A few years ago I asked David Rutter, long-time producer of the FIFA series, how difficult it was to create a new game in the series every year, differentiating it from the previous ones. He replied that, indeed, it's a daunting task.
Still, the players around the world know very well how EA is able to resell the franchise every single year, by changing just enough to justify a full retail price. In short, every autumn FIFA is changed a little when compared to last year's version, and only in rare cases we've been witness to radical changes to the formula. The last big change came with FIFA 12, which introduced a new physics engine. FIFA 13 made a few small changes. And, apparently, also FIFA 14 will not be characterised by extreme transformations.
Our first meeting with FIFA 14 takes place in a hotel in Milan, where EA invited Nick Channon and Sebastian Enrique, the game's producers. Many months separate us from the release of the game, and we are not yet at that stage that allows us to put our hands on the game. It is, rather, an event aimed to illustrate the difference with last year's version. A good idea, considering how difficult it is to understand the differences between one FIFA and another these days.
The event opens with a series of numbers, which describe the extraordinary success of this series. 4.4 million copies sold in the first week after the launch, an extraordinarily high metascore, 65 million games played per week, 2.29 billion Skill Games completed. FIFA 13 is a mammoth of the gaming industry, if anything is not clear.
There is a word, however, that Sebastian Enrique continues to deliver, with his distinctive Argentine accent. This word is "wow". This is a kind of keyword in the development of FIFA 14. EA wants to print on our face an expression of bewilderment, generated by the construction of a more realistic game and, above all, from its peak in a spectacular conclusion towards the goal.
The development of this aspect passes through the introduction of some significant improvements. For example, you can now quickly change direction during a sprint without losing the momentum. In FIFA 13, sprinting players were obliged to draw large curved trajectories in the field in order to change direction. In FIFA 14, this will not happen: the player can choose to change direction, even ninety degrees, while maintaining the sprint. It is clear that this kind of action is linked very strongly to the skill of the player in possession of the ball: a bad player will hardly be able to change direction while sprinting without losing balance.
Talking about sprinting, it will be introduced with an element of unpredictability, which makes it more realistic. This tweak, like many others, has been created by carefully observing the behaviour of the players in real football games. In this specific case, if you look at a player sprinting you will find that his ball moves away from his feet variably at each step (sometimes of a meter, sometimes three, etc.). This aspect has been recreated in the game, both creating a greater realism and increasing the defensive opportunities.
The marking controlled by the AI has been changed. The uncontrolled team-mates in FIFA 14 will mark the opponents in a more intelligent manner. In short, it will be much harder to get goals due to stupid mistakes of the defence, but at the same time will be more difficult for players to exploit the flaws of the game and find themselves all alone through on goal. "No more cheap goals", the producers promise.
In the penalty area you can now make a move that is very common in real football games, but that never made an appearance in a video game of the FIFA series. In short, you can stop the ball with your chest showing your back to the goal, turn around 180 degrees (even if marked) and shoot. It seems incredible that this kind of action, that we see at least two or three times in every game, has never been implemented in this series of games.
Another innovation is the system "Protect the ball," which helps the players to protect the possession by pressing the left trigger on the pad. With the left trigger the player will try in every way to keep the ball away from the opponent, even using his arms. The producers ensure that this function will radically change the game, as it will be the players to dictate the pace of the game. In all honesty, I can not see a revolution in this system, but I look forward to try the game and find out by myself.
With regard to the shooting (and the resulting "wow" mentioned by Enrique), the animations of the players have been radically improved, avoiding most of the horrible "little steps" that the players used to take before kicking the ball. The player, in fact, is now trying to redress the tracing of small curved trajectories on the field before kicking the ball. If he fails, he will kick lopsidedly, as you would expect in a real game. The game gains in fluency, and the shots are more realistic and less unpredictable. The developers call this feature "Pure Shot", even though the adjective "pure" does not seem the most appropriate to me.
The highlight of this afternoon in Milan, however, is revealed when developers begin to talk about the new physical engine that controls the ball. In short, the ball now behaves in a very realistic way, and you can now make rising, dipping and swerving shots. In a couple of videos I actually said "wow", in particular when the developers have shown the trajectory of the ball in the air, which moved curving in three dimensions. Something that reminded me of those shots that only champions can do (or that we all fortuitously made by kicking a cheap and light ball with too much strength).
Finally, the producers talked of a new system for tackling that no longer requires perfect timing (so as to encourage the players to tackle their opponents), new Skill Games (one for all: there will the game of "keep away") and a new career mode, which allows a more refined system of scouting for the transfer market.
There was two hours of presentation to talk about these few aspects that will be improved. The producers did everything they could to convince me that FIFA 14 will be a game radically different from FIFA 13, but there aren't enough innovations that will allow me to define this new FIFA as revolutionary. It is, rather, a transition game, which in all likelihood will pave the way for the next generation of FIFA titles.
This FIFA 14, in fact, has been confirmed for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. Nintendo's Wii U or next-gen versions have not been confirmed. Neither Enrique nor Channon intended to comment on the topic, but it is reasonable to expect versions for Wii U, PS4 and the new Xbox. In all likelihood, however, they will be ported from the PS3/360/PC version, rather than games developed with a next-gen philosophy in mind.
So, I keep some optimism towards FIFA 14. But it is that kind of optimism I would keep for any other game in the FIFA series. There is nothing revolutionary, in fact. It's the same old story. But it is an old story that, for some inexplicable reason, we like to hear every bloody year. Who knows, maybe we should all learn to demand more than this.