I'm hesitant to say the game feels like a completely new experience, but it does feel like FIFA is in this interesting new space. So far I like to sum it up as tactical chaos. Pace and patience are clearly more important this year, but players are slamming into each other much more during the course of a game.
Basically, it seems like the developers really want to show off the new physics engine but have not quite found the right balance between the collisions and the way the players should react to these collisions. So during various situations where contact is involved (jostling, tackling, 50/50 situations) I love the way the players are interacting, but the way the players end up reacting to contact leaves me kind of feeling like a bedlamite; I love what the idea is behind this new engine, yet it's not quite functioning the way it probably should, according to my brain and retinas. If there is excessive contact that is ending with players being knocked over, then more fouls need to be called. (The other solution could just be that the players need to try a bit harder to stay on their feet.) As it stands, I just can't recall a game of real soccer that resembles the moment-to-moment carnage that FIFA 12 sometimes endures.
Beyond the fact that the visuals and gameplay don't seem to quite be matching up here, there are some cool things at work here with the Impact Engine. The first thing that really stood out to me was when a player shot the ball, dealt with some contact and slid to his knees as he was nudged in the back. It's a small thing to be sure, but it shows off some middle ground for the engine, as well as that extra layer of collision detection that you just would not see much of in the past.
Another impressive facet of the Impact Engine is that it really does live up to the hype of those demo videos. To compare it to first-person shooters, it really looks like all the players on the field have a ton of hit boxes now. You can clip, destroy, nudge, jockey and all that good stuff, and it really does impact whatever body part is touched. While the players may overreact or end up in a pile too often, the engine is doing what it's supposed to do by creating tons of organic contact moments.
The game feels especially different when testing out the new defending and pacing systems. It feels so different because I don't have a proper understanding of how to use each effectively quite yet, which is actually really exciting.
By the start of my second game, I was really trying to plan out my runs and control my dribble in tight spaces. My buildups were less than stellar for the most part -- I even got countered for a goal after my best buildup, so sad -- but it was nice to feel like I had to switch the field and take my time attacking the defense.
In addition, building up seems like it will be really rewarding for a couple reasons that go beyond gameplay. First off, it felt much easier to expose folks who were double teaming or just trying to pressure the ball carrier a ton. I could easily play the ball into space or send players to an open space and move on from there -- at one point, I even used a slow pace to quickly split a double team. The other reason the precision dribbling/pacing style warmed my heart was because it felt like the game was forcing me to understand the nuances of soccer a bit more. I had more success when doing something a little more advanced like a quick one-two after sending my player on a run. So, in essence, the game was teaching me about real soccer and forcing me to learn strategies that went beyond running up the sideline and crossing the ball into the box or doing a quick through ball that pierces the middle of the defense and leads to a breakaway.
Around the box is really where you see the new defending and dribbling intertwining. I could use the new tactical defending system to contain a player, but it sort of hurt me by giving certain players too much space around the box to maneuver. It was fun to see how the defenders really go all out to block shots, but I don't want to get into the habit of giving players space around the box.
The tactical defending also really ties into understanding the new jockeying and stand-up tackling tweaks. You can now simply contain, or you can jockey aggressively or more passively. People who have been following FIFA 12 should know that the "homing missile" defense is gone, and that's why you need to time the stand-up tackle attempts now. You can simply jockey and overtake someone, but a strong, well-timed stand-up tackle is a glorious and rewarding moment now. It can send the (soon-to-be former) ball carrier flying while giving you a little e-pat on the back for having good tactical sense and skills on the sticks. In other words, a good stand-up tackle acts as a double whammy of warm feelings showering over you.
However, that does not mean I completely understand the jockeying or even shielding on offense quite yet. I'm still trying to figure out when is the best time (I plan on playing some more FIFA in the coming days) to do a certain jockey, and I'm also trying to figure out how to tie my pacing and shielding together while using a more physically imposing ball carrier. At the end of the day, there's a lot to understand here even for a seasoned veteran like me, and I think these changes will only lead to more realistic tactics and play on the pitch.
While the tackling outcomes need to be tuned a bit, what's here really is fresh and surprising given the point in the life cycle on these consoles. After all, this is a series trying to reinvent itself after already being at the top of its game this generation.
To say it another way, it's not often that I walk away from a sports game and lack a complete understanding of how to use all the new gameplay features in it. I have played this series for years and always felt like I could step in and not miss a step when the next version came out, and yet here I was struggling against another player who had not played FIFA in a couple years. It was like my prior knowledge had polluted my fingers.
Some people might be scared off by the above statement, but I think folks should embrace the changes that have been made here once they get a chance to play the game themselves. Meaningful, sizable improvements of this magnitude are rare from year to year, which makes FIFA 12 unique and exciting in the sports gaming space.