FIFA 14 Review: EA’s Behemoth Retains Title
The game’s most noticeable change is the way its players accelerate, or, more to the point, the way they don’t accelerate when you really, really wish they would. Human beings, even Cristiano Ronaldo, are not Maseratis, much as video games would have us think otherwise, and FIFA 14 players speed up, slow down, and change direction at speed with believable inertia and momentum. It’s frustrating at first, but it’s based on meticulous study and plenty of hard data. Once you learn to appreciate the new system, and the carefully animated way it dictates movement, you’ll find that the game feels and looks more like actual soccer.
This is less true of the expanded Player Impact engine, which dictates the way players can collide and barge and grapple and tackle. When it works right — at a set piece or in a crunching, shoulder-to-shoulder midfield clash — it’s a dream. But in their zeal to let players interact in all these new, exciting, physics-based ways, the developers miscalibrated the fouls system. It’s just one of those unintended consequences; everyone likes a hard-nosed, free-flowing game of footy, but not when a trailing defender can yank back an attacker with impunity and prevent a certain goal. C’mon ref. That was a penalty. And a red card too, while you’re at it.
AI augmentations are more even-handed. It’s satisfying to watch computer-controlled players make clever runs, bending them to stay onside and anticipating the flow of play with increasing nous. At the same time, though, AI defenders are also more proactive, filling gaps, tracking runners, and applying pressure at the right times. This is a difficult balance to get right, and FIFA 14 deserves credit for nailing it.
Many of the game’s other strengths have a familiar, perennial feel: the most desirable licenses money can buy; a dizzying array of game modes (more on this later); and recognizable, sumptuously modeled real players (though someone clocked out early on Ajax left back Nicolai Boilesen). The interface design this year deserves special mention, boasting slick, transparent rectangles and a neat tendency to remember and forefront the game modes you prefer.
In my past, that list of modes would not have included FIFA Ultimate Team, which even came in for some gentle mockery in my review of FIFA 12. How wrong I was, and also so lucky, in a sense, to have avoided two years in the thrall of this devilish creation.
Ultimate Team combines the essential joy of playing FIFA games in-engine with the twin lures of fantasy sports and Magic: The Gathering. This, much as I try to avoid casual, classist drug metaphors, is my own personal nerd speedball. Players assemble teams using cards that represent individual players. Everyone starts with a team full of duds, but through playing matches and tournaments, you gain in-game currency and use it to either buy packs of random cards or bid for players on a vast and active online auction house.
It’s not a system without some ugly modern realities; EA is happy to tap the brakes. Players get injured, or see their contracts run out, or lose “fitness,” necessitating time- and currency-consuming trips to the “Transfer Market.” This is 2013, also, so anyone willing to put down hard currency can easily microtransact their way to a team full of superstars (even retired legends like Pele and Maradona, but only on next-gen, natch). Thankfully, a stacked team doesn’t guarantee success on the pitch. The most skilled player usually wins, regardless of his or her roster.
These are minor quibbles. Thanks to a system that awards bonuses for combining players of the same nationality or league, Ultimate Team awakens nascent gamer impulses — to collect, to optimize, to min-max — that aren’t always available in sports titles. Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Graham Smith wrote an excellent piece to this effect. To add to his conclusions, I would suggest that Ultimate Team is also a shrewd way to cash in on the habits of real-world soccer fans, who spend hours poring over “transfer talk” in the hope that their teams of choice can find that one special player that can make the difference. Ultimate Team gives you control over this kind of wheeling and dealing.