I'm a huge football (soccer) fan. I spend much of my free time watching whatever match I can find on TV, and a good portion of my gaming time is spent with EA Sports' FIFA series. The FIFA games have strived, year after year, to improve the franchise and immerse players in an engrossing football experience. The latest installment, FIFA 12, continues this trope, but its improvements are maybe too clever for its own good.
Overall, the game is a fantastic sports title. The modes, gameplay, graphics, and animation are all a step up from last year's entry. The seamless transition from play to cut-scene, as well as player gestures and reactions, complement each other and make you feel like you're watching a match. Head-to-head seasons give new incentives for success in online gameplay with divisions to progress through and relegation to avoid. For the first time in the series, FIFA 12 introduces tactical defending to give players a greater degree of control when not on the ball. Rather than just running back alongside advancing opponents and trying to bully or slide the ball away from them, players are now able to turn and cover attackers if they can maintain a goal-side position. This serves to draw you into the intricate tactics of defending and makes you think more like a footballer when it comes to covering and moving into space when not on the ball.
This is all well and good. Football fans can emulate the sport they love more closely than ever before. We can see what our on-field heroes look like playing in a style we dictate, and we're drawn more deeply into an experience that increasingly looks like what you'd expect to see at a real match. However, the shift in tactical thinking hasn't been supported by the AI programming, which lets me down regularly and causes me to fail.
Off-ball players are controlled by AI, and you can change which player you control with a quick tap of a button or flick of an analog stick. Doing so, however, can have unexpected consequences. For example, an AI-controlled defender might be running back just ahead of an attacker, and you might want to take control of that player to see off the danger. After tapping a button, you'll probably stare aghast as the player who was so capably tracking his marker stops dead for a split second, even if you're aiming correctly for him to continue his run. All this allows the opponent through for a shot at goal. The game's intricate defensive tactics have lulled me into a false sense of security, making me believe my AI-controlled players will react exactly how I would expect a professional footballer to. This isn't the case. It fails to anticipate.
This is just one example. Others include the AI failing to close down on obvious loose balls in favor of maintaining formation — to the detriment of the team's effort. The clever animations that add depth occasionally cause a player on the break to raise his hands in frustration at a tackle rather than chasing down the ball to recover it. When the opposition is playing high up field and you get possession, a quick counter attack can often be snubbed out by your strikers' choice not to run while you still hold the ball. This leads to frustration and, often, failure.
FIFA 12 is a great game, but the level of control it affords leads to an assumed empathy among your virtual athletes that simply doesn't exist. When I fail to score or I defend pitifully, it isn't for my lack of skill, it's because I'm thinking like a footballer and not like a gamer. If I expect the avatars to act like computer-controlled sprites, I need to adjust my play style accordingly and remember that I'm simply reacting to on-screen stimuli. Then, the gamer inside me can get back to responding to the situation and shaping the game as I see fit. I need to rely on my actions, not the assumed understanding of an algorithm. I must remember it is just a video game, and I should approach the play as a gamer and not as a footballer.
Gavin Lowe is a staff writer for the UK-based web publication Game Kudos and keeps his blog at The Gaming Gentleman. He also tweets now and then @GamingGentleman.