FIFA 12 Preview (Xbox360)

Usually it'd be pointless doing a preview of a FIFA game. Only every five years or so does anything big actually change, usually when EA have made as much money as they possibly can from the current engine and sales are beginning to suffer. However, much to your reporter's surprise, there's quite a few fundamental changes to the way our favourite balls-'em-up simulator is shaping up this year.

Remember the tackle button? That quaint long-forgotten relic of a time gone by, where pressing a button would send your player into an animation where he'd try to kick the ball away from an opponent, but not by sliding in recklessly and potentially giving away a free kick, red card or penalty? Well, it's back.

Concerned that their game was too much about high pressure and racing around like maniacs, EA Sports have decided to tweak the way you close down players. To make it, like, more realistic. It's still possible to play a high pressure game, but unlike in previous games, turning circles are tighter in what EA are calling 'precision dribbling'.

David Rutter, producer on the game, showed us an internal video showing the difference between FIFA 11's dribbling circles and those in FIFA 12, and the difference is considerable. Granted an extended hands-on, it's now much easier to take the ball past players who go rushing in and attempt to harass you off the ball, or at least it is if they don't time their pressing properly.

What they'll have to do is employ the aforementioned 'tactical defending' that sees the jockeying feature pushed to the forefront. If we're using the default Classic controls, pushing the Pass button will send your player moving towards an opponent, except instead of just rushing straight at him, he'll stop a few yards away, shadowing his movement and forcing him to either beat him or pass.

You can control the distance of the shadowing using the left stick and, when the time is right, tapping the Shoot button attempts the standing challenge. Momentum plays a part in this too, so if you're moving backwards, the tackle will take place almost on the spot, while moving towards the opponent will mean your player has the momentum necessary to make a quick dash forwards.

Another change that is core to the whole FIFA experience is an improvement on the physical aspect of football, which means clonk into someone with a 'robust' challenge and it won't just be a case of causing a scripted animation to take place.

Rutter says removing as many cases of false collisions as they possibly can has been a key goal for the development team this year, and while this sounds like the sort of busy work you'd get people doing in a series with no ideas left in it, it's actually a very noticeable, important thing here.

Instead of relying on animations, everything's now controlled by a real-time physics engine, so deflections, player jostling and contact during tackles exhibit themselves in a more realistic fashion. With a more physical engine chugging away in the background, it seems natural that the issue of player injuries is addressed.

Rutter showed us another video of a wireframe player getting his leg twisted into mush after a bad challenge. According to him, the engine will keep a constant check on the state of the players' bodies and if there's a collision or a fall that leaves them potentially injured, then the game will act accordingly. It won't necessarily be a leg breaker, but there'll an increased chance depending on the severity of the fall or whatever. Such is the power of physics.

Also, to make sure fatigue metres actually mean something now, you can't just bomb around all the time with no thought to how knackered your players are. If your player is dead on their feet, attempting to sprint may well cause muscle injuries, although only a significant playtest would determine how good/annoying this feature will end up being.

Speaking of getting a hands-on, your reporter managed to get a good old play against a variety of opponents. It was interesting to hear other players' reaction to the new systems, many saying the new defending was much more difficult. On the contrary, your correspondent here found it much easier, being more inclined to sit back and launch counter-attacks from a position of defensive strength.

What this hopefully will translate to in the grander scheme of things is that people will be able to develop their own play styles, rather than be forced into doing one particular thing in order to be successful.

Attacking will be easier because you'll get more time on the ball and when players do attempt to close you down, the far better turning circles will allow you to twist and jink around in enclosed spaces with far greater freedom. On the other hand, defending is easier as you'll be thinking more about getting players behind the ball, closing off the space for through balls and also putting in challenges that you actually control, rather than relying on the pressure button just running straight through the dribbling player.

So the signs are good, though it'll take a lot of those weaned on the pressure defending system time to adapt, and some will probably moan, as is their right. Your reporter is pleased with the changes and eagerly awaits the next time he gets a pad in his hand in anger.