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FIFA Soccer 12


The appeal is obvious, but the pace is slow

What's It All About:
I grew up entrenched in soccer, starting play at the age of five, and playing year-round until I was in high school, when I took up football, wrestling and hockey. There's still a part of me that instinctively enjoys the sport, and I'll watch a game here or there (especially during the World Cup) and I've even encouraged my daughter to play the game. But in my heart, my sport is hockey, which combines the skill and artistry of soccer with the aggressive physical play of football. Thus, my sports video-game fix is EA Sports' NHL franchise, but from time to time I'll give a soccer game a spin, including EA Sports' FIFA series. It's always been fun playing soccer, but without a horse in the race (I've never really embraced the MLS and my "hometown" Red Bulls are an afterthought behind the Islanders, Jets and Yankees) it's hard to find reasons to go back again and again.

But here's FIFA '12, which brings some gameplay enhancements and control upgrades, as well as a chance to compare it to my all-time favorite, NHL '12, which I consider the best all-around sports game ever. Can hockey's spiritual sibling stack up in the eyes of the casual player?

Gameplay:
For a relative newcomer (or freshly returning player), the game makes it easy to jump right in, with your standard exhibition play, as well as EA Sports' Arena concept, which is something the NHL franchise could use (instead of the currently separate practice mode.) Mixing the main game menu with a practice mode that feels loose and fun is a great way to adjust to the game, and just play around. This is actually a big help in a game that's done some serious refining to the controls, but it's also just fun to mess with. You can lose a lot of time working on your shot and trying different moves. Then, once you're ready, exhibition play lets you pick and team and play (the depth of playable teams (over 500 in all) is particularly impressive for someone excited by the recent addition of the junior leagues to the NHL series.) This basic mode is a good to start, but won't satisfy anyone for long.

But that's where the assortment of game modes comes in. Be a Pro, which offers the option to play as a goalie or field player, is the now-standard EA experience, where you focus on your own athlete. As someone who enjoys this mode in the NHL franchise, it feels a bit slow in soccer, largely due to the size of the pitch and the pace of soccer, which doesn't require the same involvement as hockey's smaller gameplay area. That said, it's enjoyable to be a part of team play, and feels very much like a simulation of soccer. The Career Mode takes this up a notch though, and lets you play through a career, starting as either a player, a player manager or a manager, essentially combining the Be a Pro mode and the NHL Be a GM mode. This is pretty ingenious, and lends the gameplay new depth, as you can focus on both your player and your team. Hopefully this is brought to the NHL franchise, as it is literally the best of both worlds, as you build your player on the field and build your team off it, managing players and contracts, including the new Youth Academy, where you scout promising prospects from all over the world and sign them in the hopes of developing them into prime players. The quality of the off-field management is excellent, though there can be a lot to keep track of, especially with players complaining about playing time (to you and the media), the ability to affect your club's performance and morale by holding press conferences and an improved transfer deadline day with tons of pressurized deal-making.

Where FIFA has a definite edge over the NHL series, is the integration of the real world of soccer with the game. The new EA Sports Football Club may not have a huge affect on the games you're playing, but for a loyal supporter of say, Manchester United, if you set them as your default team, your successes join with those of your fellow fans to push your side ahead in the worldwide rankings in the game. There's no benefit to the player outside of bragging rights, but it adds another angle through which to enjoy the game. Making its return as downloadable content, My Live Season offers situational play based on recent real-life games, which is rather cool for footie fans, as you can re-live a big victory for your favorite team or try and right a wrong done to your boys. As this is an add-on, it won't be for everyone, but it's nice to see EA Sports offering a way for continued new experiences in the game.

As usual, customization is a big part of the game, with the ability to not just edit your own avatar, with rather precise controls for facial features and such (and the Game Face web option, which lets you upload a photo to use for your face), but also to create and edit your own players, teams and tournaments via the Creation Centre (though some of that requires either an EA Sports Season Ticket or purchased DLC.)

