Presentation, check. Player control, check. Defending, check. Player AI, check.
For the last couple of years, FIFA has improved upon almost every aspect of its game. Unsurprisingly, for a franchise that is steadfastly trying to simulate a realistic brand of football, most of these elements became deeper and more nuanced as a result. However, there’s one thing that’s crucially missing from the list: AI Management.
Now, it’s not the sexiest thing to market. You can’t see it, and possibly only a percentage of us who play the game will appreciate it. I try not to write these “wishlist” articles too frequently, but for a hardcore sports gaming site like OS, it seems apt to suggest some improvements for how the game can improve on its gameplay experience by giving its CPU managers a little more smarts. The problem with FIFA's existing CPU management is that it seems to operate inside a vacuum, meaning that its moves are usually preprogrammed to trigger at some basic benchmarks, without taking into account the entire context of what's going on in the match. And if that isn't the case, it surely isn't obvious enough, because as it stands, the CPU management in FIFA just feels a little shallow, especially when compared to the rest of the game's impressive depth.
The on the field gameplay is doing pretty ok, but the off-the-field decisions to impact on the field? Rubbish.
Are you almost at the point where you can pretty much pinpoint when tactical changes will be made? Diehard offline fans probably can. While in some cases predictable is good—it means there is some sense to it—it seems that the CPU manager only reacts to three factors: red cards, injuries and the score. The problem with that is, of course, predictability aside it simplifies what is one of the deepest aspect of the sport—the tactical battle.
The solution? Expand those said factors. Right now it’s the aforementioned three simplest, most black-and-white ones that force the CPU into making a change. But, as any fan who has watched a full 90-minute game can tell you, the game is rarely that clear cut. Yes, teams press more ferociously when it goes a goal down (and maybe throw on the occasional extra striker) or sit deeper when it has the lead. But realize that it all hinges on the scoreline, and therein lies the problem.
Tactically, the CPU should also be able to recognize what’s going on during a game even if goals aren’t being scored. In some ways a 0-0 game tends to expose the CPU management's weaknesses the most, as even if the human team is battering the CPU in everything but the scoreline, it won't change its tactics (in a noticeable way, anyway) as the it doesn't seem to “see” it. To be fair, things usually don't get extreme unless there is a great disparity in both the playing strengths and style of the two teams.
But when they do, it becomes a somewhat unrealistic game of "doing the same thing a million times until you score." And while that may be easy, it's rarely fun. A good solution to that is to base tactical changes on more statistics than just the scoreline itself. Shots on goal, for example, is a good barometer (even if they don’t provide a complete picture) for how sturdy a defense is; while possession stats in each third of the pitch should theoretically help a CPU manager decide which area needs strengthening, and consequently prompt a change in the playing mentality or overall formation, the latter of which is an all too rare occurance in the current FIFA game.
Computer managers need to take more into account than just the score.
As for personnel decisions, the tactical battle should kick off before the match even starts. Manchester United doesn’t play the same players, or even formation, against Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion each time out. Why do they in FIFA then?
It would be great if, in Manager Mode, the CPU teams have the intelligence to switch things up based on factors like the strength and weaknesses of the opposition, the upcoming schedule, and its own league position, especially during the games towards the end of season when the trophy (or the drop) beckons.
It's the same idea for in-game substitutions. Just like the tactical changes, currently the CPU really only seems to respond to the score, fatigue/injuries, and red cards. But they don't really "see" what's going on in the match besides those factors. For example, the CPU manager should be able to figure out that the opposition is playing a tall target man, and then field an equally tall centerback, if one is available, to mark him. Alternatively, if the human team just had to sub off a quick defender for a towering but lumbering one, the CPU should, given the right circumstances, have the intelligence to counter by throwing on a zippy striker. In FIFA 13, the rare time that happens seems to be born more out of coincidence than strategic maneuvering.
But to add real longevity to the mode, the game will need some identities. As it stands, five to seven years into these modes—a long time in reality—teams still play the same way as they did when you started the mode. Looking at the past five years in real life, while that may they may have been true for, say, Stoke, it was hardly the case for a team like Liverpool. The reason? Managerial changes. And for FIFA, then, the only logical way to alleviate the problem—besides the tactics just changing willy-nilly, which doesn’t make much sense—is to have actual manager personalities, who take their philosophies with them to whichever team they manage. Real life managers are great, but with the legal wrangling that comes with any sort of real identities in sports games, maybe fake managers can be a good enough start for now. Though if any companies has the clout and finances to make this happen, it is EA Sports.
If any company can spend the money to make an active and engaging opposition, it's EA Sports.
Improving the in-game management for FIFA can pretty much be summed up in one word: context.
While it may be still a pipe dream to see the CPU managing its team like a living, breathing, human would, it would at least be a nice start if it reacts to more things (the flow of play, the opposition) than just the scoreline, cards, and injuries. As it stands, Manager Mode especially can get into a bit of a rut if you play matches and matches right after one another. But with a little sprucing up of the CPU in-game management, the game can provide a whole new (and may I venture addictive?) layer to match the depth that's evident in the rest of the game.