If the current-gen version of FIFA 14 underwhelmed slightly (you can read our review here), the next-gen version of it looks like it will make up for it. The difference between the two versions is marked. It's a positive step for EA, an indication that they're taking the leap to next-gen hardware seriously. The last time there was a generational shift, the first FIFA offering (on what is now current-gen) wasn't nearly as comprehensive.
It's not just a level of visual gloss that's been added to the mix thanks to the Ignite engine. Sure there was plenty of eye candy; blades of grass that skip up into the air as ball departs boot, the ripples in the fabric of the shirts on the player's backs, the arms of the supports in the crowd flinging into the air after a goal. But the improvement is more significant than that, and the changes that EA are implementing are going to make a difference.
How much of a difference remains to be seen. We sampled half a dozen games, and got a good feel for the new version, but we'll have to wait until we've played significantly more before we can judge whether the improvements are truly game changing. What we can do is offer a tentative thumbs up. FIFA 14 on next-gen consoles is going to be good.
While it certainly looks prettier, the most interesting changes can be found under the hood. The intelligence of the players has been improved, and there's now enough computing power for the AI to send multiple players into situations where previously only two would have gone before. This is perhaps most prominent when it comes to headers. During our hands-on time we scored several headed goals. Players jump into the air together, rising as if on the crest of a wave, to meet the ball from set pieces and crosses. It looks good. It looks more realistic.
One thing that will definitely make a difference is the introduction of "hundreds and hundreds" of new player animations. The raw power of the next-gen consoles means that EA Sports are free to add in much more detail. Before, they had to cut animations whenever they wanted to introduce new features, and members of the team were dedicated entirely to freeing up more memory in the game so new things could be introduced. It means we're going to see more variety in our games, and for people who dedicate hundreds of hours to their FIFA addiction, that'll be most welcome.
The games feel more like they're being broadcast on television. Replays now highlight "cool things", not just the goals scored. Players who've contributed to a match might be highlighted with a replay, nifty twists and turns are revisited, near misses, goal-saving tackles. Some of this we've seen in past iterations, but now - thanks to dozens of new camera angles modeled on those used when matches are broadcast on the box - it's much more cinematic.
They're working on improving the flow of the match by keeping the game running, elaborating on the quick throw-ins introduced in FIFA 13. Now the game never stops. We'll have to see how the introduction of additional replays impacts the pacing of matches. Though early indications are positive, after prolonged periods of play we might start to feel differently to how we did after the short burst of action we enjoyed during our preview session. Time will tell.
While we were there we asked FIFA 14's producer, Nick Channon, for a few console specific details, such as how they're taking advantage of the new controllers, and where Kinect and PlayStation Eye fit in. For the former we're given a vague answer and feel none-the-wiser, for the latter we're told how they're working on voice inputs for Kinect, but that they haven't really looked at PlayStation Eye. Perhaps this is an early indication that Microsoft's insistence on bundling a Kinect with every console means that developers will pay it more attention than Sony's offering.
There's also a small difference in the content that'll land on different platforms. Xbox owners (both generations) will have access to FIFA Ultimate Team Legends, and there's no way I can hide my delight at being able to travel back in time and kick a ball about with Dennis Bergkamp. Some of the greatest players in the history of the sport are included, and for nostalgic fans it's a treat. PlayStation owners who want to control Pelé and co will have nothing to do other than bemoan the exclusivity arrangement between EA and Microsoft.
Back on the pitch, and "pro instincts" add an extra degree of human intelligence. EA are claiming that physical interaction between the players has been improved, and now you'll see players riding tackles that previously might have brought them crashing to the ground, which is possible because the player AI can now anticipate more based on what's happening around them on the field of play. We're also being introduced to "true player motion". In essence we're talking about precision movement, with real biomechanics and an improved locomotion system adding more realism to the movement of players. Turns now feel less sharp, but perhaps more realistic.
The default camera angle has been lowered slightly, and while this may feel like a minor development, it's been done so the view takes in more of the crowd. Now that the supporters are fully rendered in 3D, this new camera angle brings additional atmosphere to the party. Or at least that's the intention; we were perhaps too focused on the action at hand, and there were lots of Xbox One consoles running in the same room, so the volume wasn't set very high and the atmosphere was hard to gauge.
There's a surprising amount of new additions to the formula in the next-gen version of FIFA 14. The current-gen version felt very similar to its predecessor, with the standout difference being the new UI, and not the feel of the matches played. While there's no doubt that the next-gen version is quintessentially FIFA, it also looks like a much more significant step forward, a step worthy of the financial investment that players are asked to make each season. We're certainly looking forward to spending more time with the game to find out whether FIFA 14's beauty goes beyond skin deep, but the early signs are positive.