With FIFA 14, EA Sports have made the biggest changes to the way the game plays in recent memory. It could be a moment that splits the fans, however, because the impact on gameplay is drastic, and one that takes a lot of getting used to.
And that in itself is impressive, because with the next-generation of consoles on the horizon, and the new Ignite Engine coming to FIFA 14 for PS4 and Xbox One, it’s in stark contrast to the EA Sports of old and in no way a quick cut and paste job to see out the current line of consoles.
Starting with the UI, it could almost be argued that FIFA 14 on Xbox 360 and PS3 is the beginning of the new-look FIFA – the lead-in to the new generation. Clean, vibrant menus greet the player from the get-go, allowing for quick, easy access to almost all modes. Some of the ideas are so simple, but so effective. For example, when you boot up FIFA 14, if you’ve a Career Mode in progress, on the very first menu you see there will be the option to continue it. It’s not something you’d describe as the most earth shattering change, but it’s simple and smart.
This UI change pervades the entirety of FIFA 14, too. Hitting the pause menu during a match will give you the option to change your formation with the flick of the right stick. There are 5 pre-set formations you can tinker with, and if you want to switch from a simple 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 it is (as long as you’ve set it up to be one of your pre-sets) a lovely addition to be able to do it without entering the squad menu and fiddling around. That said, the squad lists have been updated so that you can fly through them quicker, instead of the lumbering slow manner in which they previously worked. If you don’t like the new quick tactics options, the old method is just as viable.
At the risk of harping on about the aesthetics and menus for too long, it’s also worth noting that the modern game being so intrinsically linked to TV coverage (the likes of Sky Sports, especially) means that stats, news stories and God knows what else are either constantly flying at you, or never more than a click away. Emails are accessed with the simple tap of the triangle (Y on Xbox 360) button and separated by serious business emails and player interactions. Most of these interactions boil down to a player asking for game-time, but it’s a nice touch nonetheless. A third tab allows you to archive particular emails (rather than delete), and anything that is actionable is doable from within the email, meaning no additional clicks or delving into 6-page-deep options is necessary. All of this adds up to making Career Mode more intuitive when outside of the actual matches, which is excellent.
FIFA 14 looks great, of course, though it doesn’t appear to be a huge leap in terms of graphical fidelity from the last game (UI aside, of course). The knowledge that a next-gen version is coming does make it even harder to stomach the horrendous crowd scenes that stifle the atmosphere so, though in better news it does appear that some of the mugshots of the players have been updated, and there generally appear to be far less out-of-date images in and around the menus.
The aforementioned deeper links to Sky Sports means that Jeff Stelling will hand over to the commentary team before each match, then sum things up at the end, too. It’s a nice touch, but it’s a bit strange, especially with Ultimate Team matches – it’s stilted and feels out of place. One wonders if an eventual re-brand to “BSKYB’s EA FIFA” is on the cards one of these days. The crowd seems louder than ever, and feel dynamic in places. A goal scored by the home team seemed like the loudest thing I’d ever heard in a game, which is great – though you could argue that a Bolton crowd has never been that loud, ever.
But all of this will eventually become less important, because as anyone will know, football games can look fantastic and sound even better, but it won’t mean a thing if the on-pitch action is awful. Thankfully, FIFA 14 plays incredibly well, but is very, very different to previous incarnations.
If you’re one of those players that holds the sprint button for the full 90 minutes, you’d best try to stop now before the game is in your hands, because you will be punished. FIFA 14 makes ball control feel vital, with an attempt at a more realistic physics experience. If you sprint everywhere when defending, you’ll have an incredibly hard time getting the ball back, and any half-decent player will make you look a fool as you charge about, mistiming absolutely everything. In attack, sprinting is more useful, but it’s worth mentioning that the trick stick now no longer requires holding a trigger modifier down, instead you can just… well… do the tricks using the stick.
