Have EA Canada finally blown it? After confidently pigeon-stepping towards perfection for two years on the bounce (at least) surely the development team’s patented dedication to “evolution and not revolution” was such a formidable recipe, that it would have been a horrendous mistake to deviate from it? But deviate from it is exactly what they’ve done, and FIFA 12 is easily the most dramatic stir-up of the series’ core fundamentals in over a decade; and thus destined to be the most divisive FIFA game of all time. Make no mistake, some people are going to absolutely despise it, but that’s only until they inevitably see the light. Which won’t take long at all.

Because this is possibly the greatest football game ever made. Ignoring the fact that the overall package is quite absurdly generous – giving you no fewer than six wildly substantial single-player gameplay modes, each capable of lasting theoretically forever – it’s the most realistic representation of the sport ever created. This is true both in terms of the visuals – which uncannily ape television at every possible juncture – and the basic flow of the gameplay, which now demands so much more care and pensive strategy than it ever did previously.

Key to success this year is the new Tactical Defending system. This is another example of EA Canada solving a problem that nobody really knew existed; and making FIFA 11 (and every football game before it) feel aged and almost slipshod in comparison. In previous FIFA games, going in for a conservative tackle involved absolutely zero risk; you hammered or held a single button and hoped for the best. The fact that, defensively speaking, nothing was ever at stake (and no real skill was involved) it was possible for lacklustre players to occasionally keep up to speed with the hardened professionals.

So whilst this levelled the playing field to a degree (and benefitted those people who never warmed to the idea of learning some of the exhaustive number of on-the-ball tricks) it frequently dampened your sense of reward when it all lead to a goal. If you play the same way in FIFA 12, your defensive line will be mincemeat in a couple of seconds: learning curves do not come any fiercer. Luckily the game ushers you straight into a tutorial as soon as you boot the game up for the first time, and once you’ve readjusted, you’ll wonder how FIFA 11 had managed to be any fun at all.

To add a bit of balance, the new Precision Dribbling dynamic allows you to shield the ball whilst you’re still on the move, alleviating the rather stop-start nature of FIFA 11’s natural tone of play. The new Impact Engine alters proceedings even more considerably, allowing for some completely idiosyncratic collisions that not only look constantly astounding, but shape some scenarios so convincingly that you’ll never begrudge it. The system only falters occasionally – such as when half of our squad (amusingly) decided to engage in an impromptu game of ‘bundles’ during one online bout – but this is a fair trade, and moments like these occur very infrequently indeed.

Praising each new FIFA game every year for being a considerable improvement on past iterations has become standard practice of late, but the amount of hard work, experimentation and general belligerence that must have gone into crafting FIFA 12 is awe-inspiring. Tinkering with one of the most profitable properties in contemporary videogames (especially to this degree) simply must have been something that the team at EA Canada were perpetually forced to loudly fight for, and if you’re a long-term fan of the series, it’s difficult not to view those hypothetical battles with an uncommon amount of quiet adulation. FIFA 12? Best football game ever made. Standard.

FIFA 12 is out now on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Playstation 2 and Playstation Portable.

Watch Zavvi’s exclusive FIFA 12 trailer below:

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