Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Once FIFA 13 is out, I'll be getting it. Being a fan of soccer both real and virtual, I knew that immediately. But after playing the game on the Wii U, I still have a not-so-innocuous decision to make: Will I get it for Nintendo's new console, or my trusty Xbox 360? The latter—without getting into Kinect features—has the strength of Xbox Live on its side (while the Wii U's commitment to online competition is one big question mark). What the Wii U does have, of course, is the GamePad, and EA Sports is taking advantage of that with a bunch of features. Good news: They all work, they all rock, and they all change the game in ways radical and relevant.
This preview is all about those features; so if you want the general low down on FIFA 13, here's our preview brought to you by Devin Charles. Before GamePad galore, I do want to voice my agreement with Devin in that FIFA 13's AI seems improved over last year's title. Strikers will warily toe the offsides line, waiting for your through-pass before making straight or (new!) curved runs.
But presently, on to Wii U exceptionalism. During a match, the GamePad is divided into six tabs. The first depicts what you see on the main screen and gives you plenty of tools. Touch a spot of the pitch to pass the ball there, or send teammates on prescribed runs with a dash of your finger. That last feature—arguably the game's most exciting—is best leveraged in the second tab, Manager Central.
Unless your opponents are putting you under strong pressure, you really can ply much of the midfield from this macroscopic view, touching player icons to pass when needed. On a developer's advice, I could make a beehive of activity out of the goal area before sending in a corner kick, just by sending players on runs.
The four remaining tabs—substitutions, formations, tactics, and man marking—are self-explanatory, and shouldn't take up much of your playing time. The big idea here is that you're privy to a wealth of statistics and can make changes to your game without pausing or waiting for half-time. If you didn't already know that Didier Drogba demands to be marked by your best defender, for example, you can make that connection once you've gleaned that he's taking a lot of shots on goal.
I was wary of these extra tabs, and I think anyone playing the game will be as well. Time spent analyzing the game is time spent forfeiting direct control of it. I think much of the Wii U's charm will be that you can't look at both screens at once (I look forward to getting scared shitless in ZombiU, for example). Here in FIFA 13, though, that can mean conceding a goal because of a doting concern for stat-informed tactics.
Enter Manager Mode, wherein one player makes the GamePad feature his/her sole concern. From here you are a consummate conductor, a better-than-real manager with eyes on everything and the ability, as usual, to compel athletes into making runs. Manager Mode can be played with up to four players wielding Pro Controllers (which remains a more conventional option for single-player, as well). This type of co-op play is the main reason why FIFA devs believe the game can be made accessible to boot: "If your dad can use a mobile, your dad can now play FIFA." By mobile, I think this British bloke meant smartphone. And by bloke, I mean guy.
I hope I haven't lost you. To recap, FIFA 13 on Wii U offers traditional gameplay via Pro Controller on one hand and enticing use of the GamePad on the other—six tabs and a manager mode for those who want nothing more than to sift through them. Beyond that, the GamePad also allows for fancy free kick and shooting options, using the controller as a representation of the goal-frame. Just touch the part of goal you want the ball flying into. The feature is similar to what's found on the PS Vita, and really does contribute to the trend of FIFA becoming a different game for every console.
Though I would need more tinkering time to weigh in on these shooting features on the GamePad, what's certain is that even without them, FIFA 13 on Wii U is shaping up to be a distinct take on a series that's already on top of the world. It won't be the first version of FIFA 13 on the market—other systems are getting the game on September 25th—but it just might prove the most nuanced.