In last year’s FIFA review, I joked that EA Sports might one day rebrand the game as Sky Sports’ FIFA, and it appears that my attempt at humour was bang on the money. A host of changes once again pervade the latest iteration of EA’s blockbuster football game, and while some are more successful than others, there are also areas that have been all but ignored for FIFA 15.
But let’s get one of the biggest changes out of the way right now: the presentation. FIFA 15 looks so much like a Sky Sports presentation, it’s uncanny. You could walk in the room as a match is starting up and double-take, it’s that well done. But aside from the graphical overlays that tell us who is playing where, an attention to detail has been given to the audio department, too. EA are quick to promote the fact they’ve been to the twenty premiership grounds and captured the various crowds in action – and when this is evident in-game, it’s fairly spectacular. The crowd singing “You’ll never walk alone” is something that could even make the hairs on the back of an Everton fan’s neck stand up. When a goal is scored, the volume increases like an explosion of passion and delight, and the camera visibly shakes to match the crowd’s raucous celebration. It’s fantastic, there’s really no other way to put it. Smaller but noticeable features like the pitch wearing as the match progresses are nice and add to the immersion, but the crowds break it a little as they still don’t look quite right.
That said, the presentation can take centre-stage too often, and unskippable scenes during matches are annoying. After you’ve seen the ref brandish a yellow card, where the players react and show the much vaunted emotion of FIFA 15 for the tenth time, you just want to skip it – but you can’t. It’s inexplicable as to when it happens, but it’s almost always when a card is flashed, or when you’re in a hurry and want to get on with the game. On the subject of the “emotion”, I honestly haven’t spotted too much of it. Players will look annoyed when a striker misses instead of passing, or fall out when things are going against them, but it doesn’t seem as big a deal as you’d think.
But it’s the on-the pitch action that matters, and the changes to the gameplay are both a blessing and a curse. First of all, attacking play in FIFA 15 is some of the most satisfying I’ve ever experienced – when it works. There does seem to be a propensity for shots that go in (or wide) off-the-bar, almost as though EA Canada are trying to give you wow-moments, as the audio of the bar being hit is like a dynamite explosion. However, this could also be because wing-play is a lot harder, and swinging a ball in seems to have had its effectiveness reduced. Expect to run down the left with a nippy winger and hit a cross that either doesn’t reach the target, or is ably defended against. Headers are not easy to score on anything above semi-pro difficulty any more, though when you do, they’re often screamers.
This results in a lot of attacking play coming through the middle, where the more realistic dribbling either works really well, or frustrates beyond belief. You can’t turn on a sixpence any more, and you’ll have to learn how to use the sprint button and trick stick to get by, or else rely on quick movement and passing. It’s an impressive re-enactment of the beautiful game, but it also reduces the fun factor. Those who hanker for a more realistic football experience will delight in this, but those of you who just want to lose yourself in a video game may find it less fun.
For once, the players feel unique, though. A quick winger will be muscled off the ball by a strong-arming defender; likewise, a slow centre back will be left for dead by a Navas, Walcott, or Messi. The more lifelike physics mean that if you mistime a tackle, that player is out of the game. Ray Wilkins would love FIFA 15, because it’s all about staying on your feet and making it count. If you aren’t sure you’re going to win the ball, then you need to contain the attacker instead, or bring in a second player to hustle them away from goal as you step in for the tackle.
Sadly, there are still moments of extreme frustration when defending. Three successful tackles and they’ve still got the ball? That’s still in, I’m afraid. It’s a steep learning curve, so expect to drop back a difficulty to begin with, just for the defending part of the game alone. It’s a strange beast, actually – often you’ll feel as though you are fighting the physics, because there are so many individual components that maintain the random nature of the game, that it doesn’t always work for the game.
