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Fifa 13 [Preview] – Hands-on with EA’s latest

29 May 2012  by   John Robertson
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A few weeks ago, our first look at Fifa 13 suggested that Attacking Intelligence, the game’s new system for encouraging smarter AI on the offensive, was to be this year’s biggest addition. It turns out, however, that it’s another of EA Sports’ new additions that’s the real game-changer.

That system is called First Touch Control, and – no word of exaggeration – it completely redefines how you approach a game of Fifa.

It’s a system that calculates a player’s likelihood of being able to bring the ball perfectly under control. In previous installments of EA’s annual football franchise, every man on the pitch had a quite extraordinary skill: the ability to take down a long ball played from 50 yards away, with the power of a raging bull, with a single flick of the toe. But EA noticed that this wasn’t realistic. So now, a whole range of variables come into play.

How skilled is the player in question? Are there any opposing players putting him off? What kind of pass was played through, and what does that mean in terms of controlling the ball? The answers to all of these questions are run through the developer’s super-magic processing machine, and the result will either see you turn your possession into something useful, catastrophically mess up an opportunity, or – more likely – something in between.

When EA first touted the new First Touch Control system, I was a little sceptical: doesn’t this air of unpredictability remove much of the player’s own skill? Having spent a whole day in the company of Fifa 13, my worries have been alleviated. In fact, it simply changes it into a different kind of proficiency. Now, Fifa is all about perfecting the balance between risk and reward. It’s a cerebral challenge, forcing you to think carefully about the players on the pitch, as well as forming a detailed situational awareness. In short, it makes you think like a footballer.

Even a world class player is going to struggle to take down a difficult ball when surrounded by a group of defenders, or when the keeper is charging out to challenge for the ball. The lone striker of a League 2 side, then, is going to struggle nine times out of ten.

To begin with, it’s a little frustrating. You can play an inch-perfect ball over the top, then lose possession through no fault of your own. Quickly, however, you start allowing for this possibility. You begin to look for other options. You weigh up the potential benefits of playing that risky pass against the things that might go wrong: squandering a great chance to take the lead, or giving the opposition a chance to hit you with a pacey counter-attack when the score’s one-all and there are only ten minutes left on the clock.

Perhaps even more significantly, the tendency towards these errors completely opens up the play, in a way that’s far more reminiscent of the English game especially. Slow, considered build-ups become frantic dashes as both teams strive to make the most out of a situation neither side predicted. Attacks break down, defenders make errors under pressure, and both sides have the opportunity to win back – and utilise – possession within seconds.

Clutter around the ball becomes rare. Play spreads out across the pitch, and a suddenly loose ball can become an opportunity at any time. It’s nail-biting stuff, full of all the tension that makes the sport so wonderful.

This is all sounding dangerously close to a big and bombastic PR document, so let’s tone things back a bit. I do have some concerns. In multiplayer the system works perfectly, but against the AI, there’s sometimes the feeling that things are a little too decisive as far as the opposition goes. Opposing players still struggle to take the ball down with accuracy as much as you do, but it’s a computer deciding which are the best balls to play, and relying on AI to convincingly mimic second-by-second playmaking decisions is going to be a tough thing to get right.

There are a few other worries. The officials, at this stage, are interesting. Specifically, they make quite a few bad calls. We’d been warned to expect a lot of offsides in this build, thanks to attackers making more decisive runs, but they mainly seemed to occur thanks to flags being waved when attackers were level with the defensive line, not behind it.
A few nasty fouls went unpunished, too, while seemingly innocuous challenges led to yellow cards. The sense of referees making real human errors is actually quite effective in replicating the unpredictability of football. But, of course, it’s always going to be difficult getting the balance right: how do you have referees make bad calls without simply making the game unfair? There have been hints that referees will appear more ‘human’ in their decision-making in the final game, though an EA representative warned us that, at this stage in development, a lot of the decisions simply are the wrong ones, and this sort of stuff should get ironed out.

Elsewhere, it’s slightly disappointing to learn that there’s no noticeable graphical improvement over Fifa 12. Perhaps we’re reaching the stage this console generation where we’ve pushed things as far as they can – or need to – go in terms of a sports game. Nevertheless, when you’re iterating a product year after year, a quick lick of paint is one of the obvious measures of improvement – so to see a bit more evidence of one would have been nice.

Where things do look a bit better is in the physical nature of football, with the Player Impact Engine having received a bit of tweaking for this new Fifa. Last year’s introduction of the new physics engine was impressive, but saw some slightly odd animations as players stumbled around each other, or got locked into slightly compromising positions – ones we usually only know of them being in when it’s reported in the tabloids.

This time out, things are a lot more convincing, but the result is brutal. During my time with the game, there were at least three or four tackles which really should have left someone writhing in agony on the floor – but they were technically legal challenges, the ball played first, and no one seemed to flinch. There was a nasty case of studs to the groin, which again no one seemed to care about. It looks great – properly convincing at times – but that there seems to be no real after-effect to this physical nastiness means it loses some of its authenticity.

And, of course, there’s Attacking Intelligence – the new system that aims to address the balance between attack and defence, providing you with more options as you fly forward on the offensive. It’s shaping up to be promising, although it’s clearly not quite ready yet. Strikers are a little over-eager at times, setting off on ambitious runs that aren’t likely to lead anywhere, or sometimes hanging back a little too long, frustrating you by not making those important moves.

It’s in the little, unexpected moments that the system impresses, though: a smart little shimmy around a defender, a curved run to stay on-side, and all sorts of other miniscule moments of intelligent flair that the AI impresses with. If this is tightened up by the time the game releases in the Autumn, it could be a game-changer on a similar level to First Touch Control. It’ll certainly combine exquisitely with it.

In fact, it’s the little touches that impress across the board. One game saw an off-the ball incident, where one player “accidentally” tripped another 15 metres away from play, which led to a yellow card. Another time, Frank Lampard ran clear through on goal, then stumbled, pulled up, hopping around for a while. He quickly hobbled his way off the pitch. A pulled hamstring.

These minor details make the game feel so much more alive. EA are aiming to “capture the unpredictability of football” – and these early signs suggest they know exactly how to do so.
The build we spent time with was, of course, a very early one. There were plenty of freezes and crashes, which is to be expected of a game at this stage in development. But even now, this is a hugely impressive football simulation, one that takes last year’s important changes and incorporates them into a game that feels considerably more convincing than Fifa ever has before. As the conclusion to the 2011/12 season demonstrated, you can never guess what’s going to happen in football: all you can do is try to plan for everything that might.

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