When EA announced that they wouldn’t be releasing their quadrennial World Cup version of their FIFA series as DLC – which is something they trialled with the Euro 2012 add-on for FIFA 12 – the gaming world sighed. It was an indication that we were going back to the bad old days of paying out the full retail price for the “full” version of the game in September, and then paying out the full retail price again for the World Cup or European Championships edition come April. When they then announced that the game wouldn’t be available for the shiny new Xbox One and PlayStation 4, instead only finding a home on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the gaming world scratched its head. People sighing and scratching their head at the same time look sad. You can't deny that.
Putting the pieces together, we kind of knew what was coming. Never has a release thrown up as many warning flags indicating that it was going to be a half-baked cash-in more than this one has. While that's no hollow statement, it thankfully isn’t the final word.
From the outset, we should mention that if you’ve already migrated to the Xbox One version of FIFA 14, you’ll be disappointed with the way in which 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil plays. This is a game that is – unsurprisingly – nothing but a slightly tweaked and reskinned edition of the Xbox 360 version of FIFA 14, with a few different game modes thrown into the mix. Jumping away from the Xbox One edition is jarring right from the start. Animations are missing in their droves, whilst slowdown and choppiness is prevalent in pretty much every cutscene.
If you haven’t made that jump though, you get a sunnier version of the game that you know and (probably) love, complete with all the decorations and data from the tournament itself, as well as a few gameplay tweaks. Shots are generally more powerful, for example. Crosses are blocked and headed away by opponents far more than they ever were before, with defenders all but going right through the back of strikers when it comes to aerial battles. The popular (and cheesy) over-the-top through ball tactic that has been the undoing of many virtual defences has been made more difficult to pull off. Now, aerial through balls need to be pretty much perfectly performed in order to prevent them from running all the way through to the keeper, or coming up short and being cut out. EA have branded right-stick moves as “World Class Control” this time around...though we couldn't tell you where the differences are, other than the new moniker.
There’s the option to play a full World Cup tournament, from preliminary qualifiers through to the final. You can take part in skill games exactly as you could before – with some of the new mini-games in this area being somewhat hit and miss. A “Road to Rio” online mode is nothing but the old Online Seasons mode, with the divisions being named after different Brazilian cities. All of the in-game menus are laid out identically to FIFA 14 also, albeit with a lot of extra summery South American flavour. Indeed, there isn’t a great deal to write home about in terms of things that are genuinely new.
Even the Captain Your Country mode – which EA seem to want you to believe that everyone has been clamouring for – is a returning feature from the last World Cup title. Unfortunately, what also returns is the fact that the mode is as crushingly dull and broken as it was back when it made it's debut in UEFA Euro 2008. Your goal is to not be cut from the team at various stages up until the final 23-player squad is named for the World Cup Finals, should your country reach them. You do this by moving up the pecking order based on your performance ratings in friendlies, “B” Internationals, qualifiers, and training events. The problem is that the rating you’re assigned for each match may as well be random. If one of your own team-mates tackles you – which happens when you sprint with the ball, as they think you’ve lost control of it – you lose points. If you pass the ball perfectly and the CPU-controlled receiver decides to change direction and run the other way, you lose points. Players who have completed one tackle and got a 20% success rate from the five passes they've tried to play across the course of an entire match will be rated higher than you when you've got a 100% success rate from twenty or more passes, as well as an assist. At one stage, our player had a rating of 7.8 out of 10, having scored the only goal of the first half. The opposition kicked off the second half and instantly, we were penalised for something and dropped to 6.9 without any suggestion as to why. That drop ensured that one of our teammates was rated 0.1 point higher at the end of the game, meaning that we were cut from the team and could say goodbye to the hour of gameplay we had put in.
Of course, there are also times when the manager switches your position without telling you. Our right-footed "target man" striker was suddenly switched to left midfield without any warning whilst we were 2-0 down. As we hadn’t realised this was the case, we carried on playing as a striker, losing point after point for being out of position. Poor fare. Oh, and take a tip from us. Switch the camera if you’re going to play Captain Your Country. The “Pro” camera is practically unusable. Quite how EA’s playtesters figured that not being able to see the penalty box when your player gets into a crossing position wasn’t a problem, we don’t know. But they did. The other cameras aren’t much better since they tend to focus on the ball and not your player – which means you’ll lose points for being out of position a lot - but at least you have a half-decent chance of doing well when you have the ball at your feet. That doesn’t fix the boredom issue however. We’ve played matches where an opposition team has had 12 shots on goal, but our centre back has only attempted three passes and four tackles all game. The reason for this is that even when you command them to, your CPU teammates are very reluctant to actually put in a challenge and get hold of the ball. Entire matches can pass without either side taking a shot or pushing forward, and most CYC games turn into snore-filled midfield battles, even when two mismatched sides face off.
But with all the niggles out of the way, FIFA World Cup 2014 Brazil contains something a little bit special, and that’s the romance of the tournament that it serves to emulate. Sure, that’s more due to the tournament itself than the game but at its core, the game is a good, solid football title that doesn’t do anything particularly new over other FIFA titles and doesn’t do anything – barring the whole Captain Your Country mode – particularly badly. It’s the same old FIFA, and that works out well enough when you consider that if you’re the type of person that loves a challenge, you’ll find hour after hour of enjoyment here. Every single team that competed in the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign is represented. From the powerhouses of Spain and Germany, through to minnows such as the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, and San Marino. Even the world’s lowest-ranked international side – The Turks and Caicos Islands – who played just one two-legged tie in the qualifiers before being knocked out by Bermuda, are here, complete with correctly named players and commentary lines specific to them. The attention to detail in emulating those less-glamorous sides has really drawn us in, and we think it’ll do the same for a lot of people. Some people will set a high target – they’ll want to win the world cup as the Faroe Islands. Some will just try to recreate Deon McCauley’s hat-trick for Belize against Montserrat in the first qualification match of the competition, which was played way back in 2011. Some, of course, will just want to take over as Portugal and skill-spam their way to the final with Cristiano Ronaldo, or have Wayne Rooney lift the cup for England after beating the Germans in a penalty shoot-out. EA have given you the tools to do all of it.
What we like about playing as a lowly side, is that you’ll need to really focus on the team’s strengths and weaknesses. That adds a whole new dimension to the game. It matters which player gets the ball when you finally carve out a decent chance against superior opposition. It matters which defender is covering the opponent’s star striker when a corner comes floating in. Everything matters more, and that really adds to the atmosphere. Bonds will be formed between gamers and places that they’ll likely never visit and that they couldn't pick out on a map, much as they were when Qatar made an appearance as the title’s whipping boys in the early Megadrive editions of FIFA International Soccer. We’re aware of a few folks today that still follow the Qatari national team now, just because of those early 16-bit experiences with the game. Heck, we’ll admit that we kept an eye open early doors to see if Vanuatu could make it out of the OFC’s 2014 Qualification structure, just based on how many times we tried (and failed) to get them into the World Cup in EA’s 2010 title.
There's something special about the World Cup, and despite all the obvious flaws contained within the game, EA have managed to capture it.
It’s easy to look at FIFA World Cup 2014 Brazil and point at the cynical nature of the release, or to shout from the rooftops that EA are a bunch of bandits who are just trying to rip us off by giving us rebranded tat. But the fact is that it all depends on who you are as to what the game will be worth to you. Take the romance away from it and look at it clinically, and this doesn’t do enough to warrant another full price purchase when compared to FIFA 14. Add the love of the sport and the romance of the competition, or settle down for an evening of local multiplayer with your friends as you all battle it out to win the cup though, and you'll find that it’s a coin flip at worst.