With September fast approaching, EA Sports has had a year of development time to prepare the next iteration of the FIFA franchise. Last year’s edition was an extension to a winning formula (read our review here), and it looks like there are no plans to largely change what has been a successful product – FIFA 13 is all about improved physics and AI, which was the same objective its developers had last year. The trick, however, is changing the gameplay but retaining that familiar style that fans and newbies alike evidently seem to love.

During E3 2012, we went hands on with an alpha build of FIFA 13 to test their improvements ourselves.

While the game is as visually stunning as ever, veterans of the franchise will quickly recognize that EA Sports spent less time improving graphics in favor of subtle AI improvements. While the game may look very similar to its predecessor, as soon as a player runs down the pitch with the ball,  many subtle tweaks relating to ball physics, player statistics and tactical awareness become apparent, bringing lots of fresh ways for scenarios to pan out that wouldn’t have been possible in previous games.

The developers of the game were quick to mention their strong focus on tactical AI improvements, demonstrating how a bunch of gameplay scenarios in FIFA 12 were ultimately hindered by faulty AI. They then went on to place the FIFA 13 AI in the same situation, with the computer now making smarter tactical choices that were more likely to play out in real life. Common annoyances like AI strikers jogging offside instead of curving their run, or defaulting into a formation position instead of recognizing a potential play, have finally been addressed.

By the time the whistle blew after the first game, it was evident that the artificial intelligence had learned some new tricks. Both offensive and defensive players reacted quickly as situations developed, and strikers seemed more eager to get into the right spots as early crosses came in. Though some players still had over-exaggerated ragdoll wipeouts, their physics and motions have definitely improved over last year, with player movement, impacts and ball control being as polished as ever.

Dribbling has always been an important element of gameplay, and this aspect has been drastically expanded upon for FIFA 13. Several new moves have been added, and players can now face away from the net when dribbling on the field, allowing for some fantastic movement which really switches up your options when on the attack. Free kicks also received a long-awaited change, with the attacking player now able to set up more intricate fake runs, and AI team-mates creatively trying to find open space instead of pre-determined locations and static runs. Conversely, the defending player can now add more people to his wall by guiding a player over next to it, where he will automatically join it. Players can even encroach upon the freekick taker to try and throw him off his game, but beware – if you get called out on it, you’ll be getting carded. Freekicks were probably one of the weakest points in the franchise, having had the same formula for several years now — it’s good to see that a fresh system has been put into place.

For those who like to get vocal with their gaming, it was announced that FIFA 13 will also feature full Kinect integration. While some may have jumped in worry upon hearing that, likely thinking that they actually have to make kicking motions or scissor kicks to play the game, the truth is much more simple — and much more useful. Players can use Kinect to shout commands to substitute players, change formations and switch tactics on the fly, without pausing the match. While it wasn’t playable on the show floor, this feature will certainly save time and minimize gameplay interruptions, allowing fans the courtesy of non-stop gameplay from start to finish.

In short, EA Sports have spent a large portion of its time focusing on hundreds of tiny changes that, added together, overhaul the entire experience. FIFA has always been a top-notch sports game, as evident by its vast outselling of main competition Pro Evolution Soccer , and this year is looking to bring gamers more of what has become a highly stable and enjoyable annual product.

FIFA 13 is set for release September 30th for Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, Wii, Vita, PSP, 3DS  and PC.

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