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FIFA Soccer 13 strives for perfection through gameplay imperfection (review)

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Update: Electronic Arts released a post-launch patch that added Brazil’s Vasco da Gama football club into FIFA Soccer 13. The review score will remain unchanged to reflect the original experience.

FIFA Soccer 13 is like a big football club’s yearly jersey refresh. EA Sports’ latest multiplatform ball-juggling juggernaut has some flashy original material, a few designs we haven’t seen before, and some unexpected accents.

The colors and crest, however, remain the same.

This year, as usual, EA’s treating us to the customary gameplay tweaks, updates to typical modes, and unique additions like PlayStation Move support.

So is FIFA 13 worth the investment, or should fans stay true to last year’s already broken-in release? Let’s hit the pitch and find out.

What you’ll like

First Touch Control is frustratingly authentic and appreciated
Soccer is a skill-based endeavor. Sometimes, a microscopic shift of the foot can cause a ball to ricochet in an undesired direction. FIFA 13 feeds off the chaos through its all-new First Touch Control mechanism, bringing another wild-card variable to the action.

Players now react differently to each pass they receive. Beautiful counterattacks flounder in the wake of a stumbling defensive midfielder with a subpar ball-control rating. Pinpoint triangulations between attackers near the goal are more uncertain. And even the most endorsement-bloated superstars find that cushy, round meal ticket occasionally escaping their nimble feet.

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The new tweaks are random and infuriating, but they mimic the hair-pulling, unpredictable nature of real-life ball physics.

These touches hurt, but in a weirdly pleasant way.

Catalogue and Match Day join the EA Football Club
Last year, the EA Football Club made its first appearance. The socially driven mode gave players a chance to show their pride by linking their in-game accomplishments to groups associated with their favorite teams. This year, the mode returns in full footie force with new Catalogue and Match Day features.

Catalogue lets you redeem the experience points you earn from playing for soccer gear and career-mode boosts. These bonuses give you one more reason to rack up XP from weekly Football Club challenges and other pursuits. Match Day constantly refreshes rosters to reflect real-world results, making slight adjustments to team form and updating lineups when players get injured.

New skill games sharpen your simulated-soccer skills
While actual athletes might hate them, training drills make for some pretty compelling minigames. FIFA 13 is packed with addictive, orange cone-laden challenges that highlight gameplay basics like dribbling, passing, shooting, and even penalty kicks. The skill games should be particularly helpful for FIFA first timers who are still getting used to their digital boots. Series veterans should be pleased to know, however, that some of the drills provide just enough thumb-numbing difficulty.

And the developers had enough good sense to replace the boring man-against-goalkeeper loading screen pastime with these random bits of training. So you might actually get distracted into lobbing soccer balls at plastic buckets instead of pressing Start to get on with your exhibition match.

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PlayStation Move support is surprisingly useful
When I discovered that FIFA 13 would feature PlayStation Move support, I couldn’t help but cringe at the gimmicky possibilities. Would I have to attach the PS3-mote to my shooting foot with some novelty strap? Or would I be able to access an all-new referee experience where I’d wave my Move controller around as I dished out yellow card after yellow card? Amazingly, PlayStation Move actually adds to the FIFA experience, especially when playing with a friend on the same team.

The Move lets you carefully map teammate runs during the course of play by moving an onscreen cursor, which is a real advantage. That means you can set up the perfect one-two pass-and-shoot scenario or exactly trace that ideal counterattacking sequence. Everything really comes together when playing in a cooperative setting. One person can control the ball while the other diagrams surgically precise paths across the field.

You could channel your inner John Madden, telestrating your way to victory. Wait. Wrong football. Never mind.

What you won’t like

Career mode continues to taint my dream of becoming a footballer
I, like many, have dreamed of scoring goals, making millions, and having to angrily shoo away paparazzi while getting into an Italian supercar. FIFA 13 takes that footballing fantasy and turns it into a grinding, tedious ordeal. The career mode follows a standard template. You create a player, put him on a team, and play through matches to earn skill upgrades. Sadly, the mode is full of annoying quirks that mostly spoil the fun.

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For instance, you’re evaluated on your match performances through a woefully imperfect rating system. Each great play is rewarded with barely noticeable positive bumps on a 10-point scale, while an errant pass can knock off an entire point or two. The only way to end a game with an eight or above (as an offensive player) is to find the net, make assists, or do both. This becomes even more challenging if you’re playing in a midfield role. These ratings factor into your player’s overall objectives, and they can help your soccer stud improve his abilities.

Even worse, during my career-mode playthrough, my Soccer for Dummies-reading coach insisted on playing me as a left winger instead of at my natural centralized-striker position. That same computer-controlled cretin decided to sub me out of games at halftime when I was usually the best player on the field.

This year, the mode includes international fixtures. While playing for club and country is an exciting notion, it’s just not worth all the work and aggravation.

You can play as “Brazil” but not the true Brazilian national team
FIFA 13’s club and national team selection is large enough to fill a hefty football almanac, but unfortunately, many of the sides lack full licenses. The game’s version of Brazil sports generic uniforms, not the iconic canary-yellow shirts complete with Brazilian Soccer Confederation badge. No, these threads look like something your parents would get you at the local department store. The only thing missing is “soccer” written across the chest in block letters.

And this isn’t even a FIFA 13 issue. Brazil has lacked a license for the last few entries in the franchise. Countries like Cameroon, Russia, South Africa, and Uruguay have also received the nonproprietary treatment in 13. Even certain club teams have suffered the same fate. My beloved Vasco da Gama, a true giant of the Brazilian league, is now represented as “V. R de Janeiro,” including an uninspired, clip-art-like crest.

For a game that takes pride from its nearly countless licenses, FIFA 13 has a few egregious gaps within its roster of rosters.

New commentators … are … not so … lifelike
Few sports series have the level of broadcast-quality commentary that FIFA boasts. British duo Martin Tyler and Alan Smith continue to do a fantastic job as the main play-by-play team for the title. But this year, they’re joined by an on-field reporter who sounds as natural as an ’80s telephone answering machine. The reporter’s sound bites are stilted and roughly pieced together, taking some of the magic away from the still top-notch narration.

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And the horrific radio announcer in career mode is even worse. While setting my lineups, I had to endure multiple … staccato … updates … informing me … about … the latest … results.

Conclusion

FIFA 13 is irritating and painful yet wonderful and nuanced, just like the sport it so painstakingly emulates. The mercurial imperfections make soccer one of the greatest things we have in this world. And, once again, EA Sports has managed to capture some of that wonder on a disc.

In short, yeah, FIFA 13 is worth the money. It’ll slip on nicely, just like that dependable kit from last year.

Score: 90/100

FIFA 13 released on Sept. 25, 2012 for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC, with a Wii U version coming on November 18. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a PlayStation 3 copy of the game for the purpose of this review.