David Rutter, the executive producer of the highly acclaimed FIFA series for EA Sports, sought me out after a closed-doors briefing and without giving me a chance to explain how terrible I am at his game, picked up a DualShock, handed me the other, and started the game. And he took Barçelona, too, the club of the world's No. 1 player.
I tried to draw his mercy by announcing, on the spot, that I'd decided soccer would be called football on all references in my posts, and the sport in Madden would get "American football", on first reference. No dice. He thrashed me 4-nil, but at least I prevented Lionel Messi, this year's global cover star, from getting the hat trick.
"I'm the executive producer, it'd be terrible if I lost, right?" he said, chuckling at the justification.
I make no excuses for my soccer ignorance. It's why Luke Plunkett, much more familiar with the game, handles our review of FIFA every year. But there were some features of the game that, once I knew to look for them, were obvious even to a complete initiate such as myself.
In more competent hands I think the new Complete Dribbling Mechanic should be an intuitive and valuable addition to ball movement. Sitting on both triggers will maintain the direction in which your footballer faces while still allowing you to move in another. In its simplest application, it allows for faster cuts on your attack without waiting for the player to turn in the intended direction. But I like the twin-trigger modifier and from there, a lot of fakes and bursts should follow easily.
You're also going to be helped out by players who will be thinking further ahead. In FIFA 12 and all previous versions, the AI was fixated only to what should be done at the moment of possession. Rutter's team is trying to make your bot offence more proactive, so that your wingers start hauling arse earlier in the push up the field, freeing them for through passes and better scoring opportunities.
Not everything will work to your advantage, though. And this is something I saw, because I pre-load a lot of passes as a button-spamming novice. First touches will not be automatically under control as they were in previous versions. They'll now be determined contextually, accounting for a player's body position, the strength of the pass and its trajectory, in determining where and how far away the ball lands when a player tries to establish control.
We didn't see the other two novelty refinements because, frankly, the 4-nil cakewalk didn't see a single direct free kick (only a couple of corners. Rutter scored on both, almost excusing himself. "Sorry, I've gotten really good on corners," he shrugged). But you can add a defender to the wall or peel him off early, to account for the tactical free kicks an offence may now execute. The wall can even creep forward, at risk of a yellow card penalty, to try to cheat on the kick.
FIFA is a game I don't play well because as an American — especially a Southerner — I was raised on meat-and-potatoes set piece sports like
foot- American football, and baseball. Maybe I don't grasp the overall fundamentals of ball spacing and passing, and it certainly showed against the man who makes the world's best selling sports video game.
But I did feel that the improvements were a genuine help, and encouraged me to give this sport more attention not when FIFA 13 arrives, but when I get home and play my neglected copy of FIFA 12, so I can see the difference come September.