By now, the millions of fans who sign up for a new FIFA every year must have grasped the fact that, for the foreseeable future, EA's football sim is all about evolution rather than revolution. Ever since the series began turning things around in FIFA 08 the emphasis has been on bringing the in-game football experience as close to the real thing as possible. Every new feature or tweak focuses on authenticity, and even the reactions and chants of the different stadium crowds are region-specific.
But how close to reality does this game need to be? Elements of realism have the potential to impress, but shouldn't have a negative impact on one of the medium's main draws: wish-fulfilment. A Fulham FC fan's pleasure at recognising a chant from Craven Cottage has to be married to their ability to take the Cottagers all the way to a Champions League final.
The big new features in FIFA 12 that tap into those disparate desires are the new Head To Head Seasons and EA Sports Football Club. The latter is a new online social network, of sorts, with an RPG element attached to it. Players earn XP for everything they do in the game, and those points count towards the position in the FIFA 12 online league of the club they support. It also offers scenarios and live challenges based on real-world instances similar to the Scenario Mode in FIFA World Cup 2010. They're season-long and there's no extra fee to access them.
The position of the player's club of choice in the online league is based on the average skill and dedication of each fan, so it's not just about weight of numbers, and there's a daily XP cap to prevent farming. Fans also don't have to use the club they support to earn XP, so it's possible to help Millwall's progression on the leaderboards by playing with Barcelona.
The new Head To Head Seasons are a more encompassing and expanded take on the game's ranked matches. Players have 10 seasons of 10 games to progress from the lowest division to the highest one, advancing up the ranks by winning points through victories or draws. There are also cup tournament windows that open for each of the different divisions where players can compete for virtual silverware.
They're certainly ambitious features, but at the time of writing it's impossible to judge how much of a draw they're likely to be. Those who play every FIFA to death probably don't need an extra reason to boot up the game and fair-weather fans don't seem to be the sort these features are aimed at. But they're not the be all and end all of FIFA 12's projected success - that depends on how people take to the changes made to the in-game engine.
The on-pitch action has kept much of what was evident in FIFA 11's drive towards authenticity and away from arcade play; passes are still weighted and require more precision, you have more control over headers, and goalkeepers aren't beaten by chipped shots on goal. The larger tweaks and tucks, meanwhile, may cause fans of the last three entries in the franchise some teething problems, at least initially.
For a start, the game's new player impact engine has the same effect on the on-pitch action as a strict referee would. It all feels a little less fluid and scoring goals is a lot more difficult. Barging into the box - at least on difficulty settings above Semi-Pro - is no longer an option.
Slam into a player - be it an opponent or a teammate - and depending on their speed and build, both could end up in a heap on the pitch. This can be leveraged to one side's advantage - it's harder to knock Wayne Rooney off the ball than it is Theo Walcott, for example - and the animations look very realistic indeed. Tackles that result in an injury actually look eye-wateringly painful.
Defenders also work more cohesively as a unit instead of charging out full tilt at oncoming attackers. This means you'll come to rely on the game's new precision dribbling mechanic, which allows players to keep the ball closer to their feet and shield it against opponents. There's a greater amount of control on offer here, and while it takes some time to get used to, if you take the trouble to improve you'll find you have more passing and possession options than simply clearing the ball away when surrounded.