The football season is in full swing, and with the EA and Microsoft cosying up over the FIFA series this year, it looks like it’ll eventually be a big 2013 for the franchise on Xbox platforms. Sales aren’t what they were last year in the early going, but with the Xbox One version of FIFA 14 being bundled with preorders, some players are sure to be holding off until November. But if you’re thinking of taking the plunge, the game once again brings you a wealth of gameplay options and unparalleled depth, whilst providing little tweaks here and there that won’t seem like much to the casual player. The beauty though is that to the more committed FIFA fan, they make the game feel like an entirely new proposition.
First up, is the fact that the ball itself is freer than it’s ever been before. At no point do you truly feel as if you have the ball glued to your feet and you can waltz through a wall of defenders by popping trick after trick. Rather, if you let the ball get too far away from you, you’ll see it pinging off the defence’s shins and away from your player. The development team could have gone too far with this and made the gameplay feel more like an old-school title such as Sensible Soccer or Kick Off, where controlling the ball with any real confidence only came from being an absolute master of the game and indeed at times, it does feel as if they’ve taken things a touch over the line.
Generally, you’ll feel this way when you’ve snatched the ball off a defender yet again as he miscontrols it for the fifth time in quick succession but most of the time, it all feels right. Players with less skill fail to trap the ball as reliably with those who have more, and this makes matches featuring less than elite teams feel as scrappy as you’d want them to. A match in England’s League Two for example, will feature more scrambles for the ball than you’d find in a match between Barcelona and Real Madrid. It works, and works well.
Speaking of League Two, players who swim around in those waters will find that the presentation of leagues outside of the top divisions has been cranked up a notch. Soccer Saturday’s Jeff Stelling now provides a brief introduction to the match before kick off, and it’s genuinely surprising to hear him say things such as “It’s a Westcountry derby! Neither team will give an inch as we see Exeter City take on Plymouth Argyle.” when you’re playing all the way down in the fourth tier of the English league system. In truth, it’s the kind of presentation that the likes of Pro Evolution Soccer can only dream of and that alone will be enough – again – to swing a lot of players towards EA’s side of the fence.
The commentary doesn’t always reach those highs during actual gameplay though. Martin Tyler and Alan Smith return to call the action, and though they’ve certainly provided a more varied palette of sayings for the game to choose from this year, it can be awfully annoying to hear them drone on incessantly, repeatedly talking about the same players possibly retiring soon during a match. However, these missed steps are relatively few and far between, and there are some really nice touches when the commentators start talking about your team’s previous matches and current form.
Back on the pitch, and the main thing that players coming back to the game from last year’s effort will notice, is how tough it is to break down defences. Opponents form up behind the ball nicely, cover runs better, and there are far more occasions where you have no option but to turn and play the ball backward. This leads to a far more tactical and rewarding game on the higher difficulty levels. When you do get the ball into the box, the tweaks to the shooting system mean that you’re less likely to smash the ball into the bottom corner every time you try. The change is ever so slight, but if your striker isn’t positioned correctly to hit that pearler into the roof of the net, there’s a far greater chance that he’ll slice it wide or even bounce it off an incoming defender.
These minor changes mean that while FIFA 14 is most definitely an iterative and non-revolutionary update, it plays very, very differently to the last edition. There are things that haven’t been balanced properly though, it has to be said. Attackers are favoured far too heavily when it comes to heading crosses, for a start. In fact, most of your goals will come from crossing the ball in and watching your striker somehow power a header into the top corner when he was a massive underdog to even reach the ball before the covering defender did. Chipped through balls are also way too powerful once again. Lobbing the ball over the midfield and watching two defenders get confused as your striker runs between them and picks up the loose ball is nothing short of a step backwards, given that this was a glaring issue that was fixed back in FIFA 12. Also returning for the fourth or fifth year in succession, whether the development team like to admit it or not, are the absolutely frustrating periods of play where the CPU suddenly becomes much, much better than it has any right to be. For 80 minutes, you can dominate your opponent, preventing them from keeping the ball for more than a pass or two at a time. Then, if they’re not winning, as soon as there are only ten minutes left to go – and no matter who they are – they suddenly turn into the greatest players in the world. Lower league players will suddenly learn to turn on a sixpence in order to avoid your sliding tackles. They’ll fend off your standing challenges as if the ball is glued to their toe. They’ll pass the ball around you like the 1980s Liverpool back four. Of course, they’ll more often than not grab a winner or an equalizer in the final minute or two as a reward.
There are a number of players in the FIFA community that deny that this happens and blame a lack of skill on behalf of the guy or girl with the controller. But with the changes to the game engine this year, it’s even more blatant than before. Accrington Stanley can go 2-0 down within the first 15 minutes and not have a single shot all match, only to suddenly have seven shots – all on target - in the last five minutes of play, with three of them hitting the back of the net? Do us a favour, ref.
Off the field, the usual minor pulls and pushes have been made to keep things fresh. The new “tiles” style interface is something of a success, but does serve to indicate just how large and sprawling FIFA has become as a whole. When you’re having to tell your friend that they can find the “Highlights of the Week” mode by going to the second tile on the first screen, and pushing the right stick three times, you have to wonder whether or not the game is laid out particularly well from a structural standpoint. We’re not saying that any modes should be taken out, but why for example, are “Online Be a Pro” and the standard offline version of that mode in two entirely different places? Why not give us a “Be a Pro” option and let us select whether we want to play offline or online? Nobody will have time to master or beat all of the different types on play that are available, and players that are new to the franchise will have a tough time getting their head around all of the combinations and variations that are on offer. With no exaggeration, we’re pretty sure that some new players won’t ever see some of the options that are on offer, given how hidden they are. If the truth is told, FIFA hasn’t had a new menu system for five years. The frontend has changed, sure, but all of the options that sit behind it have stayed pretty much the same. That needs to be addressed next year before things really get out of control.
FIFA 14 is a potentially superb game that needs a tweak or two to push it close to the heights of sporting greatness. Solid gameplay, so many ways of playing that you’ll probably be confused for days, and that all-important “just one more match” draw that will keep you playing well past the end of the real season mean that there’s only one destination for football fans this year. It ain’t perfect, but it’s an improved version of FIFA 13 that feels like a whole new game at times.