With English football in its biggest flux in years, thanks to the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson and a transfer window bordering on the ridiculous, it’s fitting that FIFA find itself in a similar state of uncertainty. While this PS3 and 360 version of FIFA 14 will be the most profitable for EA, everyone’s looking to the next-gen debut to see just where digital football is heading in the next few years. Will it be the revolution that FIFA 09 was in this generation? Or merely a graphical overhaul, trapped by the limitations of an engine that’s starting to show its age?
Sadly, no one will know for a couple more months, and we all have to make do with that very same ageing engine. FIFA 14 is probably the least revolutionary football game in some years – a near carbon copy of its predecessor that makes tiny adjustments in key areas, the likes of which many players might not even notice.
Just as a great manager needs only miniscule tweaks to turn goodness into greatness, so too FIFA 14 manages to fix most of 13’s major issues by simply dialling up the detail. Every football game review usually rattles off a hitlist of what has changed (usually involving some arbitrary discussion of physicality between opposing players), but here there’s almost nothing else to talk about. So here we go.
The major alteration, clearly, is shooting. It’s been FIFA’s weakness for a while – a lack of variety in shooting animations and angles has led to the same goals being scored over and over again. It’s not that players haven’t been able to score great goals, it’s that they’ve not been able to score many different great goals. There’s only so many times you can enjoy a cut-back that’s swept into the net by a striker with a planted foot, or an angled drive into the top corner from 16 yards.
FIFA 14 reaches ever closer to PES’s unusual magic by making more goals feel unique. ‘More’ – not ‘every’. Now when you fire a cross into the box, your striker might attempt to attack the ball in a number of different ways, be it a lunging slide or a measured side-foot. Yes, the awkward planted shot is still there, but it means the same passing movement can still lead to different goals. These changes may sound small, and they are, but they do make FIFA 14 feel more organic and ‘real’ than before. Striking the ball is more natural and scoring more satisfying.
Having said that, though, you can’t escape the feeling that this game has come as far as it possibly can on this generation of hardware. The animation system; once so crucial in FIFA’s dominant return to the summit of football gaming, feels stiff and heavy now. Despite claims to the contrary, it’s still far too difficult to beat a man when dribbling, especially when playing against the heavy-pressing AI (which is more fun to battle than before, but still very defensive and laborious).
Often, it feels like you’re playing with a team of well-meaning robots who are well-programmed in the ways of football, but never quite understand exactly what’s going on. They don’t look in the right direction during play, they stand still when the ball’s in the net; they just don’t feel quite right. For all its faults – PES has been light years ahead in this department for years, and it just feels like FIFA needs more horsepower to get its players looking and acting more naturalistic.
There’s nothing significant to complain about, really. FIFA 14 is still a tremendously enjoyable game – and when it flows is a captivating simulacrum of the world’s most popular sport. It’s especially good at recreating football in transition – the swift change between attack and defense. Watching a team like Real Madrid or even Manchester United counter attack is a joy, with players making intelligent runs and the space on the pitch conveniently removing the concerns that come from trying to navigate an otherwise sticky midfield.
Teams and players still lack individuality, too. While it’s easy to distinguish between a lunking Rio Ferdinand and a spritely David Silva, there’s very little between say, Gotze and Ozil, or Nani and Valencia. Once again, this is an area where PES has a sizeable advantage, and probably the most important aspect for FIFA to improve for next-gen.
These are not big enough problems to remotely disappoint the legions of FIFA fans who’ve grown accustomed to the way the game works, but how about what’s happening in the many, many menus that drown the front end with their various interlocking boxes and layered options? Well, you certainly can’t fault the wealth of choice. From an improved career (see The Sack Race) to ‘the forgotten man’ Be A Pro, FIFA 14 has every possible angle covered.
Of course, it’s the combination of Online Seasons and the behemoth that is Ultimate Team that’ll really light fires under the dedicated FIFA community, but with servers not up at the time of writing, it’s impossible to judge how they’ve changed. The smart money is on ‘not a lot’, given their overwhelming popularity.
A curious year, then, for FIFA. Just as we can’t know the intricacies of Ultimate Team until cards are bought and sides are picked, nor can we know the full impact of EA’s beast until the next-gen version makes its mark, with the Ignite engine powering little Messi’s legs all the way to victory. Until then, you’ll have to put up with more of the same. We’re sure 20-odd million of you won’t mind.