PREVIEW: There has never been a console generation that has lasted as long as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 era. That's hardly a breakthrough insight, but it is one that has created an interesting set of circumstances.
We're now in territory every bit as uncharted as a new console generation. Developers and publishers have never been as acquainted as they are right now with the hardware and software development kits they're using today, and if it's true that we need to know the box before we can smartly think outside of it, then there has never been a better time for developers to innovate in the true sense.
Nonetheless, sports game franchises should be particularly prone to stagnation in such protracted conditions. Licenses usually require the publisher to bring a new product to market every year, and for a genre with more mainstream appeal than most, it's been a very long time indeed since sports games have been able to appeal to their broader audiences using that briefest, most powerful message: "This new one looks way better."
It should be unsurprising that publishers are prepared to confess to a little waywardness - walk for long enough in the desert and anyone can start going in circles. Madden, admits EA Sports boss Andrew Wilson, hasn't been as innovative as other titles from the label's stable.
The FIFA series comes to mind immediately. Despite facing similar production conditions, the series has not languished. It defies accusations levelled at other franchises, namely that each edition is a glossy roster update, and on balance, each instalment usually takes more steps forward that it does backward.
Announced at Gamescom, Match Day is a radical step forward for the FIFA series. The feature interlinks the real world of professional football to the game so that FIFA 13's gameplay more closely reflects the seasons and leagues as they develop.
Factors such as player performance, media speculation, injuries and suspensions will all be updated in-game on a daily basis at no additional cost or subscription, and players will need to keep track of their team's real world performance in order to best use their team on the field. No doubt it'll also add a new layer of engagement and significance to watching football on TV as gamers extrapolate events in real-time and consider the effect on their in-game matches.
Perhaps more attractively, in-game commentary will also be updated to reflect events that have occurred in the real world. If a player is injured today, tomorrow, FIFA 13's in-game commentary can mention that. To demonstrate the system, EA recreated two of the last season's most memorable matches, Manchester United against Sunderland, and Manchester City against Queen's Park Rangers. The demonstration switched between the highlights of the two matches, while back in each game, Alan Smith and Martin Tyler relayed important events from the game players aren't "watching".
It's a very welcome and long overdue addition to the world of sports videogames. Clever as some boxed recorded lines may be, they all eventually lose their appeal through repetition, and their relevance over time.
The extremely popular Head to Head mode has also been overhauled and is how called Seasons. Seasons includes the return of fan-favourite two versus two cooperative online matches over 10-game seasons across all Divisions, and pairs can battle for position in online ladders.
Changes to the Ultimate Team mode, wherein players buy and trade stars to create their dream squad, also includes online matchplay over seasons, with promotions and relegations. A new tutorial system also cleans up some of the more arcane aspects of Ultimate Team, meaning newer players should now be able to ease players into the mode.
FIFA 13 also includes mini-tutorials and drills that can be practised as each match loads. It's perhaps the smallest feature, but it must be the most welcome. As sports games move closer to true simulation, the controls have become increasingly convoluted. Pick-up-and-play has almost become a thing of the past, particularly in this part of the world where other sporting codes are more popular, and the inability to figure out enough with a mere glance at the manual must impact on the game's friend-to-friend popularity here.
This greater online functionality is in addition to the raft of new in-game systems previously announced, including smarter attacking AI that computes potential attacking options two moves ahead of the current game, better dribbling control, and first-touch response that takes into account many more factors such as the in-game player's skill and the power and trajectory of the ball as it's received, all greatly enhance the level of simulation that is to be delivered with FIFA 13.
Altogether, there appears to be more than enough new ideas and new systems contained within FIFA 13 to earmark it this far out as perhaps the most exciting chapter in the game's history to date, particularly for those who connect their console to the Internet.
Gamers will be able to experience Match Day when a demo of FIFA 13 releases on the 11th of September on Xbox LIVE and the PlayStation Network. The game releases shortly afterwards for both platforms on the 28th of September.