With next generation consoles on the horizon and EA preparing to unveil the “Ignite Engine” along with them, things seem to be headed into a new era for sports games. Considering all of the work it takes to prepare a slew of games for a console jump it doesn’t surprise me that EA took a conservative route with their established franchises this year. However, that doesn’t mean you need to disregard this year’s version of FIFA either. EA didn’t make any major overhauls or add any standout features, but they did make significant improvements to parts of the game that were lacking last year. Especially, the speed of the game, which adds a whole new dynamic to how newcomers and veterans, will approach the virtual beautiful game.
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Controllers: 1-4 Local (1-22 Online)
Genre: Soccer Simulation
Rating: E For Everyone
EA’s big decision to slow down FIFA fundamentally changes the way players approach this year’s version. In previous years, the game was about speed, playing in a direct way without much of the lateral passing and build up that exists in the real game. FIFA 14 changes that by slowing the game down to a more methodical pace and forcing players to pass the ball around and create open spaces for A.I. teammates to make runs. The one thing I hated about FIFA 13 last year was that it felt like playing soccer at super speed, which isn’t how the real game is at all. The improved team A.I. led to an auto-pilot or scripted feeling because the A.I. runs made the game super simple with through passes that went from defender to striker in an instant and blazing winger that blasted through entire teams.
From the moment I played my first game in FIFA 14 I could feel a sense of weight and thought I had to put into every movement I made. The game is slower, pensive, and puts emphasis on build up play through midfield. FIFA’s precision movement feature sees players have to plant, make wider turns, and fight off defenders in possession battles just to be able to move up the pitch. The precision movement also makes the timing of runs more important because speed seems to be predicated on the initial separation created by an A.I. run. Players won’t be blowing by entire teams with Ronaldo on the wings this year.
In fact, I found it hard to get by anyone 1 on 1, which to me personally is encouraging because in the past FIFA gave everyone the false notion that running at defenders is easy and that even the most average of wingers can beat the best right and left backs in the world. The game is built around team play and you have to try to exploit the space with well timed passes or protecting the ball with the left trigger to keep the ball those extra precious seconds, which gives extra room for runs into open areas to occur. EA has also improved the first touch control to where you can see the influence it has in the game, but it isn’t the annoyance it was last year. Most of the time, players receive the ball at their feet without much effort, but when the first touch control does rear its head it feels more natural. There are still weird moments where the first touch causes the ball to skip off a player’s foot or whiff completely, but it is much less prevalent in FIFA 14.
Most of the new system works well, especially because the “pure shot” mechanic makes scoring goals a ton of fun. Holding down the trigger now gives the ball all sorts of dips, swerves, and movement that creates havoc on goal like never before. I scored quite a few goals I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a FIFA game because of the “pure shot” feature. That being said, EA should be commended for doing away with one of the money plays of year’s past and lessening the power of long shots. Previously, long shots from 25 to 30 yards out seemed to go in a lot, now with a combination of improved Goalkeeper A.I. and a clogged midfield, you’ll see long shots get saved or blocked more often than not.
The slower on field play does bring about a few problems though. Firstly, normal passing seems to be slower than the on field play and many times on medium or long passes I felt like my player receiving the ball had to wait an exorbitant amount of time for the ball to finally get to him. I found myself relying on the through ball much more than I had in any other FIFA game to compensate for this change. Not that it’s a bad thing, but if I’m making a simple up the field pass sometimes the through pass would lead my runner too much and it would go to my opponent instead. The passing frustrations really come to ahead on counter attacks because you are trying to catch your opponent off guard and because it might take an extra few seconds for the ball to get to my Striker. I’d often find myself with a few defenders in front of me instead of just the goalkeeper.
This issue is further compounded by two other issues brought on by the changes in FIFA 14. I don’t think I ever recall the game making so many borderline offside decisions. EA chose to make most of the teams play a high defensive line, which essentially means you are playing something called the “offside trap” where you try to prevent the “big play” on the counter attack and catch the Striker offside before he can get the ball. Because I had to use the through ball a lot, in some games I felt like I was getting almost every offside call against me. This obviously doesn’t affect everyone because certain people play the game differently. The game does allow players to use a slider to change the frequency of certain foul calls. But it is still sort of annoying because it probably wouldn’t happen if I could pass with the A button more and not have to use the Y button so much.
The biggest issue that comes out of the change in pace is how much play is clogged in the center of the pitch. Any soccer veteran understands how important it is to win the midfield battle. FIFA 14’s emphasis on build up play makes that possible by using the wings and crossing, which has been a lost art since at least FIFA 12. For the most part, I enjoyed being able to use my backs and wingers to put in dangerous crosses and through balls. However, the more I played, especially once I raised the difficulty level up to “World Class,” I found that it became the only way I could gain any rhythm going forward. On the professional difficulty, which is also the difficulty used when playing online, I could pretty much pass the ball around as I pleased, knowing that if I really wanted to exploit the A.I. I’d pass to my winger and send in a cross.
I fully realize that most players won’t even bother with changing the difficulty level at all, but it was pretty jarring how different the game felt on the “World Class” level. All of the sudden, the A.I. would instantly steal the ball from me and connect passes as if they were Barcelona, even if I was playing against Stoke City. I couldn’t get any kind of build up in midfield at all and about 80% of the time I had to play one-twos with my fullback and winger to get something going. Understandably some of this is what happens when moving up in difficulty, but a lot of what I experienced didn’t feel like a natural progression; instead it felt like I went from playing on Normal to All-Madden.
