The FIFA series is synonymous with sporting videogame excellence. Over the years, it has continued to improve - from cosmetic visuals right down to the core engine that makes it one of the most realistic sports simulators on the market today. The real success to FIFA, however, is that it attracts both a casual gaming audience, as well as keeping diehard football fans happy.
For the occasional players, FIFA offers fun, easy to pick-up and play gaming in set-timed spells; not to mention the inviting social aspects of having several friends around to punch the old onion bag. Meanwhile, the fans and actual players of football are drawn to the huge player roster, incredibly detailed physics engine, and a control system that can be expanded and mastered with enough dedication.
Last year the FIFA 13 demo was downloaded a record 1.99 million times - within three days. FIFA 14, released just last week, has achieved similar results and continues to expand on the highly acclaimed franchise. EA Sports aren't resting on their laurels by simply adding in a few new stadiums and tweaking an already winning formula either. Instead, they have created an entirely new engine to bring more realism to the world of sports videogames in the wake of next-gen consoles that are about to hit the market.
We’ll bring you more information on the new Ignite Engine at a later date, as it only appears on the PS4 and Xbox One editions of FIFA 14. However there have still been significant improvements throughout the game for those with current-gen consoles (this review is based on the PS3 version.)
For starters, the player animations have been dramatically updated, inching ever closer to feeling like real human athletes. They now shift their weight realistically and jostle with other players authentically, often brutally, for possession. The lighting and texture effects seem to have been altered too, giving each model a remarkable amount of detail and making them instantly recognisable to their real-life counterparts. Unfortunately though, they still seem to suffer from that 'zombie-like' appearance when studying their gormless, emotionless eyes close-up.
Players on the pitch also have a more believable sense of momentum when running at speed, including their movement with the ball that features subtle touches with both the inside and outside of the feet. It's not only more attractive to watch, but it makes matches flow more smoothly and gives more weight to holding possession. Granted, games do tend to get held up in midfield now, rather than end-to-end conquests like earlier FIFA titles, but again, it’s more realistic as most professional football matches take place in the middle of the pitch anyway.
Adding to this, FIFA 14 introduces Precision Movement, which brings to light the individual abilities and personality traits of some of the world's best footballers. It allows for a distinctive shift in pace, letting swift wingers skip down the sidelines and finesse dribblers maintain possession of the ball.
Getting around with the ball feels more fluid this time around, but thankfully there have also been much-welcomed improvements to the finishing, or shooting, aspects of FIFA 14. Players can now have a much greater sense of control over their shots and I saw goals that I never witnessed in a previous FIFA game. Shots were dipping realistically off a volley, or sweeping into top corners when struck with the outside top edge of the boot. These ball physics allowed for a lot more goal box scrambles, with more deflections and accurate rebounds as goalkeepers weren't able to control a shot with real venom behind it.
Unfortunately there is one area of frustration in FIFA that hasn't been greatly improved, at least in the current-gen editions. Passing. While you can knock the ball around just fine in open play, there is still that uncertainty when attempting cross-field passes, or strong through-balls into space. Even one-touch passing from the back four feels a little sluggish.
While the lack of attention in the passing department is slightly disappointing, EA have more than compensated by focusing on the artificial intelligence of computer controlled players. The AI in FIFA 14 is unquestionably improved. When attacking, your teammates will find space wisely and make inviting runs down the sidelines. Teams that benefit from high passing and lobbed-through balls will find a lot more freedom here as attackers hunt down loose balls behind defenders.
While FIFA 14 definitely feels more like an attacking game, the defensive AI is still pretty solid. Both the goalkeeper and your defensive line aren't sucked in towards play quite so easily now, instead they’ll close down angles and keep their distance intelligently.
The other reason for FIFA's success and widespread accessibility is due to the fact that there are so many ways to enjoy the game. FIFA 14 sees the return of the standard quick play Single Matches, challenging mini game modes, and Seasons mode. Career Mode is still intact too, which allows the real number-crunching fans to study transfer statistics and take an almost manager-esque role with your favourite team; relishing wins and feeling the wrath you incur with every loss.
But one of the highlights is the all-new improved Ultimate Team mode. Here users can build teams using any player from every league, before picking a style of play, preferred formation, and even create their own kit. From here you can take your team across a huge variety of tournaments and challenges, both online and offline - transferring players and constantly improving the chemistry of your squad. At certain points in the year EA release Team of the Year players, Upgrades, Team of the Season players, and transferred players. Sadly those players who built up the ideal Ultimate team in FIFA 13 will need to start again, though, as your saved setups don't carry across to this new version.
All of the online modes are still in place as well, but due to our pre-release code version, we weren't able to explore them. But you can rest assured that FIFA is still the social, competitive gathering that fans have grown to love.
Following on from last year's effort, FIFA 14 continues to include real-time updates too - integrating your game experience with what's happening in the real world of football. For example, playing a campaign as Real Madrid delivers pre-match news on Gareth Bale and his recent record-breaking transfer (a ridiculous £85 million pounds.) It doesn't affect how the game plays, but it's little touches like this that fans will appreciate. Unless you support Queens Park Rangers.
Finally, there are two areas in FIFA that continue to impress: the interface and the soundtrack. Once again the choice of music, with a wealth of International artists (including our very own The Naked And Famous) is eclectic and perfectly balanced. Meanwhile all of FIFA 14’s menus have been given a lick of paint and look clean and slick (albeit perhaps a tad too ‘Microsofty’ with a very similar tile setup as seen in the Xbox dashboard.) The presentation here is the top quality that you would expect from a FIFA game.
FIFA 14 on the PS3 is brilliant. However, I can't help but feel that there is more coming to those looking at buying the next-gen consoles. The Ignite Engine will deliver a whole new level of realism, especially in terms of the number of joints in each model's skeleton - not to mention the improved number of AI decision trees that EA can programme in. The end result has to be a crisper, more realistic game of football. NZGamer.com will be sure to let you know the difference when the new consoles launch later this year.
EA are offering (internationally, at least) a $10 upgrade option for owners of FIFA 14 on current-gen when you decide to update to either PS4 or Xbox One; whether that's happening here or not hasn't been confirmed, but FIFA 14 does also come packed-in with New Zealand Xbox One consoles (at no extra charge). We will, of course, let you know once EA confirm their upgrade plans for our little slice of paradise.