Like a top football team, FIFA's fortunes have ebbed and flowed over its almost two-decade lifespan. Some years it's added features that have evolved the series and taken it to new heights. And at other times, things haven't quite gelled and we've been left with a game that has given us hints of a potential that it just couldn't realise.
This time out, though, FIFA 12 is looking every bit a champion.
The key to its success can be found in three new additions, none of which are headline features in their own right, but all come together to deliver something greater than the sum of their individual parts.
First up is the Impact Engine, which helps the game take an evolutionary step away from players with canned animation trees and instead imbues them with dynamic, pseudo-ragdoll reactions. Depending on how players collide, the game tries to present that collision as realistically as possible, and it generally achieves it with aplomb. Occasionally, some wacky things happen, and I'm sure we'll all be seeing YouTube videos over the coming months featuring players hilariously spinning on top of each other or getting tangled up in strange ways. But for the most part it's effective and helps give the game a whole new level of realism. The Impact Engine is not just a cosmetic addition either: the slightly random element to collisions and the way the ball now realistically bounces creates a level of unpredictability that feels very lifelike. Sometimes the ball can break for you, and sometimes it doesn't go your way –- that's an important part of the real game, and it works very well here too.
Precision Dribbling is the next new addition that, in the hands of an expert and when used with a player who has the skills, can add solo flair moves capable of opening up defences and creating space for you to move into. Assuming you're doing it right, of course. Do it wrong and you'll collide with a defender and look like an idiot as you tumble to the ground. But again, that's a great thing. The combination of Precision Dribbling and the Impact Engine gives the game some extra skill headroom for experts to grow into -- you really can play a beautiful game when you become attuned with the game's timing. But that same system also lets you play a pretty ugly physical game too, and clatter players off the ball if your timing is poor. Or anything in between, depending on the circumstances.
The final shiny new thing is Tactical Defending, which dictates how your team moves together. It does take a bit of getting used to before you can get the best out of it, but I liked it a lot better than the system used in FIFA 11. For me, even at a basic level, it seemed that my players were a bit more intelligent than in previous FIFA games in terms of closing down gaps and covering the opposition. It's not completely perfect -- I found myself sometimes inadvertently yelling at out-of-position players like an irate manager standing on the touchline -- but it generally works well. And indeed those occasional imperfections work both ways: if your team sometimes gets out of shape, so does the opposition, and if you're paying attention, you can exploit those gaps when they appear.
FIFA 12's three new features combine together to capture the subtleties of the game of football like never before. I think some old-school FIFA players might find the way it does it slightly annoying -- because it adds a certain amount of uncertainty to the game -- but I love it. Whereas before, a slide tackle made at the right time produced the same result pretty much every time, in FIFA 12 it's not always a guaranteed success. A good player will always have a much higher chance of successfully pulling off that kind of manoeuvre than a mediocre player, sure, but a truly great player will be the one who can quickly pick up the pieces when a move like that doesn't go right, and to me that's where the game nails it. Instead of playing a game where you're planning ahead on certainty and predictability, now you need to make judgment calls based on chances, and then have to quickly react and improvise if things don't go as planned. And that definitely feels like football to me.
Next page: a beautiful game?