Gameplay, gameplay, gameplay. While much has been made of the lifelike visuals on offer in EA's first suite of PS5 and Xbox Series X sports offerings, their long-term success has to be judged on feel rather than appearance. FIFA 21 [and pad-sporting big bro Madden 21] offered encouragement, but not to the point that PS4 and Xbox One veterans felt as though they were missing out. There's a strong chance that changes with FIFA 22, thanks to a new piece of tech called HyperMotion.
For those of a certain age, the name triggers memories of a dodgy late-'80s Kylie Minogue cover version. But the moniker signifies that EA really is doing a brand new dance now: 11 vs 11 motion capture, filmed on a real football pitch in Spain, rather than small-sided face-offs in a studio in Vancouver. All 22 ‘players’ wore state-of-the-art Xsens suits, which can capture not only every thunderous shot and sweeping pass, but – and this is critical – player positioning relative to one another, and the impossible-to-emulate-in-studio physicality of aerial challenges. End result: more than 4,000 new animations. Which, line producer Sam Rivera insists, transform both the look and feel of FIFA 22.
"This is huge," says Rivera. "The technology has developed so much in the last few years, so now we're able to go and capture a real football match. That gives us so much more intensity in the animations, and the fact there's an entire pitch to move around changes everything. In optical [capture] the space is usually much smaller. You are acting, you're not in a real football environment. We had to pick the best data [from those sessions] to put in the game. Now it's a lot better because all the animations are the real thing, you get the athleticism, that top sprint speed, that physicality because there's the space and direction."
Does it work in practice? On the evidence of a two-day hands-on with FIFA 22 on PS5, the answer is a cautious 'yes'. Games don't feel too dissimilar to begin with, but the changes become more noticeable the longer you play, as you pick out the different animations and get a sense of how they contribute to the greater sense of realism. Specific examples of these include sliding to get a cross into the box before the ball goes out of play, while Rivera insists that the AI now makes up to six times more decisions per second.
In one game where I'm playing as Atletico Madrid against Liverpool, Luis Suarez takes an awkward first touch that sees the ball hang in the air, before a more natural second touch lets it sit up for him to drill a pass across the face of goal for Yannick Carrasco to slam in. It's little moments like this that both look and feel more natural than FIFA ever has, capturing the sort of eye-widening improvisation that professionals are capable of producing, even if it's more subtle than you might assume.
Two particular changes stand out. One is a complete transformation in goalkeeper behaviour. This is a big deal: there's a longstanding tradition across both FIFA and PES to pin every goal conceded on your netminder's clumsiness, and EA is keen to leave those days behind. "We're completely rewriting the goalkeeping system," says Rivera. "It's something you'll notice right away and will stand out. It just looks more like football. It's not just animations, it's the way they play, the speed at which they play, how the goalkeeper transitions [between frames]. It's all brand new and it feels really cool."
On limited evidence he's correct – I note keepers making saves with their weaker hand, tipping balls in a variety of directions rather than just past the post each time. In the Euro 2020 final there was a moment where Jordan Pickford let a tame shot squirm from his grasp before gathering it at the second attempt; I've seen two examples of that happening in FIFA 22, compared to zero in an entire year playing FIFA 21. Mistakes, and moments of frustration, are still guaranteed, but my take is that if they at least feel authentic (rather than scripted) then their inclusion is justified. Granted, a legion of weekend leaguers may not agree.
Need for speed
The other big tweak is going to affect players of all abilities, and generate social media brouhaha across the entire upcoming season. Ready? FIFA 22 sees even more impetus added to sprint speed. Albeit in a very particular way: when running in a straight line, it's now truly possible to burst past a defender and/or accelerate into space. This of course feels immense when you're haring it down the wing with Vinicius Jr, but EA is going to have to keep a keen eye on it to prevent the mechanic OP. If there's a gameplay element which seems assured to be patched regularly, it's surely this one.
With the feel of the series definitely changing, those additional cosmetic details take on extra significance. That's what made baseball classic MLB The Show the leader in sports throughout the PS3 and PS4 eras: it got the fundamentals right first, then nailed the intangibles. EA Canada looks to be following that lead. For instance, I watch the build-up to an in-game Premier League fixture at Upton Park. Fans sing "I'm forever blowing bubbles", as bubbles do indeed breeze around the stadium, before the teams run out in the now-omnipresent pre-match training wear, and line-up with mascots in front of them. Post-match detail is similarly detailed, with a long-overdue wealth of stats covering XG, heatmaps and the like finally available for you to assess and analyse.
Further subtleties are afoot, too. Skill moves are integrated into your first touch so there's no need to bring the ball under control before unleashing right-stick trickery, and tactical options split the pitch in half: so you can choose to play a possession game in defence, then go more direct once crossing the halfway line. It's Ultimate Team where most of these changes will come under most scrutiny, but EA is staying tight-lipped on that mode for now. What we do know is that it's getting a new spin on Icons called FUT Heroes, celebrating retired players' past excellence in a particular league. They include Tim Cahill (Premier League) and Mario Gomez (Bundesliga), and you can read a profile of all nine revealed so far at the above link.
Another fascinating new wrinkle is the rewind function. It acts similarly to games like Forza, where you can turn back time in-game if you make a mistake. In FIFA 22 you do this by watching an instant replay, scrolling to the moment you want to rewind to and then hitting the trackpad. It's a small addition, but it's a nice touch for career mode players who might appreciate being able to try different things from the same starting point. And, let's be honest, rage players who now won't have to restart a game when they concede.
It's a summer tradition that EA promises big change in its longstanding football effort, only for a selection of naysayers to yell 'hoax' upon release. Those calls will no doubt come in due course, the first time a newly animated keeper lets in a shocking goal, or that sprint mechanic leaves a mediocre full-back chewing mud. But for now FIFA 22 feels, at last, like a sim seeking to deliver genuine progress. It's out on October 1 for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and PC. Roll on the big kick-off.