You can tell just how confident EA Sports are about their position in the football videogame hierarchy by the astonishingly grandiose video which serves as FIFA 14’s introduction. In it, Patrick Stewart solemnly intones a sub-Shakespearean verse that even the Sky Sports’ Super Spectacular And Totally Meaningful Sunday crew might find a bit over the top. As Stewart’s voice reaches its powerful and absurd crescendo, you could be forgiven for wondering if you’d accidentally bought the latest expansion for Skyrim or some other similarly melodramatic RPG saga.
You haven’t though. You’ve bought FIFA 14. And, to paraphrase from the game’s own commentary, it’s an edition of the series that’s playing “like it has a cigar on.”
When you’re at the stage of being rich enough to hire Patrick Stewart to perform a soliloquy about balls in a tone somewhere between Henry V and Jean-Luc Picard, it’s probably quite easy to slip into over-confidence. That’s where FIFA 14 sits. Safe in the knowledge that it can effectively coast along on a raft of licensing deals, a match engine that knows how to provide a decent game of football and the huge success of the trading-cards-meet-astrological-charts madness that is FIFA Ultimate Team mode.
Of course, FIFA 14 also marks the point at which the series will once again diverge from the PC version. Our lovely machines have had parity for a couple of years, and for 14 we’ve once again got the same version as the 360/PS3. Thing is, there’s a shiny new one on the way for PS4 and Xbox One driven by something called the Ignite Engine. It’s difficult to be sure what actual benefits this engine will bring to the series, as at present they’re obscured by a pile of near-meaningless buzz phrases about “new levels of innovation” (where? how? with what?); but it’s still a bit of a slap in the face not to receive a PC release that will utilise this supposedly new and fabulous technology.
EA’s decision not to make use of the PC’s capable powers is, presumably, a calculated one. They’ve looked at how many PC players buy FIFA and looked at the kind of specs those PCs generally have. Whatever demands the Ignite Engine might place upon the tech, EA has worked out that not enough PC FIFA buyers (for their liking) would be able to meet them. The “recommended” requirements for FIFA 14 are so slight that even a decade-old box might have some chance of running it. And that’s just the way EA likes it.
Still, with such bare-bones requirements it does mean that everyone with a half-decent gaming PC will be able to run FIFA 14 at 60fps and 1080p. I’ve played previous installments of FIFA on the 360, so I can say with confidence that having the game running smoothly at all times is more than just a cosmetic benefit. No stuttering, no input lag (in single player at least) and no sluggish menus are all major plus points in the PC version’s favour. It may not end up as the best possible iteration of the game once the new Ignite-powered editions are out, but right now there’s no contest between this and the 360/PS3 releases. The old standby of “oh, but the console version has a bigger community for multiplayer” doesn’t really wash either, as there’s really not much problem getting games on PC.
There’s a tendency when reviewing annual FIFA titles to just drift into a kind of features checklist that only really addresses the surface changes to the game. So yes, you can now play 2v2 online co-op in ‘Seasons’ mode. The Career mode has introduced a somewhat bloated ‘transfer network’ system for scouting out new players, which lacks any of the helpful comparative tools from games like Football Manager making it more of a chore than it should be. And, yes, FIFA Ultimate Team has ditched formation cards so it’s now easier to find the right chemistry for your side no matter what weird, inverted triangle shape you want to play in.
Those are (mostly) positive changes, but their significance is not as profound as the alterations made to the match engine itself. No matter which game mode you end up dedicating most of your time to, it’s how FIFA 14 plays that’s important.
So, the big changes this year center around physicality and momentum. AI defenders and midfielders will hassle and harass you for the ball more often than before, presumably to force the player into a quicker passing game with a spot of ball shielding. This is most clearly seen at the defensive line, where defenses are now pretty adept at bumping and jostling your forward runners. Managed to actually sneak a pass through the middle? Chances are the AI will have someone catching up to you in an instant (suspiciously quickly in many cases) and whipping the ball away. Space in FIFA 14 is hard-earned.
The impact of this is even greater due to the way players now move with more realistic momentum. To simplify that with an actual example, attempting to do a sharp turn with the ball in a direction opposite to the one you’re facing will take longer than in previous editions. Simplified even further: players are slower now. Combined with the new-found tenacity of defenders, the weightier player models mean sheer pace is no longer such a reliable skill.