Here's a question to ponder: will there ever be a FIFA release that feels absolutely complete? That's not to say that any FIFA game, at least in the recent PES-bashing era, has seemed like it's short-changed its audience. It's just that every single year EA Sports kicks out a new FIFA game and, over the last four years, the engine of every new entry in the series has benefited from a ton of tweaks and tucks which improve the in-game experience to the point that going back to the previous year's model seems almost unthinkable.
This year's iteration is no exception; FIFA 11 may have felt weighty and realistic last year, but compared to this year's model it looks clunky and almost arcade-like. So is FIFA like fashion or Facebook in that it will never actually be finished? It's a question the game's line-producer, David Rutter, answers with a large sigh.
"I've been making football games for 15 years," he says, "FIFA's been going for longer than that, and I've not done that many of them. But there's a near-limitless supply of inspiration for the cool stuff we can do. We do as much as we can do each year, but I suspect that by the time we've caught up on all the stuff we want to do, there'll be other ideas in the pipeline."
"I'm not worried about running out of ideas," he says. "I'm worried about how to fit it all in."
Rutter and his team have managed to fit a lot of new content into to this year's FIFA title. The most obvious is in the gameplay - what the line-producer and his team are calling FIFA 12's 'holy trinity' of precision dribbling, tactical defending and the new player impact engine.
The first of these allows players more direct and intimate control of the players in their team; beyond finesse dribbling moves, players can shield the ball with their bodies, as they look for an open man to pass it to. The immediate effect of this is to slow down the pace of the matches somewhat, but as a whole, controlling players is more dynamic. The player feels like they're more firmly in control of the ball at all times, and more aware of where their opponents are. It also allows them a few more options than hoofing it out wide to the wing when they're in and around the box and deluged by defenders.
Tactical defending makes tackling a bit more of a nuanced affair than in previous FIFA titles. Rather than simply barging into attackers, defenders can now contain - or jockey - players approaching them, as well as grab their shirts if the attacker shoots by them.
"We've basically stripped out the overwhelming pressure feature," says Rutter, "where we'd launch defenders up the pitch like homing missiles. We've replaced that with a situation where defenders shepherd attackers into an indefensible position, as would happen in a real-life game."
The feature which makes the most notable difference to the on-pitch action is the game's new player impact engine. In the past, when players collided, there was the chance the game's animation would cause them to meld with one another, making them briefly resemble Siamese twins. The impact engine puts paid to that and then some; now when tackled, players tumble over and their momentum and size play huge factors in how they're sent sprawling, and whether or not they wind up injured.
From some hands-on time, however, the jury's still out on whether or not the impact engine could benefit from some fine tuning. If it's an accepted truth that in real-life most football players will tumble to the ground when the player closest to them breathes in their general direction, FIFA 12's impact engine looks like it might act as some sort of long overdue vindication of the spirit of the beautiful game.
Now every second player on the business end of a tackle is sent flying through the air as though they've just trodden on a landmine. A scything sideways slide tackle on an attacker bombing down the left wing in one instance, caused the tackled player to do a 720-degree front flip and land face-first in the turf.
Further exploration of what players could get away with during the hands-on time with the build of the game available illustrated that EA will probably need to tweak the impact engine further before its release. Players were invariably able to hobble members of the opposing team who didn't have the ball with no objections from the the in-game referee, and after a while, body-checking became the new way to tackle. Even if the match regulator is improved enough to compensate for the deviousness of players, there are likely to be some pretty spectacular and hilarious clips of tackles making their way to YouTube in September.
Away from the on-the-pitch action, there's the EA Sports Football Club, a large connected community where players can contribute to the success of the club they support. Players earn XP by competing against other players but their actions also benefit the club they've pledged allegiance to and this is averaged out over all the other players online who support the same team.
"The system means we get an average sense of the skill and dedication of the fans of a particular club," Rutter explains. "That's then compared against all the other clubs and the best teams in the league will be promoted while the bottom teams will be relegated."
"You could end up with a situation where, based on the skill and dedication of the fans of any team, Leicester City fans may get a message saying their club is about to get relegated if they don't get involved. So they then can make the decision to play more FIFA and save Leicester... or not."
Fortunately, the EA Sports Club is all about the club fans support in real life, rather than the team they prefer to play with in FIFA 12. Leicester City fans, for example are able to play with any club in order to help their beloved Foxes in the league table. The Sports Club is also bolstered with scenarios and live challenges, similar to the Scenario Mode in FIFA World Cup 2010 in that they follow real-world storylines. However, these will be season-long features and will be available to players at no additional cost.
Then there's Career Mode which follows the rubric laid out in FIFA 11, in which players can choose between being a player, a manager or a player/manager. Scouting has received a bit of a tweak; players can dispatch scouts to regions around the world to look at potential stars - as in previous FIFA titles - and receive reports that certain potential stars are worth a second look. If, however, they act on this information, other clubs will be alerted to their interest and may start targeting players they've scouted.
Career Mode has also gone to some lengths to reflect the absolutely insane amounts of furore that accompany the closure of transfer windows.
"Transfer deadline day is now a very big deal," says Rutter. "We've increased the fidelity and kind of timing involved in that, so now you have eight advances in there rather than just the one. You can have multiple backwards and forwards between the clubs and players. We're tracking all the information about who's being sold and to whom, so the player has a dynamic report telling them who's in and who's out."
Another new financial feature in Career Mode is the ability to blur the lines between the wage and transfer budgets. In previous years, the two were completely separate. This year, however, players will be able to behave exactly as a real football club would by using part of their wage budget to pay a transfer fee for incoming players.
Between the new on-pitch action and the tweaks and tucks to the online and Career modes, FIFA 12 is looking very respectable. To call it a complete overhaul at this stage would be stretching it, and it's clear that it'll probably need some fine tuning before its release date. But like fashion and like Facebook, it continues to be refined and improved and, while it doesn't diminish what has gone before it, it feels impossible to go back to the earlier iterations. Just watch out for those flying players this autumn...