Except for the slow down in passing, the issues I mention may not pertain to everyone and some people may like that they can use wing play a lot more than in year’s past. There is one major issue that plagues the game no matter what difficulty you are on though. The defensive A.I. is rather shoddy, especially when it comes to long through passes or any ball that goes in the air. When you are controlling a defender you can see passes as they happen and compensate by trying to cover the space you think the offensive player will occupy next. It was quite nice to see my defender stick out a leg or almost topple the opposing player attempting to head the ball away. The problem is even the fastest trigger finger won’t be able to cover everything. So, players have to rely on the A.I. and boy do they create problems. I can’t count how many times the ball would go in the air for a long cross or chipped through ball and my players would stand around until the intended opposing player received the ball, then they would move. Yes, I can also exploit this on the other end, but still, on higher difficulties when the opposing team actually tries to score, this becomes a nuisance I can’t really prevent. It pretty much causes a goal to happen every time a cross or long pass comes in because for some reason it catches the entire defense standing still.
Moving to off-the-pitch matters, EA has streamlined the menus and even though they clearly feel inspired from Windows 8 or the Xbox Dashboard, it gives the menus a nice look and they are easy to navigate as well. EA has also given some attention to a few online modes in FIFA 14. Online Seasons is now even more exciting because you and a friend can team up and go through the divisions in 2 vs. 2 Co-op Seasons. I tested this mode with a friend and I had a blast being able to have my friend help me advance through the divisions and gain promotion. Hopefully, with next generation consoles arriving very soon we will see 4 vs. 4 Co-op Seasons. The part I liked the most was that Match Day is now included in this mode so player form, real life games, and injuries are accounted for in the mode as well.
All the other online modes fans love do make their returns and are mainly left untouched. But that’s probably because EA performed a few big improvements to FIFA Ultimate Team this year. FIFA 14 introduces Legendary Players that you can add to your squad. On the current gen versions they can only be found in certain packs, but once the next generation versions hit stores the Legendary Players can be purchased on the transfer market. Just getting the chance to play as Pele’ had me intrigued in wanting to try out Ultimate Team for the first time.
Ultimate Team also features the streamlined menus, which made all of the modes and options in Ultimate Team easy to figure out and navigate. For some weird reason EA removed single games last year, so they make a return in FIFA 14 and I can see why they were missed. As great as it is that they made divisions move up to 10, single games make Ultimate Team easy to pick up and play, especially when you need to figure out who your best players are because I don’t have any sort of money to be investing in player cards. EA also added a few features to encourage coaches to find chemistry within their players. Mainly the chemistry styles, which adds more RPG elements to ultimate team, by giving them abilities they can level up almost like a job system. Throw-in the ability to edit squad roles and kit numbers and EA has given the most addictive mode in FIFA even more depth than before.
Even though some will see it as a ploy to get players to buy or earn card packs, I liked the idea of instant team loyalty being given to players that come from packs, while having a 10 game appearance thing for players off the transfer market.
As far as online play goes, there is some lag, but the bigger issue I had was that the gameplay flaws I pointed out earlier in the review rear their ugly head against human opponents as well. So, that just means humans will get to exploit the crossing and wing play, they will chip through pass you to death because of the bad defensive play, and they will also rage quit too.
I guess the last thing I should touch on is the career mode. Similar to Ultimate Team, career mode benefits a lot from the streamlined interface and menus. I really liked that I didn’t have to go into separate menus for the basic things you do in the mode. My squad selection is right there and all I had to do was go over the tile, press A, and I was instantly in Team Management. It also provided a simple way to navigate between my club and international teams I manage.
The main new addition to career mode is one that is great for those to spend a lot of time rapidly going through seasons. The “Global Transfer Network” is essentially Youth Scouting for known players and gives you pretty much anything you want to know about a player or players that meet criteria that you choose. gamers can sign up to six scouts and send them out all over the world to scout players. Obviously, the size of the team determines how many scouts you’ll have at the outset, but you can choose to spend all of your budget on scouts and get six within a few months if you play well. Ultimately, the GTN wasn’t for me and it gave me so much information on players that I wound up turning it off once the Summer Transfer Window was over. But for those that simulate a lot of each season and like just managing teams this new scouting system is right up your alley.
Final Thoughts: It is clear that EA had their focus elsewhere this season, but the developers still managed to make a lot of small enhancements to popular modes like Ultimate Team and Online Seasons that give them even more depth than before. I enjoyed the slower pace of play on the field, but similar to the “First Touch” system last year, EA still has some kinks to work out in the gameplay department. FIFA 14 plays an enjoyable brand of soccer going forward, but the lackadaisical defensive play and the utter madness experienced on higher difficulty levels put a sour note on this year’s game for me. This definitely feels like a transitional title that improves in some areas and takes some unpopular risks in others. At the end of the day, if you are a FIFA fan you probably already have this game and are either enjoying the crap out of it, or are you blasting it unfairly on metacritic. I think this year’s FIFA takes the gameplay into the right direction, but it certainly could use one more year of tinkering to get all of the issues figured out.
Final Score: 4 out of 5