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.
Tackling and defending are also far more difficult thanks to the precision dribbling mechanic and what seems to be an improved AI. Harried attackers will turn away from oncoming threats, covering the ball with their bodies or threading it through to teammates running into space.
Tactical defending and jockeying compensate for this somewhat. There's a face button for causing defenders to shoulder or grab the shirt of the player they're trying to close down, although it's worth tempering the use of this feature, as hammering it consistently will prompt the ref to blow for a foul. Then there's the handy 'contain' feature, which sends the closest AI-controlled defender to cover the player with the ball, meaning that you don't need to constantly switch between players to break up an attacking threat in the box.
The new defending system will be jarring for players who used to rely on holding the two 'pressing' buttons to close down opposition attackers, although ultimately it forces you to adopt more realistic defensive behaviour. (And if you really, really hate it, you can switch to the old system through the menus.)
Away from the pitch, FIFA 12 feels robust and streamlined at the same time. The menus are less fiddly and loading times have been shortened considerably. FIFA 12's Career Mode, which once again bundles the choice of being a player, a manager or a player/manager into one neat package, is a huge improvement over last year's model. The transfers system is both easier and more fun to use and feels a lot closer to the dramatic reality than in previous iterations.
Manager and club star-ratings work in tandem in the transfer market; if you manage Manchester United, for example, don't need above a two-star manager rating to attract good players to your five-star club. You can also use your transfer budget and wage budgets interchangeably, giving you more money to sling around in the transfer window. The fantasy football element has been reduced somewhat, although the odd big buy is still possible and the AI still tries it on occasionally (£6,000,000 for Thomas Vermaelan? Pffft!).
You can choose to 'stall' deals rather than being forced to decline or accept huge offers for your best players right off the bat, and this can prove an absolute boon. Managers also receive missives from players who feel they aren't getting enough time on the pitch, and can make the decision to give them more playing time or bench them, which will have an effect on their morale and whether they announce to the press that they wish to leave.
Transfer deadline day is a far more dramatic component in this year's release too. The brief, one button-tap experience of ending the transfer window has now been drawn out to an eight-stage advance countdown. As the window to buy or sell players closes, you can use the in-game news to keep track of which players are coming on the market, which clubs are picking up new talent and how much money is being spent. The effect of watching the transfer window close is quite dramatic and fun.
Elsewhere, the fan service from last year is still in place and largely unchanged. The creation centre, ability to edit teams and players, import your own music and chants and replay and upload your finest moments on the pitch are there if you want them.
Graphically, FIFA 12 looks absolutely solid. Players look more like their real-world counterparts than ever, though the crowd in the stands is still a blurred mob. The soundtrack is as exact as in previous years, although Andy Gray is no longer doing commentary - players instead have a choice between Martin Tyler and Alan Smith or Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend depending on the context of the fixture.
The changes to commentary may have been forced by circumstance, of course, but the majority of FIFA 12's considerable updates to gameplay were not. The point of evolution is to improve in order to adapt and dominate one's environment, and FIFA 12 has done this - it keeps the best elements of FIFA 11 and builds on these already impressive foundations. The changes to the gameplay may not suit all players initially, but then evolution isn't always painless.
What it is, though, is a step forward, and after playing FIFA 12, going back to previous entries in the series seems almost unimaginable. It's another step closer to reality, and this time it's a very welcome one.
9 / 10