The standard review introduction to any EA Sports franchise often begins with such phrases as “it’s that time of year again”, “is this year more revolution than evolution?” and “does another franchise close the gap this year?” - these can apply to NHL, NFL, NBA (well not this year), Tiger Woods (again, not this year) and FIFA. Now whilst this could be considered lazy writing it’s absolutely always spot on, perfectly valid and neatly highlights the way in which these franchises should be assessed. EA have the market pretty much sewn up with the likes of FIFA, partly due to their superb online offering and partly due to Konami’s inability to compete - however even though the Pro Evo option continues to laughably flounder, releasing a game with a new engine (woo hoo) but sadly with a game built on top of it that pretty much doesn’t work along with a dreadful set of online modes, EA still takes the time to evolve the console versions of FIFA. Granted they change the rosters on handheld versions and release the same game at the same price doing nothing to shirk their ‘worst company in the world’ moniker but on console at least, they do seem to make a concerted effort.
So here we are, FIFA 14, firmly in the evolution rather than revolution camp, introducing subtle gameplay tweaks along with a handful of new modes and general improvements to the solid mega selling previous version, FIFA 13.
When first booting up FIFA 14 what will hit you immediately is a mixture of familiarity along with a new interface that whilst potentially jarring, is actually a vast improvement. The Windows 8-like interface presents the content in sharp large boxes, some riddled with the latest achievements from your friends list, others showing real life football news, all presenting the wealth of options available within the title in a really nice, easy to use way. Granted not everybody will have been exposed to a Windows 8 tile based interface yet but it’s so easy to use that it would be very surprising if users didn’t believe it to be an improvement on last year. All modes are easily accessed from the main menu and navigating around is fairly swift in general but can sometimes struggle to keep up with a player who knows what he or she wants.
The huge list of game modes is ever present so you can play (deep breath) solo tournaments, solo career, online career, one off matches, online seasons, online cups, offline seasons, offline cups, clubs with up to ten friends, drop in clubs matches to beef up your online pro, a full manager’s career as well as the always hugely popular ultimate team, a firm favourite in most EA Sports franchises but never more played than in FIFA. As if that little lot wasn’t enough to keep you entertained they have now added co-op seasons to fill arguably the only gap in this mammoth offering. If you were that guy with a handful of friends who love FIFA but not enough to form a club and all meet together to play then co-op seasons is a blessing. Each co-op pairing enters a five league setup and works their way to the top as a pair. The beauty of this mode is that the setup and the stats are for each pairing so you can have a ton of these going at the same time, perfect to enable that co-op experience even if you can never manage to get all your online friends together at one time. The FIFA franchise already made a mockery of its competitors but the fact that they keep plugging these small gaps with fully realised new modes year on year really makes the product stand head and shoulders above the nearest rival.
The gameplay has been tweaked in several subtle ways and the additional fluidity that can be found in the minute to minute gameplay, thanks to the vastly superior animations, makes for a much more realistic experience. There is now a real ebb and flow to proceedings; defending is a skill in itself with close control dominating attacking play along with the removal of some of the issues that plagued FIFA 13. Defenders no are no longer super human in both speed and power, most strikers you meet online which are four foot and eleven inches, gloves and stupid afros are no longer faster than the speed of light with an array of skills which would make Ronaldo jealous, the whole affair is just a little bit more balanced. It still isn’t perfect by any means, a baby striker will still out-jump and a seven foot defender on a corner and the offside rule still isn’t properly applied, same way that the advantage rule is all over the place and the most obvious element that isn’t fixed is some of the silly physics that can be seen in certain situations. When assessing all of these new fixes and still broken elements it’s important to have some form of perspective - actual football can be breakneck speed and if you stop to consider the sheer amount of behind the scenes physics calculations FIFA 14 is trying to do on an eight year old console, any reasonable individual will stop and cut it some slack.
On the list of other slight tweaks are such things as shooting, a tad easier but due to the latest upgrade the finesse shot is now a lot more difficult to pull off. Dribbling is far superior with players being able to shield the ball from opponents as well as now being able to dramatically change directly when sprinting. Passing feels more weighted and less random than it has done on previous iterations and as a result of this, along with the aforementioned changes there is much more ‘real’ feel to not only the build up play but also the intricate elements of football that occur in the final third. All in all these changes don’t necessarily make the game more fun to play but they do add levels of realism which bring us closer to the real thing. The flipside of this is that that real thing isn’t always fun but that’s the balancing act that the team at EA are constantly battling against. For this iteration it feels like a decent mix, close control gives you that freedom of creativity when on the ball and the beefed up defending makes it easier to counter.
FIFA 14 pushes the franchise forward in baby steps without providing any major surprises or new “wow” features, yet is still streets ahead of the competition and a must for any footie fan. A solid but slight evolution of the franchise, here’s hoping that the next iteration brings us closer to perfection, word is the Xbox One/PS4 version is a ground up rebuild!