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Professional football (soccer, for most of those in North America) has not changed too much throughout its long history, but its most popular video game representation – EA’s FIFA franchise – has evolved with each passing year. This year, the gameplay changes are subtle but impressive, and the tweaks of various game modes are welcome. The result of improving on already sound previous iterations results in most realistic, fully featured FIFA entry yet.

It may be expected, but FIFA 13 plays more like the beautiful game than any football simulation before it. This is certainly one of of those games you’ll sink a lot of time into, often at the expense of playing others.

The big changes the developers made in FIFA 12 - the player impact engine, namely – have been refined and tweaked to be significantly better than before, and the overall pace of the game is a bit quicker. Sometimes the new speed can be off-putting, especially when first getting used to it, but it doesn’t harm the game overall. Strangely, I also feel like some matches are faster than others, as if the new speed is only seen or noticed a portion of the time.

The players react to the ball in a way more in line with what you’d see in real life; stretching for balls just out of their reach, taking a touch to control that ball that wouldn’t be seen in previous FIFA iterations and even taking bad first touches, an intentional new addition.

That may sound strange, but a player taking a bad touch in the heat of a play is a big part of the real sport, and you’ll appreciate every player not being perfect when they receive a pass, especially when running at full sprint. This also makes you appreciate the better players more – Messi is going to take a better first touch than Anton Ferdinand, as it should be.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Some touches by good players may have you scratching your head. But most of the time, the lack of control comes down to something you did, or what should realistically happen based on your input, rather than a fault of the game’s design. It may make you moan and groan when the ball isn’t controlled perfectly, but so do poor touches by players in real life.

The graphics have remained mostly the same and player faces have largely been borrowed from FIFA 12. This isn’t too bad, because a lot of player likenesses are pretty spot-on, but it would have been nice to see more obvious differences. Still, the players look more like themselves than they do in the game’s competition, PES 2013, in my opinion. That said, FIFA 12 looked good and 13 has a few tweaks that result in a nice-looking game.

I will say that when inspected, the crowd still looks horrendous. Flat and fuzzy 2D sprites mimic the same movements as the figure two seats over, and it just looks awful when you look carefully or are zoomed in. It’s a small complaint since the crowd is usually viewed from afar, but it’s distracting nonetheless.

 

My favorite non-gameplay addition is EA’s new Matchday feature. Team and player ratings will now change after the lastest round of games to imitate current form, based on the real-world performance of every club’s most recent games

Other sports games and past FIFA titles have reflected real-world performance in the shape of roster updates, but those were frustratingly infrequent. I love that, as a huge Chelsea fan, I can see that certain players on the team who have had good weeks will have their rating and stats increased to reflect the fact that the team is currently undefeated.

Matchday is what I’ve always wanted for rosters, and I’m glad EA implemented it well. You can turn it off if you choose, though it doesn’t extend to all game modes. Online seasons games will still use the newest downloadable roster, for instance.

I haven’t quite figured out the schedule for Matchday updates though (if EA even actually has one). Sometimes I’m surprised at an update, but currently it’s been a while since the last one, and I would have expected another by now. Still, it’s certainly better than roster updates alone.

Another totally new and enjoyable addition is that of the skill games. These mini games, accessible during loading screens or from the main menu, give you a series of challenges based on different footballing skills.

They range from crossing balls onto a target to running through a timed obstacle course, and each challenge has bronze silver and gold levels of difficulty. They’re definitely a welcome change from the plain arena loading screens of FIFA 12 where you shoot at a lone keeper. And if you’re serious about completing them, it’s yet another mode to sink time into from the menu.

As you go deeper into the game, each mode has its own addition or tweak that just makes it better as a whole. Internationals, the single most asked for feature by fans, have finally been added to both manager and player career modes. You can manage a club and national team at the same time (though that rarely happens in reality), and be called up to represent your country as a player, if you’re good enough.

Managing a national team offers a change of pace from the tedium of club duties, and you get to field a number of job offers if you are doing well enough.  Continue improving, and bigger and more prestigious football nations will soon come calling. The squad can be selected from the pool of all eligible players, and of course you can tweak your tactics as well.

There are a large number of friendlies and qualifiers that build up to the imminent 2014 World Cup – called the world championship in FIFA 13 (strange they don’t use the license given that EA have the World Cup license for the standalone game). Having the extra managing challenge is, simply, pretty fun. It’s not the most robust feature, but it’s a welcome option. The player career international feature is equally satisfying, since you work to earn your place and are rewarded for good performances.

Beyond that, FIFA 13 rounds itself out with some smaller changes to make a great comprehensive package. But as always, the soundtrack and voice-over commentary are of top quality. In career mode, players develop better, and the transfer process is improved and more functional.

Presentation wise, the main menus are a little bare and plain, almost like it’s still a demo build. I will say the game would benefit from being a little less similar to FIFA 12 in presentation and layout. Manager mode looks almost identical to the last version, and that makes it all feel a little less new.

Online modes are improved, particularly the pro clubs. The AI players aren’t as bad, matchmaking is better (not every single player on the team has to press ‘ready’, just the captain), and the experience is finally more refined, including an actual incentive by using the same promotion/relegation system as Seasons mode. In Seasons, your online tactics and team management finally save, keeping you from needing to tweak your squad every time you go to play.

Between the small changes to your favorite modes from the past, new additions that keep the game feeling fresh like matchday and skill games, and smarter, more fluid and ultimately more realistic gameplay, FIFA 13 is the best football game I’ve ever played. Though that’s what you would expect from the yearly release, I really am stressing how much I appreciate the changes to the gameplay and new features, because it simply plays much more similarly to the real thing.

It’s no wonder the game is selling like mad, and has even broken records. It could stand to have some updates from FIFA 12 in appearance and layout, but there are enough changes to warrant a purchase. All of this equates to hours of fun for the casual fan and football enthusiast alike, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Score: 9/10

Judgment: Buy it

 

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