As sure as the sun will rise, a new FIFA is upon us with a raft of new features and a few holes that need plugging. Much like the series' new cover stars Lionel Messi, Joe Hart and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the demo is brilliant, promising and bizarre all at the same time.
Whereas FIFA 12 emphasised the defensive side of the sometimes beautiful game, equipping the player with a variety of tugs, pulls, jockeys and brutally mistimed tackles to shackle their opponent, FIFA 13 has gone full circle. In the new incarnation EA have attempted to explore the attacking side of things with a large array of new manoeuvres to bamboozle the opposition. Feints have been added and closer dribbling skills implemented, but it is the movement of the players which has seen the most noticeable improvement. Wingers dart in from the wings and strikers arc their runs realistically, dragging defenders to make room for driving midfield runs. Likewise, central midfielders marshal the middle of the field diligently, with defensive players taking a more regimented approach in the midfield scraps.
The impression of the game given these additions, strangely, is that of classic Pro Evolution Soccer during its glory days (PES 2-4). In attempting to extend its current stranglehold over Konami's series, FIFA appears to be somewhat ironically turning back to what made Pro Evolution Soccer great (fast, counter-attacking end to end arcade play), just as PES itself is improving by basing itself on FIFA's recent resurgence (diligent, progressive play, built on a solid and satisfying engine). The addition of a first-touch system is appreciated, as I am a big believer in the importance of a good first-touch in football; however, a lack of clarity over how to control the power of a touch (close control or knock through, for example) means that this feature is difficult to judge at this point. The result is as entertaining as you would expect. Games ebb and flow as the action flits from end to end as each team incessantly counter-attacks, the reliable ball-holding option of FIFA 12 now redundant due to the more realistic physical collisions of the players as wrecking-ball midfielders like Nocerino deny any time on the ball. Defenders dive desperately to divert well-placed through balls, a skill which has been handily improved with the new movement.
Unfortunately, defenders diving desperately in FIFA 13 is something you will quickly get used to. The problem really is that despite EA's noble intentions, the defensive additions to FIFA 12 were deeply flawed and naively implemented at best; they only really worked against a computer designed to run into the channels – a human player cutting inwards immediately caused trouble. As such, the new attacking intentions of FIFA 13 have been included on the assumption that the defensive system is good enough to balance the play. It isn't. Instead, the game feels vastly weighed in favour of the attacking player, with the cumbersome defensive controls and poor positional play exposed by the offensive additions. Although not a critical problem I have found this juxtaposition an issue with every session of FIFA 13, whether against a computer or fellow meatbag. This would not be an issue if the defensive system had been likewise improved with the attacking movement, but as this isn't the case most FIFA 13 defences are left as exposed as a shy lingerie model at the Playboy mansion – with even less places to hide.
The arcade-style attacking intent is not the only instance in which FIFA 13 has borrowed from vintage PES. Loading screens now feature a series of mini-games akin to the old PES training sessions, ranging from passing practise to dribbling slaloms. Although reasonably fun at first, these games soon drag and you will quickly hit the start button; if properly implemented in the full game, however, they could be a fun and quick way for players to improve some of the more rudimentary skills.
As mentioned previously, the addition of more realistic character models is not just superficial; players now jockey and harry as their size permits, with more physical players such as Abou Diaby likely to win the day. The players themselves look impressive as part of a consistent approach by EA to remove the grotesque caricatures of previous instalments for more humane features. Stadiums seem more befitting of their real-life counter-parts, although crowds are still appallingly mundane (this should really have been sorted by now). The graphics are sharp, detailed and shiny, screaming 'SKY SPORTS SUPER WORLD WAR THREE ACTION WONDER-SUNDAY' with some clean and clear presentation. Likewise, you will be relieved to hear that the commentary is reliably woeful, with Alan Smith still a useful counter to all of life's excitements.
The impression of FIFA 13 then, given by the demo, is one of immense promise but laden with some seriously avoidable flaws. During its best moments the game flows brilliantly, a thrilling end to end tussle of pace and physicality, aided by a well-implemented attacking system and fluid movement, which reminds one of the classic Pro Evolution Soccer titles. At other moments FIFA 13 is a naïve mess, with one new addition completely crippling the last, the defensive mode that appears to have never been finished; an easy avoidable paradox, and one which begs the question why they could not improve both. It will be interesting to see how far this somewhat fractured approach has infested the rest of the game come its release on Friday.