Everyone’s favourite football game returns with an interface overhaul and the promise of more realism
Every year, EA Canada sets out to do one thing exactly: make a better FIFA game than they did the last year. We’ve always been given a slightly more polished release than the previous avatar — not to mention more evolved gameplay that was easy to pick up and play, while difficult to master. This is exactly the reason why FIFA has managed to grow its audience year after year, and a factor in making its competitive scene such as success. FIFA 14 attempts to achieve all of this, while adding more depth not just to the core gameplay, but to the in-game ecosystem. But is it really a better game than last year’s outing?
The short answer is “yes” if you’re a hardcore FIFA nut looking for a bigger challenge and an indifferent “not really” if you’re only a casual player. The reason behind the latter? Well, for starters, EA seems to have rushed a release that’s buggier than any day-one FIFA release that I can remember in the recent past. We’ll get to the rest of the items on that list in a bit, but let’s first look at one particular aspect that required the much-needed overhaul it’s finally got: the interface. Gone are the days of the ugly, side-scrolling, supremely counterintuitive and confusing menus. You are now greeted with large, cleanly designed tiles both in and out of a match. EA Canada has even incorporated a “live” tile system (no doubt inspired by Windows 8) which gives you alerts within a tile — it works particularly well if you’re playing Career mode (scouting reports, e-mail alerts), or FIFA Ultimate Team. In short, in makes navigating through FIFA’s near-insane number of features a breeze, all the while looking quite pretty.
However, what’s not quite so pretty is how a match plays out when FIFA 14’s flaws all decide to turn up at the stadium. First, the game is far less accessible than any previous release of FIFA. FIFA 13 players will be able to adapt to the new ball and player physics, but new players are likely to be put off by the fact that holding down the sprint button (a tendency among all casual players) unless completely open will result in your player losing the ball. EA’s famous player impact engine returns as well, and if the retail release of FIFA 14 is any indication, can cause even more comical moments than in FIFA 13. There was one instance in a Tottenham vs. Chelsea encounter where I found the entire midfields of both sides piled up in the middle of the pitch (a move more becoming of a game like WWE 2K14, which began when Dembele clotheslined Ramires). Play was obviously not stopped. Then there’s the “weight” to everything, the positive side to which is the way the ball dips and curves while feeling heavier, resulting in shooting, crossing and passing feeling more realistic. Players, however (at least those that aren’t Messi and Ronaldo), feel clumsy, with the new shielding and precision movement system rendering all but the strongest and quickest of defenders useless.
The development team’s heart is in the right place: they’ are trying to create as organic an experience as possible for the player. In effect, they want each match in FIFA 14 to be comparable to a match on TV — physical midfield battles, defensive high-lines, pressing, darting runs on the wing, and shooting that is directly affected by the striker’s balance. The players on the pitch (at least in theory) have their behaviour mapped to a various set of attributes that make them better or worse at a particular aspect of the game. In fact, the Xbox One and Playstation 4 versions of FIFA 14 will feature EA’s new Ignite Engine, which will add real-world intelligence to players, making them close virtual representations of their human counterparts. But until then, FIFA 14 on current-gen consoles remains a hand-me-down of sorts; one that is more influenced by math and clearly-defined gameplay constraints.
But an upgrade is logical, particularly if you’re a fan of the series. Roster updates (although the retail copy still has Gareth Bale in Tottenham and Mesut Özil in Real Madrid, whom I unsuccessfully tried to sign for Arsenal in Career mode) aside, Career, FUT, online and offline modes are the best they’ve ever been in the series. The interface upgrade is a major positive as well (not just the tiles, but team management as well, where you’ll be able to quick-swap players in the same position without having to scroll down to your substitutes). Visual and audio improvements, while not substantial, contribute to the experience of a newer, better FIFA. This isn’t usually said about a sports franchise, but FIFA 14 has potential to be the best FIFA yet — but only if EA is able to patch the day-one release, fixing issues and balancing gameplay.