Keepers have been vastly improved, too. Don’t expect many one-sided batterings here, unless you’re playing on Beginner. They will parry, save, punch or otherwise stop you from easy goals, and that’s if the defenders even let you get a shot away in the first place, as they throw their body into the way as if their life depends on it. Keepers can be inconsistent, though, and you’ll go from the sublime to the ridiculous; suddenly scoring the most outrageous long-shot you’ve ever seen, before then taking part in a complete shut-out in the following game.
One touch that is most welcome is the ability to switch to the receiver when taking a corner or a throw-in. A flick of the right stick allows you to command a player and call for the ball. With throw-ins this seems a far more effective way of actually getting the ball, though corners are hit or miss; though this led to me taking a lot of short corners and calling for a runner.
The ball feels looser here, as well. Often in previous FIFA titles no matter how hard you hit the ball, it always felt like it was pre-ordained to arrive to the target. Here, the ball is a physical object. You’ll sky it over everyone for a throw-in, but because the players are physically realistic, you’ll also miss that last ditch attempt to keep the ball in. But there are anomalies, and I lost count of the times the defensive AI would hit a huge panicked clearance that bypasses the entire midfield and coincidentally lands at their attacking man, who is now in a one-on-one with my last defender.
But oh, when it all works, it’s delicious. I lost count of the times I shouted “Xbox, record that!” or hit the Share button. Numerous times I visibly jumped from my seat in excitement, the swelling of the crowd cheering me on. Despite it all, there are moments of absolute gaming bliss to be had here.
Ultimate Team has had numerous additions, though most of them are short-term prospects. The idea of loaning one of the best players in the game is ace, but once you’ve used them, that’s it, and the Football Catalog has a limited number of loanable players, which (like everything in EASFC, which itself has undergone an upgrade, allowing you to share, comment, like and dislike happenings) are one-time use. You can’t loan legends on Xbox One, either, which feels a missed opportunity. Concept Squads are nice, allowing you to create (but not play with) a dream squad and share with your friends, and these are at least slightly more long-term, allowing you to see how a potential player might gel with your squad, then go out and buy him. The biggest new feature to FUT is friendly seasons, meaning you can play against your friends, rather than random online players that you’d have to normally.
Disappointingly, Career Mode has been all-but ignored this year, bar a few cosmetic changes. that are present in the rest of the game anyway. The team management is now a more visual affair, with player’s faces appearing on a pitch, allowing you to move their positions on the fly (PES has done this for years, just FYI). Unfortunately, it’s a mixed bag, and takes up far more real estate than the old version, which was admittedly slow and cumbersome. You can create and name multiple teams, so you can (as we all do, every year) decide on a team for the league, and one for cups.
There’re some nice touches in the commentary during Career Mode, though. It feels more true to life to hear Alan Smith comment how you won the last match convincingly, but that it was against Crystal Palace, and Everton might pose a more severe threat. They did, incidentally, hammering my Arsenal 2-0. I could barely get a shot away. It’s also in Career Mode that the new tactical offerings such as all-out attack or park the bus appear more often. Seeing that Everton literally park the bus once 2-0 up was impressive, but frustrating. You can’t be too mad about a gameplan being executed by the AI, though.
Elsewhere, aside cosmetic touches, the only major change is to the online lobbies, which are far better to use, and show you live updates and scores while you wait to join the next match. You can also have more control over scouting players to join your Pro Club, but in truth, it’s likely most people are going to stick with their friend-group, anyway.
FIFA 15 provides moments of exquisite pleasure, and also obscene frustration. When the planets align and you score a wonder strike, you’ll feel like a God, but when you’re playing away on a rainy night in Stoke, unable to breach a parked bus defence, you’ll long for less realism altogether, even though the on-the-fly tactical changes are themselves very impressive.
EA Canada can’t win in that respect, because whichever angle they cater toward, they’ll always be upsetting someone else. It’s a shame Career Mode has seen such little love this year, but regardless, there are enough changes overall that FIFA feels a very different game this year. They’ve not reinvented the wheel, just put shinier trims on it, and perhaps this isn’t the year that the presentation needed to take centre stage.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.
Review code provided by publisher.