Sometimes drastic changes happen without people even realizing it.
A few years ago, Pro Evolution Soccer (PES, or Winning Eleven) was the de facto king of the soccer genre. Its reign was long as it was lopsided, and EA’s FIFA title languished in both of sales and quality.
Then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, there was a wholesale shift in the soccer market, and FIFA became king. Now, with the release of FIFA ’13, the team at EA Canada looks to continue their stranglehold on the soccer gaming market. Is this the year the most popular sports game in the world comes back down to Earth?
In short: no. EA Canada has not rested on their laurels. The improvements to this year’s on-pitch game are, like in many sports games, nips and tucks to different parts of the gameplay engine. The physics model introduced in FIFA ’11 has been refined even further, and many of the quirks introduced in real-time collision modeling have been smoothed into a package that augments the game in a barely noticeable way. It feels wholly natural, like it’s been in the game since its inception. You’ll see players trip over each other, stumble, and fall in a realistic way without the weightlessness that permeates so many real-time physics engines. There’s very little “ragdolling” happening here.
The ball physics have also been tweaked again, this time to make the ball more “live” and loose. Difficult passes have to be corralled in with multiple touches, and lesser-skilled players will often fumble away the ball in traffic, widening the gulf between the superstar and the average player. Jumping from a low-tier MLS team to Manchester City feels as it should, with the more skilled team being demonstrably easier to control and play as. This is something I hope extends to EA’s other major franchises, as player differentiation has been something that is sorely lacking in games like Madden NFL and NCAA Football.
The Career modes have seen a facelift ala EA’s other sports releases this year (save NCAA), with the single player Be A Pro integrated into the larger Manager Mode. Now, you can play as a created or real player and play as that player only for as long as you choose. It’s simple to retire or switch from player to Manager, and you can even use your created footballer as a manager after retiring. New this year is the inclusion of Internationals. As a manager, you can gain enough fame to become the manager of your country’s team and take them through the World Cup, or as a player you can earn the honor to don the colors of your home country as they battle 31 other countries for the coveted golden cup. It’s legitimately difficult to earn these privileges, as it should be. To actually be called up for the international competitions is an accomplishment, and players will feel a sense of arrival upon having their name called. The career modes still have the requisite transfers, loans, and other player movement, but the market value of players is now better determined and more realistic.
Playing as a single player in what was once Be A Pro is tremendous. Subtle UI hints directing you for positioning, or letting you know when you’re offside ensure that you maintain a high match rating, and the dynamic camera angle makes the action easy to follow and intense with equal aplomb. When making a hard run on goal, the camera will zoom in behind you in a Gears of War-style moment for whatever dramatic action you take. In regular play, the camera swivels nicely to keep both your player and the action in focus, allowing you to have a handle on what’s going on on the pitch. This is a departure from the poor work I saw in Madden NFL ’13, which utilized the game’s normal camera angle and didn’t give any special treatment to your player.
If you’re a new player to the series, I highly recommend the FIFA ’13 skill games, another new addition for this year. They are organized into 8 different categories ranging from dribbling to crosses, and players are tested in numerous drills that tangibly improve your skill as a FIFA player. The challenges are tough but fair, even if the scoring is sometimes obtuse.
FIFA is, I believe, the only sports game on the market that offers multiple announce teams, and it’s a marvel. There are two different English-speaking crews, as well as Spanish and French announce teams. Protip: change the language of the announcers to match the country you’re playing in, if possible. It’s a very cool little touch.
Unfortunately, no sports game is without its problems, and FIFA’s primary problem is the same one it’s been for years: fouls. Simply put, there aren’t enough, and the ones that are called are wildly inconsistent. I’ve seen players get pulled down in the box with no call while some players bumped on an attempted header draw fouls. It’s maddening, and there are no sliders to adjust the foul calls that I’ve seen. It makes the adjustments to the free kicks far less important, since there are so few of them experienced in the game. I understand EA Canada wanting to keep the game open and free, but players need to be able to have the option to make this aspect of the game more realistic. Knowing that I can basically barrel into people without drawing fouls or cards makes playing defense far less tense, and not being able to draw fouls on offense makes that side of the ball frustrating at times. For other parts of the game to be so well-balanced while fouls remain an issue is not something I can understand.
Regardless of the long-standing issues with fouls, FIFA ’13 remains on top of the sports gaming world. Improvements like ball physics and more intelligent transfers cater to longtime users of the series, while a thoughtful and robust training system (via the skill games) allows players new to the series to learn the beautiful game in a low-pressure way. There’s a ton to do in FIFA, from the new integrated career modes, to the venerable Ultimate Team and Football Club which give players a variety of ways to build their team and interact with the game. These ancillary modes would be worthless if the on-pitch gameplay didn’t hold up, but it thankfully does, and then some. It’s another victory for EA Canada.
A copy of FIFA ’13 for the Xbox 360 was provided by EA Sports for the purposes of this review