One of the things I’ve always disliked about FIFA is that some on-the-ball options just felt worthless. How many times would you hit a long pass (square) only for it to always end in head tennis. Now, the new-found considered approach to the game has made the pitch feel larger, which in turn gives you space. It’s like discovering a new move in a favourite game, and suddenly you’re using less through-balls, relying on the space that allows a massive long-ball to fall to your attacker’s feet – he can then control it, and there’s thinking time and breathing space.
Shooting feels different too, thanks to the new pure shot. You can still score a screamer, but the “come inside, finesse into the corner” isn’t anywhere near as prevalent. You’ll hit the bar, you’ll miss, and the keeper will save it. It’s hard to tell if this is due to the physics of the ball or the player – or if they’ve just made the keepers better. But, one thing is for sure, even on the lower difficulties, this will stop the frequent 9-0 score lines, which makes even the lesser quality players feel like they’re playing football, and not a video game version of football. It’s so rewarding to experiment with positioning the players before shooting, but like much of the rest of FIFA 14, it takes some serious getting used to.
All of this adds up to a more balanced game. Hell, I even scored a header in which I beat the keeper trying to catch the ball. I’m still unsure if this was some kind of bug or something that can happen now, but either way, it was a monumental moment. Goals are celebrated in local play among friends with such euphoria, because every single one feels like you earned it.
If this sounds like gushing praise, it should, but all of this is very much a “your mileage may vary” affair. There’s no doubt that some people will utterly detest this new FIFA. They’ll hate the tippy-tappy nature, the slow build-up play. They’ll despise how the defending has moved to an even more precision-based ordeal, or how even with the assists fully-on, passes can go awry, throw-ins will miss their targets, and hard-hit cross-field balls will over-shoot the target, or be under-hit. Some may even hate how the personality of players has come along, because you’ll sure as hell feel the difference between playing as a top tier team and a lower league one, more than ever. But persevere and it’ll make you a better player; I’m sure of that much. It feels as though EA Sports have tried to make a game that doesn’t let you break the boundaries of reality with magic physics: if you couldn’t really do it, then you can’t do it here.
Something that adds yet more depth is the Global Scouting Network that is now a part of Career Mode. With each iteration upon this mode, FIFA grows ever closer to the management sim-style of football game, and means you’ll be spending as much time in the menus as you do actually playing football (if not more). However, it’s a welcome addition, and allows you to hire scouts to send anywhere in the world to find you players. You can set up networks in regions you think might yield the best players, or just have a guess – it’s all down to the amount of time you want to invest in this part of the game.
It’s a nice idea but don’t expect immediate results unless you pay the big money for the best scouts. After finding a player based on the criteria you’ve set, you will need to decide to scout further, or leave them be. Scouting further will mean that you’ll gradually reveal more details about their skills (with their overall rating span closing in, so you’ve a more accurate perception of how good they actually are) so as to make a final decision, because eventually you will have scouted them fully and that’s all there is left to do.
Of course, for those so inclined, Ultimate Team returns and is more streamlined than ever. Massively popular, the changes feel mostly cosmetic thanks to the new UI, with the largest focus appearing to have been on the Career Mode and the new Co-Op Seasons. It’s ever so close to my most wanted new FIFA mode (one day I’ll get a Co-Op Career Mode), but is perhaps closer to the F1 games’ co-op mode. Basically, you and a friend can go online and take on people in 2 vs 2 matches, progressing from the bottom leagues to the top tiers, hopefully. With Match Day now having an affect on this mode (and Seasons Mode) this does mean that good form can change games in FIFA 14, as in real life.
VERDICT: Thanks to the gameplay changes alone, FIFA 14 is an essential purchase for any football gaming fan. It feels so different that it may even gain back long-term fans lost along the way, though there’s also a risk that EA Sports might lose a few for the same reasons.
There are definitely areas that can be improved for the next-generation of football games (the crowds are appallingly rendered and stand out more than ever, and there’s always more immersion that can be created – I personally dislike custom celebrations) but this is a bold statement from the FIFA team that states they aren’t resting on their laurels for anyone, or anything.
SUPERB. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.