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FIFA 13 Preview: "The referee's a w*nker!"

Kinect and Skill Games make up a FIFA that's all about the unpredictable.

As the end of this console generation approaches, life seems pretty rosy for the FIFA team. Widely regarded as having outplayed its competition not only commercially but also in quality in recent years, building a commanding lead in the process, complacency is as big a threat as whatever Konami comes up with next.

The pressure of maintaining a hard-earned 90 Metacritic rating, always the pet obsession of EA's Peter Moore, ought to be enough to dispel any likelihood of that. And, as is traditional, the team is boasting of more game-changing features for this season's update when I poke my head inside its Vancouver dressing room this month.

They're obliged by the marketing department to peddle that line every year, of course, but there are a few good reasons at this stage to believe FIFA will raise its game again in 13. The focus this year is captured in a Mourinho quote producer Nick Channon flags up: "One of the great things about football is that it is unpredictable".

It's been a few years in the making, seen in advances such as FIFA 12's Player Impact Engine. This is now being extended by what Channon grandly claims is "one of the biggest changes we've ever made to FIFA": first-touch control.

Skill Games are a surprisingly excellent addition, addictive in their own right and a smart way to master the subtleties of the game.

This is all to do with the way the player interacts with the ball as it comes to him. Rather than sticking perfectly to his feet, it might, for instance, bounce up awkwardly and off the player's chest. It is, in other words, unpredictable. But not random: it's contextual and determined by the player's stats.

"It makes the game way more realistic and has a huge impact in a positive manner," insists Channon. "Just by making the ball separate from the foot gives so many opportunities."

In addition, overhauls to attacking intelligence - so AI players now think several passes ahead, "not just about who's got the ball, but who might get the ball" and complete dribbling - "we wanted everyone to feel like they could be a hero" - comprise the major tweaks to the core FIFA experience. "What we're seeing is you're scoring goals you've never seen before because people are in different positions," says Channon, admitting: "At times [FIFA 12] could be a little bit predictable."

There's also a new mode in the form of Skill Games, created to address the issue that many FIFA players remain unaware of much of the game's depth. It's a set of mini-games teaching the basics of crossing, free kicks, dribbling, shooting, penalties and the like, with each building into brutal challenges that should tax even experienced players, with points-based leaderboards chucked in to fuel competition.

Activities include crossing balls onto targets, kicking them into rubbish bins, dribbling around poles and conducting manual passing drills. All of which sounds duller than Alan Shearer on paper, but proves to be compelling, addictive (and rock hard) in practice thanks to the subtleties of FIFA's control system.

It is, says gameplay producer Aaron McHardy, "a playground to practice your skills in", and in terms of development is actually an extension of the work done in building the impact engine.

With Redknapp out and AVB in, Spurs have now inked a deal with EA to join teams including bitter rivals Arsenal as an official partner. Which basically means better in-game heads.

"I think what the Skill Games will do is get you to know everything," adds Channon. "The game is so much better when you know everything."

Meanwhile, internationals have been added to Career Mode, bringing the Euros, the World Cup, the Confederations Cup, friendlies, qualifiers and more, with presentation reworked to milk the pride real players always used to feel when pulling on their country's shirt, before they all turned into grasping mercenaries.

And for managers, the transfer system has been substantially reworked. A player's value now takes into account factors including their perceived worth to a club, age, how well they're playing and how long is left on their contract. This should reduce the "churn in big players", as clubs will be less likely to lose their talisman.

Elsewhere, in negotiations it's now possible to specify expectations for a player, luring them with the promise they will be a vital first team player, or if they should expect to be on rotation. And there are various tweaks to Football Club, which Channon calls the "heartbeat" of the FIFA experience across all platforms, with your level carried over from FIFA 12 to keep it a persistent experience.

It's hardly unusual to hear people bellowing "f*** you!" and "sh*t!" at the telly while playing FIFA. The difference this time is the game's listening.

Kinect comes to EA's football giant this year and, wisely opting not to shoehorn in any clumsy motion-control support, the team has focused instead on talking a good game. And it's had a bit of fun in the process, turning our frustrated effing and blinding into a gameplay feature.

Internationals come to Career Mode in FIFA 13, allowing you to proudly represent your nation instead of pretending to care about the embarrassing Team GB Olympics farce.

"Whenever we add something to the game we want it to be game-enhancing," says Channon, who has moved into the hotseat for 13 as 'Dangerous' Dave Rutter, having steered the series to huge critical success this gen, moved upstairs.

"When we looked at Kinect, we felt for our game the best use of it was for voice." Which is a polite way of saying Microsoft's posh webcam would be rubbish for actual gameplay.

EA's thinking here, a developer tells me during a demo, was simply "to keep the user in the game", making as many of the pause menu options voice-activated as possible. Substitutions can be made on the fly with a few simple commands; tactics, mentality and formation can be switched; and you can also alter the view with a quick bark of "Change camera. Dynamic" or "Broadcast".

You can go deeper with combo commands that serve as tactical shortcuts. I'm given a couple of examples: "Take it to the corners" switches the tactic, mentality and formation simultaneously to appropriate settings; "Hard five minutes" instructs your team to play the offside trap and adopt an ultra-defensive mentality, while keeping the formation the same. This is all customisable, so you can set it up as you see fit.

In Be A Pro there's also a limited set of commands to shout at teammates, such as "pass it", "cross it" and "shoot". It's context-sensitive, too, so a player won't automatically respond to "pass it" if there isn't a good opportunity to.

And then there's the swearing. In the main presentation EA is at pains to point out that you won't get carded for calling the ref a c***. I discover later that this was the original plan, but it didn't make sense in the context of a match: how would the ref choose which player to caution?

For armchair managers, the transfer system has been overhauled so it's now concerned with more real world factors rather than solely focused on an abstract price.

Instead, Kinect listens for expletives at key moments, e.g. just after a foul, and keeps a count. Hit the limit for the ref (it varies) and he'll become more strict against your side, or more lenient towards the opposition. If you're a manager, it will also be worked into the post-match narrative, the board questioning your temperament, and even sacking you if you mouth-off too much.

EA isn't saying which words will register - "we can't put it in the manual - that would get us in a lot of trouble," I'm told - but, interestingly, all phrases will be localised, even within the English-speaking world, with variations for Scotland, Ireland and so on, all the way from "wanker" to "welly it!" Against all expectations, then, it looks like Kinect may have a useful role to play in FIFA.

There are no penalties for profanity on PS3, but there is Move support. EA says it isn't ready to talk about that yet - a Gamescom reveal seems likely - but it's there in the menus of the PS3 code I play, which indicates the game will be fully playable with Sony's motion controller, with buttons for standard moves, gestures for Skill Moves and the ability to man mark and send players on the run with a point and pull of the trigger.

"This year has been a huge leap forward gameplay wise," argues Channon. Again, he would say that, and while FIFA 13 may not initially feel like a great advance on last year's already excellent instalment, it does, crucially, feel like a good one. Certainly, it doesn't take long to appreciate the difference the changes to attacking AI and first-touch make. And, appetite well and truly whetted, I can see myself sinking many hours into the Skill Games alone.

The nature of the FIFA beast means, as always, it'll take considerable match time to see how well all the ingredients work together in the final mix. And with signs that Konami is upping its game, this season's title race is no foregone conclusion. But at this stage in the build-up to kick-off, the favourites are looking in great shape.

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Johnny Minkley


Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.