Before we get right into this FIFA 15 review, let me take you on a fanciful journey into the future. It’s June 2015 in LA and the EA E3 press event is underway. EA Sports’ David Rutter has appeared on stage and is about to unveil some new features in FIFA 16. But instead of announcing the introduction of some next-gen fannydangles and platinum double-rare Ultimate Team cards, he simply says this: “In FIFA 16, we’ll make sure our servers work properly. If, by some fluke, you do get disconnected while 3-0 up, we won’t credit your account with a loss.”
Just before turning to leave the stage, Rutter looks directly at the camera and adds “Also, for the first time ever, EA is proud to announce that the PC version will run at a smooth 60fps without you having to dick around with your external GPU options.” Then he winks and flies off into space.
My incredible E3 2015 fan-fiction may have given you a hint about the main problems with FIFA 15. You’ll probably recognise them, because they’re pretty much the very same problems that have affected the series for about half a decade. For some reason “no, seriously, our servers and matchmaking options will actually be great this time” keeps getting shunted down the features list in favour of improved grass physics and inconsequential fluff like ‘emotional intelligence.’ I guess online latency and technical concerns just doesn’t make sexy trailers.
Getting FIFA 15 to run at 60fps without stuttering, on a PC that exceeds the necessary specs by some distance, is no simple feat. It may even be impossible. Thousands of PC players have been affected by bizarre micro-stutter, and you’ll find hints and guides across the internet (including right here at IncGamers) with suggestions on how to address this. At the time of writing, anything approaching smooth play is only possible for me with the application of GPU tweaks and third-party software. For some people even these external solutions don’t work. This is not even close to acceptable, especially for a title with relatively low system demands.
Online play is hit and miss, just like it was last time and just like it always is. Again, there’s really no excuse. FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode generates untold wealth for EA Sports and should, by now, be the slickest, smoothest and most seamless multiplayer mode ever produced. This isn’t a Battlefield 4 launch situation, it’s not a complete write-off. But when every third or fourth match is a lag-fest, when the game occasionally records the other team disconnecting as a loss for your side, and when your divisional progress gets reset to zero points without explanation; you think about the riches being returned to EA by Ultimate Team and wonder where all that money goes.
It doesn’t go towards maintaining other online features, that’s for sure. The PC version of FIFA 15 has removed match lobbies. That means there’s no longer any way to play some casual, unranked matches against random people, and no head-to-head way to try out some new teams without just diving into a ranked game. The ability to save and share replays also seems to have vanished on PC (or it’s hidden somewhere so obscure I can’t find it.)
This all rather sours what is otherwise a fairly decent version of the game. FIFA 15 is the first PC version to make use of the Ignite Engine, though I’d be hard pushed to identify more changes between FIFA 14 and 15 than, say, 11 and 12. New engine or not, EA Sports are at the iterative stage of development where annual alterations to the game are more likely to be cosmetic (new 3D crowds, more licensed stadiums) than dramatic.
The most prominent change to the way FIFA 15 plays concerns close controlled dribbling, and the knock-on effect this has on defending. In FIFA 14 (at least on PC,) players could take an age to get the ball under control, turn and dash through a defence. Now, even League One journeymen can have a decent stab at being 1990s Roberto Baggio and quick, skillful players like Messi can twist, waltz and retain possession basically at will.
This fluid, darting control can feel great when you’re attacking, and I’ve pulled off some goals in FIFA 15 that’d barely be worth attempting in the prior release. As mentioned though, the new-found nimble skills up front have turned defending into something of an art. In theory, I’m in favour of this. FIFA defending has often strayed too close to the automated kind where you just make judicious use of the ‘team mate press’ command (or, in older editions, just hold down A until your defender hustles someone off the ball.) The series’ move towards the self-styled ‘tactical defending’ has been making marking and tackling harder with each successive release.
In single player, against an AI which can be predicted to a certain degree, FIFA 15‘s defending is a case of keeping your team’s shape, knowing when to jostle or press for the ball and picking a moment to dive in for a tackle. It’s tough, but in a way that I’ve found satisfying to learn and look forward to mastering.
The same should be the case online, but here (whether in Seasons or Ultimate Team) you’re far more likely to run into a team with Messi, Ronaldo or some other pacy skill-demons in every other match. That puts the defensive learning curve through the roof, and highlights the worst failings of the game’s defensive AI as it fails to get tight enough to opposing players or does a weird side-step shuffle as the forward blazes past them into the box. If your online game is at all lagged you can forget about the precise timing now required for clean tackles. You can abuse this to your own advantage, of course, but this arms race of close-dribbling and pace is presently making online matches a little bit ridiculous.
Most other changes of consequence fall under the quality of life heading. As someone who plays a huge amount of Career mode, I’m delighted that fully scouting a player now reveals their overall value (something which means I now actually use scouts) and that the number of pointless press conference events have been reduced. Being able to set up a few different team sheet formations with specific player instructions (telling the wingers to stay wide, or a certain midfielder to get in the box for crosses etc) and quickly switch between them prior to a match is a welcome addition. Having the option to ask for a near post run at corners, or switch to a receiving player at a free kick, are handy too.
But as FIFA 15 giveth, so it also taketh away. There doesn’t appear to be a way to save the individual player instructions (the ‘make runs behind’ stuff) in an Ultimate Team formation, so you either have to set them up for every single match or just ignore them.
Most irritating though, is the removal of the ability to skip certain cut-scenes. FIFA 15 is obsessed with its own presentational sheen, which means whenever someone gets a last minute penalty to draw the game level you’re going to have to sit through all the unskippable Dramatic Build-Up™ to the kick. The player stepping up. The other team complaining. The behind-the-goal camera shot.
This is monumentally stupid, and it’s an act of gross hubris on the part of the developers to assume we all want to watch this stuff every bloody time. At least when the commentary gets repetitive and tedious after two games you can switch all that off and replace it with music and podcasts of your own choosing. These mid-game cut-scene segments just can’t be stopped. Diligent PC modders, if you’re reading, you know what to do.
My frustration with the FIFA series is that EA Sports seem to be incapable of distributing their bountiful resources across all facets of the game. While each year sees ever more money thrown at marketing jargon, licenses and full body mo-capped celebrations, it also sees a stagnation in fixing the glitches, bugs and server problems that seem to have existed in perpetuity. FIFA 15 typifies this approach, with its full set of shiny Premier League stadia and continued inability to make the ‘manual player switching’ toggle function properly.
Licenses are important to people. I understand this. It’s great that FIFA can always provide me with a chance to control whichever set of loanees, youth team players and mercenaries have pitched up at Oldham Athletic this year. I like being able to do the ‘Ride the Cat’ celebration or violently assault the corner flag as much as anyone. But not if this stuff is always going to come at the price of server stability, repeat bugs (if the glitch that removes all your club finances at the end of a Career season is still in there, I may go on a murderous rampage) and serious PC technical woes.
Like all FIFA titles of the past few years, FIFA 15 comes with its share of incremental improvements, controversial gameplay tweaks (this year; faster play, much harder defending) and pretty much the same set of frustrations from the last one you played. The series has slowly turned into a club who will splash millions on flashy strikers while ignoring basic structural deficiencies in their team; and unless my E3 2015 fan-fiction somehow turns into an eerie Derren Brown-like prediction I’d expect much the same next year. Except, you know, with the crucial addition of next gen player-mounted insect tech or something.