FIFA 15 is pretty much everything you'd expect it to be: a solid football sim, crammed full of modes, topped up with accurate teams, and sprinkled with the dust of controversy. It's business as usual over at EA Sports Canada, and once again they've served up a decent digital representation of the beautiful game.
For the most part, we're happy with what we've been given. As a football sim it's bordering on untouchable (though we can't wait to have a proper go on Pro Evolution Soccer 2015; this year it could be a close run thing). The level of attention that's been paid across the board is, simply put, staggering. The kits, the stadia, the roar of the crowd, the blades of grass underfoot. As ever, the presentation is top class.
Is it better than FIFA 14? Well, maybe. Probably. No. Yes. Yes. It's certainly different. Not drastically different of course, but there's been enough of a rebalance that seasoned players will notice the new AI of the keepers, the blunted defenders, the improved dribbling. Enough has been tweaked and changed that regulars will have to relearn and adjust, and it's complicated enough now that newcomers (or those returning after an extended absence) will have so much to learn that the subtleties will be lost and it'll just feel like the same FIFA that they've played before, even though it's not.
The upgrade will be felt most keenly by those making the generational leap. The additional horsepower afforded by the new consoles means improved graphics, more detailed crowds, expansive AI (not better AI perhaps, just more of it, with attackers making additional runs and more players challenging for headers), and smoother textures. It's easy to see and feel the difference. Those who're returning from last year's new-gen upgrade will notice improvements, but for them it's a more subtle shift, the change is less dramatic.
From a visual and audio perspective, it's hugely impressive, and the match day atmosphere is superbly put together. It's not just the players (they look great), the devil's in a variety of carefully observed details. In FIFA 15 we see a host of new additions, from replays akin to those seen on a big screen down the pub on a Saturday evening, to offside goals that are chalked off much to the disappointment of the would-be scorer, with games taking place in accurate stadiums (in the Premier League at least) that bubble with the energy of authentic chants from real-life crowds, played on pitches that each tell a story by the end of every game thanks to a growing collection of scuffs and marks. Even the commentary is getting better (we still turned it off after a few games, but this year there was a definite improvement).
What's more important is how the matches play, and once again we've been given a solid game of football. The rebalance this year has definitely been made in favour of attacking players. It's easier to dribble, twisting and turning in dangerous positions, and, at the same time, defenders are now harder to control, their ability to contain the opposition forwards has been somewhat blunted. Shooting can be a little wayward at times to counter this change, but there have still been plenty of goals scored in our time with the game thus far.
This next point is as about as subjective as you can get, but the referees annoyed us repeatedly. Our idea on what constitutes a foul obviously differs wildly from that of the developers, and at times the decision making can be frustratingly uneven, with off-the-ball collisions regularly going unpunished. In an odd way it replicates the frustration we often feel in real matches, with bad calls impacting on important results, much to every fan's despair. We'd be impressed if this was on purpose, though we suspect that it's not.
The AI of the players has been changed, but it's more of an atmospheric shift, rather than a gameplay feature. Players, for example, barge into each other after rough tackles (although these exchanges aren't particularly interesting or well animated yet - a feature to elaborate on next year perhaps), and EA are boasting about something like 600 different reactions. Team AI has also been tweaked, and now teams will "park the bus" if they're defending a lead, or additional players will run forward if they need to snatch a last-minute goal. It's not a huge shift, but it's mildly noticeable and certainly filters into the overall atmosphere of a match.
There are also some moments when the AI fails to keep up with the action. Off the ball runs are getting better, granted, but they're still not quite right yet. Too often we're provided with no decent outlet for a forward pass, with the second player far from where we'd want them in an ideal world, either that, or they've been marked out of the game by another AI-controlled player from the opposing team. Then there's the defensive midfielders that drop into the defence to cover the absence of a centre back who goes off in search of the ball, a move that often fails to provide the required level of cover and leaves the back line exposed.