Online Play
As much as you can enjoy playing by yourself in FIFA '12, we live in an online world, and you just want to get a game going to strangers around the world. This game gives you lots of options there as well, starting with online friendlies you can play against your X-Box Live friends, with mini-seasons that will earn you bragging rights over your buddies. Those same shortened seasons are available against people you don't know in the new Head-to-Head Season mode, which has the fantastic opportunity to move your way up through league promotion (or be punished for poor play by being demoted.) This is the kind of motivation, fighting for team's status, that will bring you back again and again. The usual tournaments are available as well, along with Pro club play, but to be honest why bother when the excellent Ultimate Team mode returns, this time as part of the game from the get-go. Earning points to buy packs of cards in order to build you team combines the childhood joy of breaking open packs of cards to see what you'll get with the competitive drive to beat your opponents and get paid to do so. It's sickeningly addictive, especially with the massive amount of players available in this mode.

One of the best advances though is the improvements made in the matchmaking, with an eye toward balancing online games, while also letting you avoid players unlikely to keep playing if they fall behind by a goal or two.Depending on your experiences online, this could be worth the annual upgrade all on its own.

Controls
Perhaps it's a lack of years of experience with this title, but it took some time to get used to the control scheme here when it came to shooting, as I would frequently send the ball sailing in the wrong direction. Perhaps next year EA can focus on that element, considering what an impressive job they did in refining the dribbling and defensive controls this time around. Precision Dribbling lets you deke and dodge with more control, letting you find the separation needed to make the difference between a solid strike and a blocked shot. It's a somewhat small change, but it makes a big difference. Tactical Defense tackles the far less sexy matter of quality play in your own end, but it almost makes for an entirely new game, as your defensive effort changes from all-out defensive attacks (with tackle after slide tackle) to a more structured and more strategic brand of play. Sure, you can still run around throwing out your leg, but you're going to end up on the losing end of the game. And you're going to miss out on some incredibly realistic soccer, as the controls (thanks to some very customizable settings) make the style of play in-game the same as what you're watching on TV. However, if that's not your thing, you could always just reset the controls to previous styles, you Philistine.

Achievements
Like most EA Sports games, this one is maxed out with achievements, offering 45 tasks worth a total of 1,000 points. Also pretty standard for EA is the variety in the achievements, which mix simple-as-pie scores tied to simply utilizing various modes with unique in-game "tricks" like scoring on a bicycle kick, while loading up on accumulation and completion achievements, some of which will require clocking serious time on the title.

Graphics
The graphics here look tremendous, with player models coming off as natural and representative and the pitch and arenas are fantastic, though the crowds aren't afforded quite the same level of love and care. The specifics of the players and uniforms on the other hand are incredibly detailed, and the assortment of display options give you plenty of choices when it comes to setting things up just the way you like it.. I barely know Thierry Henry, but he was instantly recognizable in-game. The new physics engine used to control players' movements only ramps up the quality of the game's animation, with each ball battle, dive and collision looking highly realistic. The "TV" presentation is good all around, looking slick and shiny, and some game-delaying cut scenes have been eliminated, but after experiencing the new replay system in NHL 12, the limited menu-driven replays just don't compare.

Sound
The audio is solid all around, with a load of in-stadium sound effects, including customizable crowd chants, that really create a true gameday atmosphere, but it's the commentary that's most impressive. This time, EA Sports has gone all out with the voices, presenting two teams of announcers, with Martin Tyler and Alan Smith and Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townshend. The variety does more than you'd expect, and keeps you from noticing the repetition in dialogue as much as you might otherwise (though if you have a favorite duo, you can set them as your default commentators. The music is your usual EA mix of indie tracks and international hits, with big names like Foster the People, CSS, The Hives, The Naked and Famous and TV on the Radio providing some of the 49 songs included.

And in the End...
While the game play may be a bit slow for fans of the faster-paced NHL series, there's no doubt that soccer fans are getting a dead-on experience here, and to even a casual fan, this feels like a real simulation of the sport, with all the strategy and technique you see on the field, thanks to new control schemes that value skill over blind aggression (though, if that's your thing, you can have that as well.) After a quick learning curve, one can experience the true satisfaction of a well-placed shot, and once in tune, FIFA '12 offers plenty of gameplay options to enjoy, including the now built-in Ultimate Team mode. Though it won't change any soccer-haters' minds as to the quality of the game, it will make the faithful very happy and offers a fun experience to the casual crowd.