Another year, and, of course, another FIFA game - FIFA 13, to be precise. But publishers EA do their best to ensure that the annual roll-out of the new FIFA game is far from a reliable old staple - they know that they need to evolve the game and keep the it fresh.
Therein lies the challenge. FIFA 12 was, for many, pretty much close to perfect. It introduced a host of new features that improved the gameplay and it was loved by fans and critics alike - even nominated for the BAFTA game of the year. So... how do you improve on this?
Well, the answer could not come at a better time for football fans. After one of the most dramatic conclusions to a Premier League season ever, and the surprising result of the Champions League final, it's almost like it was planned to coincide with EA's declaration that the changes coming in FIFA 13 would capture the "drama and unpredictability of real-world football".
Moving The Goalposts
The big changes to FIFA 12 were largely there to add a sense of continuity, with only Tactical Defending changing how the game was played (and which didn't quite work properly, either, something that's been addressed in FIFA 13). This year's changes are all about the gameplay, stripping away what remains of the arcade-y features and ramping up the realism.
Team tactics now play a bigger part. The new 'Attacking Intelligence' allows AI players to follow the ball's direction, and where the ball is likely to go, and not just where the opposing players are. With smarter off-the-ball running in play, there's a much greater sense that the team is attacking together. That's not to say it'll happen every time - we still found ourselves having to wait for the rest of the team to catch up when taking players on a solo run down the pitch. You have to start playing like a team for the game to do so, too.
Free kicks now come with more added tactics and control. If you're defending, you have greater control over the wall, increasing or decreasing the number of players and even jumping to intercept. You can move players around or even sneak them forward- but be careful, as you can get penalised for this just as in the real thing. For attackers, there's more cat-and-mouse tactics, with dummy runs aplenty. We found ourselves using these new options as something of a guilty pleasure, playing with the extra features more than using them tactically (making the wall jump is a little too fun to resist!), but once the novelty wears off this will prove a very decisive feature.
On the Ball
The bigger changes to came down to ball control, both getting the ball and keeping it, in what EA billed as a "True battle for possession". 'First Touch Control' was, for us, the real game changer, with your player no longer guaranteed to receive a ball in some grandiose act that only the best in the world can really achieve. No, much like the real world, factors like speed, direction, position (or running into it) and the skills of the player themselves will all inform if you receive and control the ball. For more experienced FIFA fans, this will add new levels of skill to achieve, but for those more casual players of the game this will prove to be a real challenge to overcome.
'Complete Dribbling' comes to play, too. FIFA Street proved that skilful and tactical moves are more than welcomed by gamers, so the Street Control feature has been adapted for FIFA 13 to add new levels of technical precision to your movements across the pitch. You can now do things like face one direction while moving and dribbling in another, sidestepping your opponents without losing the ball, and even shield the ball as you move direction around it rather than risk losing it. Again, more realistic moves that fit the players performing them, and triggered contextually to ensure they match the skills of that player.
This added sense of (in-game) player skills fills a few other of the new features. The 'Player Impact Engine' from FIFA 12 has been tweaked with this in mind so that larger players like Rio Ferdinand will have more impact when colliding with smaller ones. A new 'push and pull' element has been added here too, meaning that off-the-ball interference can influence how well your opponent receives the ball, as well as adding another way to tackle your opponents.
But what do all these tweaks and changes mean when playing the game? Well, from the time we spent playing, it was clear that they do have an impact and make the gameplay much less predictable than in previous iterations. As we were only using a preview version of the game, we only had a handful of top-level clubs to choose from, so the elements that are based on the quality of the in-game players were a lot more evenly matched than they would be if you choose to take on Real Madrid as a mid- or lower-table team like West Brom or QPR.
The added realism will be more than welcomed by veterans of the FIFA series as goals (if you'll pardon the pun) to master, but with more features now requiring even more skill, casual or first-time players might find this more of a challenge when taking on more experienced players. That said, there is the usual choice of difficulty levels for single players. And a challenge is not necessarily a bad thing!
Overall, FIFA 13 seems to be doing what many would have thought was not possible - continuing to improve the game to make it as close to real football as possible. And for the fans of the series, much like fans of any football team, this is a great reward for their support, and something to look forward to when the game is released later this year.
Preview refers to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game. Other formats may not include all gameplay features described above.