Football’s a funny old game. Steeped in history, a fanbase of billions and the governing bodies maintaining a vice like grip on the rules and regulations, it’s not like EA can go and dramatically overhaul its perennial FIFA title each year, is it? Yet fans of the series continue to buy it, knowing that the latest iteration will be much like the last except for a few tweaks here and there. Worry not though. While the latest update oozes familiarity, aficionados will instantly notice some distinct changes and novices will relish the FIFA experience.
This time round, it’s not just the soundtrack and the teamsheets that have had an overhaul! Menu screens are now tiled, which seems in vogue these days what with Windows 8 and Xbox One taking that path. And the new look proves very effective. It’s clean, logical and easy to navigate – each game mode and option easily accessible with form and stats conveniently displayed. And it’s nice to see that all coins and XP are carried over from previous titles!
There’s plenty in this package to keep you entertained until the next inevitable annual update (or at least until its namesake is released on the next gen consoles). Whether your preference is for the new skill games, a quick exhibition match, a cup run in Seasons, the lengthy Career mode or a dalliance with the acclaimed Ultimate Team to build the best squad imaginable, this is a game that will sap every waking hour of your life.
The most noticeable change to the gameplay is that everything seems so much slower than last year – a conscious effort by the developers to make the game a much more cerebral and tactical affair. Careful build up play now dictates the match, with the age-old trick of bombing it down the wings with ultra-fast players far less effective than before. You won’t want to keep your finger constantly on the trigger to sprint up and down the pitch anyhow; players actually tire more quickly now, making it far more important to make timely substitutions and limit your runs.
Certainly, the players feel suitably different from one another in this edition. Those with higher ratings appear even more superior this time round – the defenders more successful at shepherding you off the ball and the strikers managing to sneak a goal in the bottom corner when it seems nigh on impossible.
It’s clear that a lot of work has been done on the animation too, with each player displaying a more natural touch or a more believable fall when shoved. Nudging opponents off the ball or pulling off a quick turn that sends them storming off in the wrong direction is hugely satisfying, thanks largely to the introduction of this year’s headline grabber, Precision Movement. EA’s clever bods have studied and replicated a player’s balance and footfall, making the whole experience feel far more realistic. A sudden change of direction sees players shift their weight from one foot to the other. It means that a shimmy will be enough to see you past even the most experienced defenders while a timely shirt tug will throw an attacker off their stride. The Pure Shot mechanic, affecting the flight and speed of the ball, also dramatically affects proceedings.
Thankfully, the AI is also far more realistic than before, your team mates now running into space and waiting to avoid the offside trap. Shielding the ball is a useful addition too and simply by holding the left trigger, it can provide the advantage when bearing down on goal.
The graphics have clearly been enhanced but it will be intriguing to see the leap when the next gen versions emerge with their funky new Ignite engine. For now, we can take solace in the fact that the similarities to players’ real-life counterparts have improved further with every detail from the hair, stubble or scars replicated perfectly. Even the crowds have been worked on – but still look like a cardboard cutout at times, with blocks of identikit fans moving in unison as though pulling off a well choreographed Mexican Wave.
The commentary is, as ever, very well done. Sure, there is repetition and the occasional phrase seems a little misplaced but the presentation overall is top notch. In my UK edition at least, Martin Tyler and Alan Smith return, while Jeff Stelling makes his debut, welcoming us to each match in traditional Sky Sports style. Unlike the rest of the commentary team, however, his comments seem somewhat disjointed when he introduces or summarises a match.
Once again, Ultimate Team will inevitably take most of the plaudits and it’s thoroughly absorbing – essentially copying the age-old favourite past time of sticker collecting and swapping. Set up a team and you’re rewarded with a couple of player packs to open, giving you a starting line up. The aim is then to play off- or online in a series of cup matches or advance up the leagues to earn money and upgrade your team. As ever, new players can be collected by buying packs or trading in the transfer market – which in itself is pretty addictive. The auction element, where you watch the timer tick down only for someone to gazump your bid for a new striker is compelling.
Besides the core skills (pace, shooting, passing, dribbling, defending and heading), chemistry plays an important role this time round, and you can decide on the playing style of your squad too.
Whatever your preferred game mode, FIFA 14 has something for everyone. All in all, the new changes amount to a far more realistic experience and it’s no longer a game of end to end counter attacks. The goals you score feel much more rewarding as a result; it’s tougher to add to your tally but far easier to concede than last year’s version. Newbies and FIFA 13 fans alike will need to acclimatize before they can fully master the latest iteration – but it’s well worth upgrading.