significant new feature for FIFA 12 comes in the shape of a new tactical defending system.  From a distance, for a spectator, it doesn't seem to amount to much. However, technically it completely changes the way matches ebb and flow, and while experienced FIFA players may baulk at its inclusion to begin with, it is this that makes the average match seem very much like the real thing.

Where former versions offered a simplified form of "pressing" by defenders, the new system allows you to jostle, jockey and contain opponents all over the pitch, even pull shirts and drag players back if you're willing to risk incurring the wrath of the referee.  You can either keep the player you control between the attacker and the goal, or send teammates over to halt progress. And, if enforced correctly, it will provoke rivals into passing sideways or backwards, rather than sprinting forward past your hapless defence - effectively aping the motions and build-up tactics of real football matches.

Now, that's not to say that this specific new system comes without caveats. For starters, it's an altogether new skill for FIFA players to get used to, albeit an extremely rewarding one once mastered. And, indeed, there's even a meaty tutorial before you get to kick a single ball.

Plus, and this has already been debated by fans on forums since the demo was released, the new defensive focus can hamper the speed and sheer arcade-like gameplay element of FIFA 11 and its predecessors. It slows the game down during matches, and even prevents the sort of spectacular jinking runs and goals that have looked so good on YouTube over the years. But it feels right, and provides a balance to the series that it's possibly lacked in the past.

Of course, with defence being given more prominence, the risk of a stalemate and goalless draw is ever greater. So, EA Sports' second new feature has been designed to help negate that particular side effect: precision dribbling.

While not as game-changing as the tactical defending system, precision dribbling allows players to counteract the containing moves by defenders by adding one-button shimmy, shield or tight ball control to an attacker's portfolio, as long as he is skilled enough.

It comes into effect during play in close quarters - when a defender is breathing down your neck, for example - and can take some getting used to, but those who discover its best implementation can find that extra yard that's needed to get in a cross, or spin off of the shoulder of a man-to-man marker. To be honest, we struggled to find times when it was most useful, and more often than not gave away possession when we didn't need to, but can appreciate its addition.

The final stand-out in-play improvement that EA Sports has been hawking for some time is, perhaps, the least welcome. On paper, the new player impact engine sounds incredible: bone-crunching tackles look much more like their description, blocks and pushes can have a more realistic effect on their target, and player animations benefit from a more ragdoll approach to flailing around.

However, at times it breaks. Although it's amusing the first couple of times to see your own players collide into each other and descend into a mound of jerking, intertwined limbs, it soon becomes tired. And when you see them get up to collapse again, you realise that something's not quite right.

There are also times that players roll and jerk around on the floor like drunken employees attempting to breakdance at an office party. It's embarrassing, and can help but bring you back out of the game world with a crashing bump.

Admittedly, we've been playing the Xbox 360 version of the game before release, so an over-the-air patch may come along to heal these specific ailments sharpish, but the fact that these exist this late in the day is at odds with the rest of the game's polished nature.

Clipping and animation issues aside, however, the rest of FIFA 12 is a tour de force of what a modern sports game should be. Not only are the in-game improvements (mostly) great additions to the franchise, but there's one or two external ones worth pointing out too.

The career mode has been tweaked to add a few welcome extras. There's now a Sky Sports-style transfer deadline day, which adds a sense of drama to what is, essentially, a menu screen. And there's a new scouting network function that allows you to find young talent from around the world. Plus, player development has been rejigged, you can interact with your team, and even hold press conferences to praise or slam your opponents before a match. It's no Football Manager, but adds a level of depth that was never there before.

Player models, this year, are better too - on the whole, anyway. Some of the stars are incredibly well defined, with great renders of UK cover stars Jack Wilshere and Wayne Rooney (surgically enhanced barnet and all), which are to be expected, but also John Terry, Glen Johnson, and many many others are excellent. However, there are also some that are very poor - Lucas Leiva and Luis Suarez are particularly bad, for example.

And finally, the publisher has added another new feature to enhance the community experience, EA Sports Football Club. On the game's first load, you will be asked which team you support, then, as you play the game, you will be awarded points. These points will then go towards your beloved real life team's average ranking, propelling them up or down a virtual social league table, with teams being relegated and promoted on a regular basis.

Each season lasts a week, in order to give new gamers a chance to become involved, and, to make it even more fair for lesser supported teams, the points will be averaged rather than stacked up, so Bury will have just as much chance for success as Liverpool, for example.

It adds a new element of fun to the menu system, and while it doesn't affect the actual gameplay any, it goes to prove that EA Sports will never get tired of fiddling with its formula. It certainly keeps things fresh, especially as pretty much every other unmentioned mode is untouched (multiplayer, Live Season, Ultimate Team, Virtual Pro, et al).

Verdict

So, FIFA 12 may not be perfect, and only a fractional improvement on its predecessor (superficially, at least), but it is the undisputed daddy of football games - stealing the crown from its own immediate prequel.

It is the closest that a bunch of pixels, polygons and, in effect, spreadsheets can get to emulating a real, bone fide football match than we've ever been treated to before. And although that may not be everyone's cup of tea, it's ours. And, if you're a dedicated follower of the church of footy, it'll undoubtedly be yours too.