I've been knocking a virtual football around a preview build of FIFA 22 on PlayStation 5 this week, and I have to say the gameplay has impressed me.
EA Sports, as it often does, has come up with marketing buzzwords to slap on new gameplay features. This year, for FIFA 22 on PS5 and Xbox Series X and S (but not last-gen console or PC, much to the annoyance of PC gamers), it's HyperMotion, which sounds a bit like a Ubisoft free-to-play shooter.
HyperMotion is two things, really, each with their own buzzword titles: Xsens and ML - Flow. EA Sports motion captured an actual 11v11 match, with each real-life player wearing an Xsens suit. The idea was to get better, more realistic, more energetic animations in the game. ML - Flow is the machine learning part of HyperMotion. It works out in real-time how to animate better based on all the data fed into it.
What's the upshot of all this for FIFA 22 gameplay? I noticed the change the most in the animations, which EA Sports said would be the case during a recent preview event I attended. There are more animations - 4000 to be exact - and I think many have gone into the way players control the ball. You'll see a player take multiple ball touches in the same animation as they transition from first touch to second touch and then move away. It feels fluid and is certainly easy on the eye.
Beyond that, though, I didn't notice much impact gameplay that was labelled next-gen exclusive. Curiously, it was some of the improvements made to the game across platforms (except Nintendo Switch - sorry!) that stood out instead.
During the preview event, lead gameplay producer Sam Rivera ran through the changes made to FIFA 22 gameplay on last-gen as well as current-gen, and they are felt keenly on PS5. The first improvement I noticed was to goalkeepers. They're better - they make more point blank saves, they're better in one-on-ones, and they tend not to parry shots away, rather scoop up loose balls they've knocked to the ground - as goalkeepers tend to do. There are more variety to saves, too, with that reach with the trailing arm a welcome addition. EA Sports has done good work with the goalkeepers this year, that's for sure.
The ball feels more realistic, too. It's not quite up there with the wonder that is PES' virtual football, but it's better! What you notice is the lofted switch from side to side is more effective and satisfying to pull off. The ball moves in realistic trajectories as you do this, with the player on the wing moving into space to receive it. Generally, there is more room on the wings in FIFA 22, although I suspect tactics and formations will develop to counter this strategy as the meta takes shape upon release.
FIFA 21 was a bit of a goalfest upon launch, and FIFA 22 feels like it's toned this down. As is always the case with preview builds, it's hard to make sweeping judgments about how the game will play throughout the course of its fleeting, year-long life, but my early impression is EA Sports put a squeeze on the goal count this time around. This is probably a good thing, although I miss the silly basketball scores of last year's game. I still can't score a header for love nor money.
I realise that in talking about FIFA 22 next-gen, I'm talking up FIFA 22 on current-gen, despite having not played that version of the game. EA Sports, though, talks up FIFA 22 next-gen in a more definitive way. "This is the first true year we've had the opportunity to build on this new generation of consoles," Matt Lefreniere, line producer FIFA 22, said. "Our teams in Vancouver, Canada and Bucharest, Romania have worked tirelessly over the past 12 months to build amazing new experiences and new technologies that harness the power of these new platforms."
Lefreniere added: "These experiences and technologies will serve as the foundation for the future of FIFA over the next five to 10 years. It truly is an exciting time for all of us within the FIFA family."
The suggestion here is FIFA 22 kicks off a new generation of the series, that EA is laying the groundwork for the next decade of the franchise. There's a lot of marketing doublespeak in those quotes. Truly, what is in FIFA 22 that can't be done on PlayStation 4? I'm mindful, as I write this preview, that I have played a version of the game that won't come anywhere close to being the most popular version this year. The install base of the PS5 and Xbox Series X and S is dwarfed by the mammoth install base of the PS4, Xbox One and PC. I have not yet played the version of FIFA 22 most will.
Rivera, though, is insistent that FIFA 22's next-gen exclusive gameplay features are legit. "In the previous generation of consoles, we were hitting that ceiling, and it becomes very hard to continue implementing big features," he said.
"With the power of the new generation of consoles, now we have more cycles, more and more memory - in other words, more computing power and more storage, which allows us to expand in our technologies and our features with the intention to improve the four different pillars that we have in gameplay, which is visual fidelity, responsiveness, football variety, and football depth."
Either way, FIFA 22 looks, feels and plays nice on the pitch. It doesn't feel too fast or too slow. It feels responsive enough. I like the new animation work. I love the way players control the ball. And I'm having a lot of fun pinging the ball from side to side, as if every player on my team is doing a David Beckham impression.
FIFA 22's problems, I suspect, won't be on the virtual pitch. They will be off the virtual pitch, and here I have many unanswered questions.
Of course Ultimate Team remains, but will it be significantly changed in response to increasing pressure from governments and authorities worldwide over its loot box design? Will EA Sports change its billion dollar a year cash cow so that it is not pay-to-win, as it is now? Will it retain the preview pack experiment that's still running during the dying embers of FIFA 21? Will it ditch loot boxes entirely, going full pelt for a battle pass system? I do not know the answers to these questions yet. EA has yet to say.
There's a lot to like about the work the developers at EA Sports are doing to improve FIFA 22's gameplay. Gameplay down the years hasn't always been great. At times it's been poor. But I do believe the developers are doing their best, within the constraints of an annual publishing schedule and all that means for scope, to create the best football sim they can. The problem is, FIFA is about so much more than what goes on the virtual football pitch.