The thing about FIFA 13 is that, even with EA’s server reliability and a plethora of game crashes doing their best to dampen the spirits of everybody playing, this year’s iteration of the footballing titan is the most able to keep those frustrations in check. It’s getting to the stage where the variety on offer within its labyrinthine menus (annoyingly re-designed yet again) pretty much covers football fans and gamers of any persuasion and situation. Multiple friends online? Jump into pro clubs. Just the two of you? Join up in co-op or take on each other in your own tracked mini-league. On your own? Work on your online pro, take on the world in seasons mode or wheel and deal in the auction house for your ultimate team. Servers down or internet not working? Play in career mode as a manager or player, unlock items from the catalogue or practice your trade in any of the new skill games.
It is, by all accounts, a ridiculous bevy of riches, and one born from the brave decision to switch to an entirely new engine back with FIFA 07 and simply iterate and build content every year. To the passer-by, FIFA 13 might not look a whole lot different to the well-received FIFA 12, but for those of us with an obsession for football games, 13 is simply the strongest, least frustrating and most feature-rich sports simulation to grace this generation. It is, by extension, still a good distance in front of Konami’s resurgent PES 2013, but as we’ve covered in a separate review, there’s no single good reason to ignore that franchise either. Between them both, I’d wager that 2012-2013 is probably the best time to have been a football fan in the history of the medium (the majesty of Kevin Tom’s Football Manager and Ocean’s Matchday II on the Amstrad notwithstanding).
So what exactly does FIFA 13 do better than last year? Again, the emphasis is on smaller tweaks and additions, but as per the very best sports releases, they’re adjustments that change the way you address the action and immerse you into the simulation better than ever before.
Perhaps the most noticeable introduction is that of a stats and physics-based first touch simulation. No longer can players like John Terry bring down a 50-yard pass with the same precision as that of a Santi Cazorla, and unless you have a basic working knowledge as to how each specific player would likely react in real life, the ball may well end up pinging its way off a shin or a thigh at a trajectory that would put an Emile Heskey shot to utter shame. Ease up off the left stick, slow down your player and take your finger off the sprint button. Those same donkeys will be able to bring the ball under control, but at the cost of precious time as marauding attackers close them down.
In short, that seemingly tiny alteration makes FIFA a whole lot more like real football, and a heck of a lot more frustrating until you adjust to that new way of thinking. Firing a low pass into Robin Van Persie might mean you’re able to bring the ball down and fire off a shot before a defender has gotten his footing, but pinging the ball in at pace to somebody like Peter Crouch requires a heck of a lot more time and space. On the flip side of that, the physics-based joys of the impact engine are extended to a huge range of physical confrontations this year, meaning that players like Hulk or Ibrahimovic can shield the ball effectively and out-muscle defenders instead. Much like PES 2013, you have to play to the style of your players in order to win against decent competition in FIFA, and that’s a joyous thing once you’ve gotten your head wrapped around it.
Elsewhere on the pitch, further tweaks to the physics and control systems make for a far more deadly midfield game. Long-range shooting is finally a viable tactic provided you’re rifling a shot with a Gerrard or a Ronaldo, with the ball trajectory flattened and sped up to closer match the sorts of ridiculous power that we now see routinely in the modern game. Close control has been enhanced to allow players like Messi or Xavi to ‘face up’ and roll the ball around to draw a foul or make space for a pass or quick drop of the shoulder to ghost past their opposition, whilst goalkeepers are now able to react quicker after making an initial save, allowing for the sorts of double and triple-stops that ‘keepers like Valdes and Friedel have become known for.
There are myriad other tweaks too, such as more precise control over crosses; the ability to shield the ball out of play; quick free kicks and throw-ins extended all over the pitch; and a greater variety of tactical options at set-plays, most of which are discoverable via the brand-new practice games that teach basic mechanics through to advanced topics like manual shooting. Taking a queue from Virtua Tennis, those quick-set activities pop up whilst any offline game is loading (or can be freely accessed from a separate menu item), with each offering a brief tutorial challenge and a final score with which to compare against friendly competition. They’re a genuinely useful addition for newcomers and veterans alike, and form just one of roughly a million ways in which FIFA 13 integrates itself into your online routine.
Indeed if there are two areas in which the EA series can justifiably walk away without any competition in sight this year, it’s that of online functionality and community features. From the XP-based levelling system with its accompanying catalogue of classic kits and bonuses, through to ‘game of the week’, ultimate team, challenges, pro clubs and representing your real-life team on global leaderboards, there are few games that fully cater to their community quite like this. It’s an embarrassment of riches for any football fan, and one that ensures there’s always something to aim for, or a new mode to investigate and delve into whenever you need a change. Thanks to the variety on the pitch this time round, each of those leads to genuinely interesting experiences and further lessons to be learned, and it’s becoming a joy to plunder them all.
As you might expect for something that broad however, there are - of course - kinks to work through and slight annoyances to adjust to in FIFA 13, but this time around they’re more minute than ever. Server reliability is still under the microscope as it’s somewhat of a lottery as to whether you can connect to EA’s online functionality at present, but anybody that suffered the month-long launch issues for pro clubs in FIFA 11 or the patchy connectivity in 12 will recognise that huge strides have been made - even if it has to be noted that those problems still exist in some capacity. Game freezes also crop up from time to time, and a bizarre problem exists whereby you can get trapped in the practice arena indefinitely, necessitating an exit from the game unless you want to spend eternity drilling free kicks into a wall in some kind of Jose Mourinho-sponsored purgatory.
Those are, of course patchable problems, and even though everybody I know that has played the game has encountered them to some extent, they’re at a ratio of maybe a single issue per 5-6 hours playing time. We can only review the code in its present state however, so it’s a shame that such niggles still crop up with a regularity that has to be jotted down.
Long range screamers
- Dynamic first touch is brilliant
- Impact Engine physics extended
- Long-range shooting is finally worthwhile
- Mini-games for beginners and veterans
- Network issues around launch
- Occasional freezes and bugs
FIFA 13 Xbox 360
The bottom line however, is that since FIFA 13 landed on my doorstep late last week, it’s been a struggle to play anything else. Even with a high-level ultimate team, over 30 games under my belt in pro clubs, two seasons completed online, gold levels in each of the practice games, a multitude of catalogue unlocks and the basics of my managerial and playing campaigns well under way, I really don’t feel like I’ve scratched the surface as to what’s on offer here. The tweaks, licensing, presentation and AI alterations work in tandem to produce a simulation of the game that’s genuinely compelling, and that - in turn - makes all those long-overlooked game modes so much more appealing. For a series so far into its evolutionary cycle, that’s high praise indeed.
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