Review - FIFA 14
Not every year will be a big, mind blowing, paradigm-shifting year for an annual sports game series. Part of that is just because if the real game isn't making big drastic changes, the video game can't make big drastic changes lest they get off the path of becoming “just like the real thing.” Another reason is that it isn't always about huge advancements but, rather, improving the little things that add up. That's what the FIFA series has done this year. They aren't as glamorous as the additions EA Sports' other titles have made this fall, but they're a bunch of small things that make a more realistic on-field experience.
For me, that starts with remapping of some of the controls for when you have the ball. For several years, skill moves involved holding down the LT/L2 trigger and flicking the right analog stick. It could slow things down at a point in the flow of play where excitement and pace should be ramping up. Now skill moves are performed solely with the right stick and happen with a natural pacing, making it more appealing to actually use those moves. The Knock On maneuver was something of an afterthought for me in the past, maybe because it felt like your player would put the ball too far forward and lose possession in the process. Now with the defenders' improved ability to get after the ball carrier, the shortened kick can be vital to create space for a shot on goal.
Even if you're clear to shoot, that ball could go anywhere thanks to improved ball physics. Like the crazy balls Adidas keeps putting out, your shot in FIFA 14 will dip and swerve, creating nightmares for goalies. The nightmare fuel comes courtesy of the new Pure Shot system. With Pure Shot, players are now more intelligent and will try to adjust their stride and approach angle to take the best shot possible. With it, beautiful shots become a little more beautiful, the ugly shots have a few more warts, and the ones that get rejected by the crossbar come with additional disappointment.
True to reality, that disappointment can now be preceded by a better build-up thanks to the improved teammate AI. I can't begin to count the number of times in the past that my attacks died out because no one was moving off the ball to receive a pass or clear out the defenders. The runs your teammates make to carve open the defense will have goalies shitting themselves. On the flip-side, a competent set of defenders will be better about tracking back and not living or dying by the offside trap. All of these small tweaks I've mentioned have combined to create what a great sports game should have: that certain kind of unpredictability. Exciting moments in sports can come from out of the blue, but the limitations of a game's programming hindered that in the past. Players knew when a play was over, but EA Sports is taking significant steps to end that and create a more exciting product.
It would be nice if they would also step up the graphics while they're at it. Maybe it's because this current console generation is starting to wind down, but EA Sports didn't put much effort into improving the on-field graphics this time. It's a bit of a bummer that the game pretty much looks like last year. Recycled visuals make it hard to not feel like I'm playing last year's game, even if those gameplay improvements are trying really hard to convince me otherwise. The commentary helps keep me in the present as EA Sports has done a good job of generating speech that is relevant to the here and now, even if it hurts. I played the North London Derby for my first game in FIFA 14, and the commentators referencing the actual positions of the two teams in the standings was a nice touch, especially being accurate to the day. Then Martin Tyler mentioned how long it's been since Arsenal won a trophy and how they'd been selling their big players, and reality came crashing back down. The truth hurts, but I appreciate the accuracy in things like that. Lines about things like the TV picture shaking not because the TV is messed up, but because the fans at the stadium are shaking the building which is messing with the camera help bring players into the virtual presentation the way an actual broadcast would. There's even someone who is supposed to be “in studio” taking the “audience” to and from the game. He's an added touch of realism, but he was quickly skipped over after the first couple times.
Away from the field, or pitch depending on where you are in the world, FIFA 14 has smoothed out some rough edges in the interfaces and things like Ultimate Team. It's much easier to get around now that FIFA's general interface isn't trying to be too clever for its own good. That's probably to do with EA trying to make their games more Kinect friendly, but I can appreciate it just as much playing with my controller. The simplified interface is also one of the ways it's become easier to build your Ultimate Team.
Provided that you have an FUT save from FIFA 13 on your hard drive, FIFA 14 hooks you up with a thank you gift of a few player card packs, setting you up with a little extra gold in your club. Something that I liked about the latest version of Ultimate Team was the removal of players' preferred formations, no longer requiring you to find the player you want, but having to find the formation version that works for you. I got a striker to play in my 4-4-2 that stayed on my bench last year because he wanted to play in a 5-2-2-1. Now that he's not determined to be the ornament at the top of the Christmas tree, he can be a part of my Spanish super team. The way players can stand out now is through chemistry modifiers. With these, you'll fine tune your players role in the team. Midfielders will conduct the team like a Maestro and nothing will get past your goalie when he gets cat-like reflexes. Anything you want to build your team your way can now be found more easily in the transfer market's refined interface. If you're playing on Xbox 360 or Xbox One, that will soon include legends of the game like Pele. But for me, I'll just collect all the Arsenal legends and pretty much rebuild the Invincibles.
EA Sports has added a bunch of things to FIFA that make this year an improvement on its predecessor. I appreciate the changes they've made, and understand what it means for the overall product. They've made a really good game, and I can't argue against that. It's just that the changes don't make me want to go out and buy it if I own FIFA 13. This is one of those weird generation transition years so I'd expect something big next year, but FIFA 14 doesn't change the game the way Madden 25 did. If you didn't get FIFA last year, this one is certainly worth getting. If you own FIFA 13, I think you can wait to see what EA Sports does next year.
8/10 - Great