FIFA played the underdog to rival football series Pro Evolution Soccer for a long time, but in the last few years it has widely come to be regarded as the pace-setter in the genre. FIFA rose to the top of the league by subtly tweaking its game to closer resemble the way PES 'did' football, while layering its own mix of official licences and some excellent gameplay innovations over the top to create a match winner.
But rather than play it safe and simply add the expected level of polish to its latest annual release, developer EA has opted to challenge some of the conventions that football games have followed over the last decade, resulting in one of the most significant FIFA updates in years.
On the surface the game is quite similar to last year's effort, which is no bad thing. It looks and sounds gorgeous, with great attention to authenticity. Player likeness is better than it was in FIFA 2011, the stadiums are accurately recreated and the atmosphere inside them feels like it should on a match day. The commentary, provided by Clive Tyldesly, Andy Townsend, Martin Tyler and Alan Smith, is varied and largely reactive to what's happening on the field, even if there are still a few odd one liners delivered at inappropriate times.
The biggest changes are apparent on the pitch, where FIFA 12's new physics engine gives a realistic feel to every contact. Players' body parts react to collisions depending on the position, direction and force of the impact, making tussles more tactical and tumbles more realistic, meaning you have to mix up play and cleverly work around obstacles.
Going shoulder to shoulder with an opponent or being caught by a trailing leg will put you off your stride, alter your direction or leave you on the deck. Generally the collision detection works brilliantly, although if you've watched any FIFA 12 videos on YouTube you'll know it can result in some comedy moments as players trip over their own teammates, accidently collide off the ball, or occasionally flop around all over the place like a fish out of water following contact.
Defending is tougher than in FIFA 11, with as much focus placed on positioning and intercepting passes as tackling. You no longer simply hold down a button to have your player home in on the ball. Instead, you guide your man towards the opponent with the ball using the analogue stick and the pair of them jostle for possession automatically. Fail to gain it this way and you'll need good timing to perform successful standing or sliding tackles.
You can also hold down a button in an attempt to contain an opponent with the ball, prompting your player to keep their distance from the attacker, while holding the left trigger sees you run alongside them, mirroring their every move and enabling you to attempt to shepherd them away from dangerous positions.
The knock-on effect is that it's easier to dribble with the ball, with players displaying better control in tight spaces, making it even tougher to stop the likes of Ronaldo and Messi and ensuring there's plenty of open attacking football. It's a little easier to score one-on-ones too, so few of our games have ended with clean sheets.
How you perform is measured in plenty of ways, whether playing solo, against others in friendly or competitive games, or even in the updated Career mode, which encompasses managers, players and player managers. You earn experience points for every match played and level up to build status, which can be compared against others on the web and though social networks like Facebook. There are even weekly challenges inspired by real world events, such as playing as Chelsea and attempting to overcome a 3-1 deficit with 40 minutes to go, something the London club failed to achieve a few weeks back.
The new features build on a solid base from last year to deliver a comprehensive, up-to-the-minute experience that should feel fresh all year round. With ultra-slick presentation layered over tactically deep, rewarding gameplay, FIFA 12 is a football fan's dream of a game.
+ Another vintage year for FIFA.
+ Lovely presentation.
+ Varied gameplay modes and stat-tracking.
- Collisions can create comedy moments.
- Commentary might still be improved.
- Management mode could be deeper.