FIFA is a series with a reputation for small improvements every year, as well as occasional departures from success that seem to rile fans immensely.
This year’s changes are significant and easily identifiable; AI has all-new 'positioning intelligence', there's no longer near-perfect touch control, the career mode now includes 'internationals' and skill games and the EA Sports Football Club has been introduced. The former being tutorials with reward schemes and the latter a dense role-playing football game based on real-world football happenings.
The game goes out of its way to make itself accessible, though, which immediately puts it on the right foot. The interactive tutorials focus on simple defending skills, and these – coupled with additional skill games that focus on offence – are invaluable, and provide new players with both the opportunity to become acquainted with the game's basic mechanics and a taste of just how much skill a player needs to actually master them. Meanwhile, the rudimentary reward scheme skill games quantify player development in a tangible and helpful way. It's a great first step, even if some skills reveal themselves as incredibly difficult to get right very early on. Lobs and chip shots, for example, are insidious.
Applying these skills in-game, though, is a different ball game entirely. FIFA 13 rewards precision, skill and split-second timing; properties reflected in the fickle physics. But then, this is kind of the point – this emphasis on finesse and mastery of technique is totally in line with EA Canada's single-minded pursuit of 'realism'. Add to that the unpredictable way matches unfold; it's difficult to perfectly collect a pass or predict what opponents are going to do, let alone accurately gauge how long to to hold down a button or thumbstick in order to curve that shot at goal just enough to get it past the keeper. This all adds up to a football game that rewards the inventive and the innovative as well as the dedicated, a game that demands more than robotic perfection from its players because the sport does the same.
This insistence on balancing creativity and perfection is the key to FIFA's ongoing success. While it has the potential to be – and often is – immensely frustrating, the game's exacting nature makes the goals and the victories feel like genuine achievements. Whether playing as a single footballer, a whole team, or a team manager, the thing that fuels addition is the need to win. If a loss is incurred, it's important to boot up and win that next match as fast as possible so that the failure can be mentally counted as a one-off; if victorious, there's a streak to maintain. Online multiplayer makes it even more personal, because it's no longer about beating a computer, rather a matter of being better than another flesh-and-blood human.
FIFA captures the natural rush of competition flawlessly, and most of the game modes encourage that pursuit of victory, be it by attaching those victories to a character and a rudimentary story (Career Mode) or to a simple reward scheme (Skill Games).
The game does feel like it's doing too much, though. There's a wealth of content available here, and the introduction of the EA Sports Football Club adds to it considerably, injecting role-playing mechanics and "real-world storylines" into standard football matches. But FIFA doesn't need this. It's not necessary to 'gamify' a sports game in order to keep people playing, and it's even less necessary to make it some sub-Newsroom revisionist history exercise to entrench an audience. There's so much about FIFA 13 that works, and works well – it's unpredictable, it's challenging, it's sleek, it's incredibly impressive visually (Stacy Jones Rugby League-quality spectator animation aside, it's stunning in virtually every respect), it's got endless online functionality, it's riddled with content. If anything, EAS FC feels like a desperate attempt to dress up FIFA in baubles and trinkets to attract an audience that may be be turned off by the challenge anyway.
After giving all of the Skill Games a shot, attacking the Player Career with a young man named Whirling Dervish seemed a natural progression. A stocky attacking dynamo with pale skin, slicked-back ginger hair, a terrible goatee, a crooked smile and elephantine ears, his attacker designation seemed at odds with the rather poor passing grade achieved earlier in Silver Level of Shooting, and the total failure at the Bronze Level of Advanced Shooting. Then the first goal was scored – a sneaky thing slotted under the diving goalkeeper. Success came quickly for Dervish, and along with it a sense of achievement, that this performance meant something. It's a feeling often lost in sports games of recent times, and this one goal encapsulated the attraction of FIFA – that feeling of victory at even the smallest success – and the game's capricious combination of AI, physics engines and mechanics only bolsters that.
It doesn't need a hokey in-game marketplace where players can trade credits for uniforms in order to be better; such insecurity only cheapens the whole thing. FIFA 13 is a triumph when viewed on its core merits; its ability to excite and drive the player to new levels of skill and enjoyment through the age-old medium of football.