That said, when it works, when the pieces all come together, it's a unique pleasure. On the other hand, when it doesn't, when a player does something stupid, or when a questionable decision goes against you, when the ball bobbles strangely into the back of your own net (maybe thanks to the new ball physics), FIFA 15 leads to tantrums more quickly than any other game. In many ways it mimics the stress of watching a real match, of being a real supporter. There are so many times when we've considered walking away and never playing again, and so many times when we've returned minutes later to pick up the controller and go again, with a wonderful goal or another rage inducing mistake just around the next corner.
There's a plethora of different modes to keep players occupied. As per usual, we gravitated towards the Career mode. We're still not sold on the new scouting system for transfers (we much preferred the old method of scanning the database), but that's the only significant blemish as far as we're concerned (and we may be in the minority). Overall it's a deeply involving game, with a huge range of options open for players to express themselves with. Those wanting a quicker fix can jump into a short tournament, and there's the skill games that, as usual, are a great distraction either between matches or in their own right via their tab on the menu (speaking of menus, the UI is better this year).
Ultimate Team returns once again. It's not a mode we were well versed in before we sat down with FIFA 15, but this year we dived in head first, and it's easy to see why it's so popular with the community. If you're unfamiliar with it, think of it as a mix of sticker book collecting with fantasy football team selection, underpinned by zippy games and micro-transactions. (Xbox One players will also have the option of playing with Legends - some of the best players of yesteryear that have been added randomly to the gold packs that players can either earn through winning games and trophies, or purchase via microtransactions. There's some stellar names in there - including one of our favourite players of all time, Dennis Bergkamp - stars that would grace any team that they played in. It's not an essential feature by any means, but for FUT players it's certainly a nice touch.)
There's even more modes for those venturing into the online space, with players able to play a variety of different opponents via the Seasons mode, as well as tackle friends in a "friendly" mini-league (in our experience, these 1vs1 leagues are anything but friendly, and are probably the most competitive part of the game). There's also the fusion of those two modes with Co-op Season, whereby players can buddy up and then take on opponents from around the world, with results feeding into an online league system. Then there's FUT, and the competitive fantasy football that comes with it. Lastly you can team up and take part in 11vs11 matches, if that's your thing (it's certainly not ours).
During our travels online we had a bit of a mixed time. We've never been massive fans of playing against strangers online; beat a player soundly and they'll often quit early, get thrashed and you've got to endure the pain or end up being that which you so despise. Beating a complete stranger is all fine and dandy, but taking down a friend is a much more enjoyable experience, and playing with and against a buddy will always be more fun, and sports games like FIFA produce rivalries in a way that no other genre can compete with. There was lag on a couple of the matches (the game's out in North America at the time of writing, so if that's where our opponents were based, maybe that explains the stuttering), but nothing that completely ruined our experience.
We did notice a couple of other issues, such as one offline game that had finished but wouldn't finish; the final whistle had gone but the players just stood around, presumably waiting for Godot. We had to quit the game and concede defeat despite thrashing our opponent. Other issues include the PC bug that sees all the players rush the centre circle (we played on Xbox One, more on that bug here), lag that makes the game unplayable online on PS4 (more on that here), and at one point we were signed out of our Xbox profile in the middle of a match for absolutely no reason. None of these issues ruined our time with the game, but there is a bit of work for EA to do if they're going to get it running smoothly for everyone.
A few years ago FIFA was dangerously close to perfection, at least relative to what had come before. However, this most modern entry into the annual franchise proves that progress towards perfection is slowing considerably. The tweaks and adjustments that FIFA goes through every year, the rebalancing act that EA Sports undertakes every twelve months, has left us with what is both their finest hour, and a football game that leaves us wanting so much more. It's not the wholesale improvement we were hoping for, a bold step into the new-gen, but rather a shuffle forwards, held back by the weight of previous instalments and a scaled down old-gen running mate. FIFA 15 is a good game, make no mistake, it's just not a great game; it looks like we're going to have to wait at least another year for that.