The trouble with iterative sports games is that, year on year, you rarely feel like you’re truly getting a new experience on first play. Familiarity breeds contempt. So cue up The Great Escape and prepare your clumsiest Ian Holloway touchline dance, because this year’s FIFA 14 has changed more than at any time since the series moved to PS3 in 2007. It does feel like a new game, in the very best way possible.
Happily, this isn’t down to one big gimmick, but EA Canada refining and improving upon every fundamental of football. Shooting is tied directly to player animation and therefore more natural, so a perfectly timed volley both looks and feels like one. Momentum takes into account the speed and angle at which a player is moving, enabling you to beat opponents with a well-timed turn of pace rather than a ballet-worthy trick. Defending is less risk-reward. Team-mates make clever forward runs and track opposition players properly. Central midfielders get more time on the ball. Keepers are better.
The best part is how you swiftly stop noticing these upgrades and just become attuned to the smooth, fluid football FIFA serves up – never finding yourself bemoaning the AI’s super-human ball retention skills (gone!) or Messi-esque ability to score in every match (gone!). On receiving the game, I lost six hours to one-more-match-itis before even considering Seasons, Ultimate Team, or Career. It’s that moreish.
Which isn’t to say those modes don’t swiftly develop into huge timesinks once you dabble in them. At time of writing Seasons and Ultimate Team are tough to test given that there’s no one to play online (more next month), but Career mode has undergone as spectacular an overhaul as the on-pitch action: new scouting system, new menus, new ways to tailor it to your liking (for instance, swapping teams between leagues before you start, or switching off the first transfer window to keep real-life squads intact. Nice).
Career changes amount to a giant step
forward for FIFA, as is the case elsewhere. Gameplay is the best it’s been on PS3
Now, new menus aren’t usually something to get overly excited about unless you’re Paddy Kenny lining up a Domino’s Two For Tuesday, but these really do transform the long-term experience. Giant rectangular panels act as your navigation tools, leading to your team-management screen, scouting network, etc. It’s easier on both eye and brain: new emails appear in the top left of the screen while simming and can be opened by tapping triangle – but you’re mercifully no longer forced to traipse back and forth between home screen and inbox to handle every last one.
The scouting network feels more akin to Football Manager than FIFA – and for the better. Instead of searching for potential signings using attributes, you task scouts (six maximum) to find players with specific traits: eg, ‘centre back, tall, defensive-minded’ or ‘centre forward, prolific, first-team ready’. Once they’ve found targets who match those descriptions, you see a range of attributes pertaining to each, such as ‘Pace 68-78’ – but need to scout further for those ranges to narrow.
You can still search by name, club, or league, but unless listed for transfer or loan, you only initially see a player’s age and position. Again, scouting is key. The idea is that Career offers something deeper than just matches, and it’s a sound one, with results that suit your club: as Celtic in the Championship (remember what I said about swapping leagues?) I was presented with CB options such as David Wheater and Ron Vlaar, whereas my time as Exeter boss threw up cloggers from Scotland and Germany who I’d never heard of. (Rightly so – for all his awfulness, even Joleon Lescott isn’t quite League Two calibre. Yet.)
These Career changes amount to a giant step forward for FIFA, as is the case elsewhere. Gameplay is the best it’s been on PS3, and presentation is improved, too, with Jeff Stelling’s pre-match, half-time and post-match links upping the broadcast feel yet again. Whatever your thoughts on annual sports games, you really mustn’t miss this one unless you want to spend the next nine months feeling like a defeated play-off finalist. If Arsene Wenger can finance Mezut Ozil, you can definitely afford this.
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