FIFA 13 preview – First hands-on with a chaotic new twist to gameplay

Judging by EA’s buzz around FIFA 13, it seems that the juggernaut franchise is in a polishing year. No, htat’s not the same as “it’s the same game with a roster update.” As the team pointed out in last month’s unveil details, there’s lots to look forward to in this year’s game.

During EA’s media briefing yesterday, the publisher provided more insight into the experience, especially in regard to EA Sports Football Club. If you’re playing FIFA 12, FIFA Street, or the Euro 2012 DLC pack, your XP will carry over into FIFA 13, and it will – depending on your XP level – unlock a variety of club-centric content, including vintage kits. But while that’s fair and good, gameplay is key.

How does it feel? We jumped into a round as Manchester City against another writer playing as Barcelona to try it out. The first thing we noticed? First touch. Trapping the ball with the precision dribble button will be key. Generally, our play style concentrates on ground passing more than through balls, so the sorts of wild “hooking an aerial pass” applied less than quicker one-touch passes (perhaps we should’ve picked Barcelona, too).

But it’s immediately evident to anyone who regularly plays FIFA that something different is afoot here. Some of those crosses and the occasional aerial through pass were a bit overhit, and Agüero had to do some extra hoofing to trap and secure the ball before it fell into Pique’s possession. “Dynamic” is a word that gets thrown around cheaply these days, but there’s a real unpredictability to securing a pass in FIFA 13, and frankly, it feels more realistic.

It’s also hugely beneficial to defense. Because the AI is just as sharp on defense as the highly touted “thinking two steps ahead” on offense, we felt comfortable letting the AI-driven defenders put pressure on wing attacks while we controlled Vincent Kompany to get himself in front of a darting Leo Messi run and thwart it by getting his body in between Messi and the ball. The physicality helps, too. Since Barcelona consist of smaller players who are more adept at spraying passes around the pitch, Man City’s big defenders could thwart attacks. Plus, the physicality of Tevez and Agüero up top meant that even in a tough challenge, big players can –with proper steering – get around smaller defenders. Will it be tweaked before release to prevent everyone from lining up big target men all the time? It’s probable. But for now, the rough and tumble of play feels really satisfying.

The touted teammate AI tweaks feel great, as well. With a tap of the “send a teammate on a run” button, we noticed that distributing the ball to a striker or attacking midfielder was easier and more responsive than in the past. They seemed to predict pockets of space more readily than in the past, and in the moment one was caught offsides, I knew it within a millisecond of releasing the pass. The animation is fluid and conveys player body language with ease.

The refined dribbling has been touted as carrying some influence from FIFA Street, and it’s evident. If you squeeze both trigger buttons to initiate the dribble, you’ll find that there’s a certain degree of “roll around” that your player will do on one foot, not totally unlike FIFA Street’s Panna system. It’s mildly reminiscent, so don’t worry about FIFA 13 coming off as too arcade-y.

It’s still pre-alpha, though. That means that in the loading screen, players popped in after the ball appeared, and sometimes, we couldn’t see our shooting meter. Also, Joe Hart left goal during an attack and never came back to his post. Does that mean you need to panic? Hardly. Especially in the case of goalkeeper AI, we were reassured that it’s being addressed. This version of the game is expressly designed to provide an idea of how FIFA 13 will handle. We’ve been reassured that we’ll be seeing a more updated work-in-progress before GamesCom, so we’ll definitely be reporting back on what we see. But for those of you who’ve logged in dozens of hours on FIFA 12, you’ll be happy to see what’s in store for this year’s game.

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