Eight years ago the world of football games was very different. Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer was king and all EA’s series could offer were better likenesses and official player names. It was the dawning of this current generation that swung things in FIFA’s favour, a shift in fortunes that now sees the gulf between the two series bigger than ever.
The benefits and pitfalls of a lengthy console cycle can be debated, but for iterative sports games it has been a blessing. With each year that has passed FIFA has been refining itself into the solid and all-conquering beast we see today.
At a preview event last week, the assembled journalists saw the game in action on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, and were told point blank that there would be no talk of other versions, be they handheld or next gen.
So plainly this wasn’t a show about grabbing the big next gen FIFA headline, this was about the little things, about EA Sports tinkering under the bonnet of the FIFA machine. Similarly their gameplay shifts aren’t about flamboyant attacking football and wonder strikes, the changes that have been made are all about build-up play and midfield wars.
It all began with impressive stats – 4.4 million Week One Sales, 2.1 billion games played – but despite blowing their own trumpet, the overall impression EA Sports gave was one of modesty. They are fully-aware of the faults with FIFA 13 and were happy to lay them out before expanding on what they had learned and how they planned to rectify.
The first and biggest complaint was about the fast-pace of the gameplay. Often in FIFA 13, matches would turn into end-to-end ping pong games, resulting in a game closer to an arcade-like experience than a simulation. As any football fan can attest, the joy of a great goal isn’t always in the shot. It’s often in the build-up and that’s what EA are aiming to replicate in FIFA 14 by slowing things down and bringing the ball back to the middle of the park.
Shielding the ball is perhaps the change that will most emphasise this. It was possible in FIFA 13 but tricky to pull off unless stationary, where it was automatic. Here with a simple pull of the left trigger a player will slow down and protect the ball at his feet. Whilst sprinting this brings the pace of play down a notch, allowing your team mates to move forward and for you better assess the next phase of play.
In the right hands this could be a very dangerous tool, the potential for midfield generals to the boss game could have a huge impact on a matches. However, rarely is one player responsible for a whole team’s success, even the great Lionel Messi (again the poster boy for FIFA this year) needs the support of his equally-great team. To this end the team-mate AI has been greatly improved.
Your team’s defenders will now track multiple phases of play and consequently make better decisions. They will also put defensive pressure on more players. So if a winger is getting the best of you down the flank, defenders out of your control will move closer to opposing strikers in case said winger gets a cross in.
On the attacking side of things, backing into defenders is going to make a world of difference to penalty area scraps. Used by shielding the ball, backing into the opposition creates space and allows for support to come, possibly freeing up that all-important chance. Something else that will totally change the attacking game is the wealth of new shooting animations. Where previously there was a single shooting animation with player models often sliding into the correct position if they were too far away from the ball, now the animation depends on a number of factors that also effect accuracy. For example, a player might readjust themselves for a better shot if they have enough space, and if the player finds themselves over the ball or without much time to shoot, they will stab it at and the shot will more often than not be wildly inaccurate.
Also affecting finishing are re-worked ball physics. Previous games, by the developer’s own admission, weren’t great in this area, so they did a lot of research on the effects of drag and spin on a variety of footballs for FIFA 14. The linear deceleration of the ball, which becomes clear after seeing an example from FIFA 13, is also now gone.
These new physics allow for new types of shots – dipping shots, low-rising shots (demonstrated with real world footage of a Steven Gerrard screamer) – will add variety that will make certain goals all the more incredible and glorious to pull off. The changes also affect long passes and through balls, which can now be curled for even more attacking devastation.
Also on the attacking front, players now also carry more momentum than ever before, which in practice means that sprinting will push the ball away at varying distances, opening up more options for the player but also more opportunities for defenders to regain possession. Increased fidelity in the arc at which a player can turn while sprinting will also affect attacking play.Defending players now also have the opportunity for a second chance tackle. Making tackles less “last ditch” than in previous games, there is a small window of opportunity to hit tackle button again for a second chance.
Skill Games were a very popular aspect of FIFA 13 and so a lot of effort has gone into making this element bigger and better than before. First introduced to make load times less laborious, now they are more of a whole mode in of itself. We weren’t shown a whole lot, but one improvement was that some games now have multiple lined-up balls instead of cold restarts, adding a better flow to proceedings.
We were also shown two new skill games that were touted as favourites among the development team. One was a simple one-touch exercise with one player running on one side of a line of cones, passing sporadically to team-mates who will one-two it back to the running player. The other was a game of keep-away. A handful of opposition players try to gain possession from you as you and your team endeavour to keep the ball for as long as possible. It looks addictive.
Finally, and for the first time at a FIFA unveiling, the press were shown some of the improvements to the game’s career mode. The hub has been greatly changed from the cluttered mess of FIFA 13. Replacing it (as you can see from the screenshots in this very article) is a much sleeker design utilising tabs for the better juggling of the various aspects of career mode.
On the management side of things there are also big changes coming to the Global Scout Network. Players will now be able to plan all season long for transfer windows, allowing for in-depth scouting that returns refined results. There is also the ability to search for specific traits; so if you’re in need of a tall centre back or a pacey winger, you can better find suitable targets. Each of your scouts also have their own part of the menu, so you can assign them to locations and see the players they have found.
EA Sports is clearly a well-oiled machine happy to be building upon a great and solid football game assembled over the duration of this current console cycle. The biggest questions about FIFA 14 will undoubtedly be about the next-gen versions that will almost certainly be announced in the coming months, we hope.
The changes being made to current gen FIFA, however, look to be sensible and take the series in a direction that will please a lot of fans. In the near-future the headlines will be stolen by our first glimpse of a PlayStation 4 or next-Xbox football game, but whether those are good or bad, we can be sure that behind them will be as great a FIFA as we have come to expect.
FIFA 14 will be released in Fall 2013 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC.