As the disc spins in our Xbox 360 it doesn't take long before we realise we should have been waited for the next generation versions instead.
EA haven't been shy about the fact that they spent most effort on developing the Xbox One and PS4 versions, and clearly the Xbox 360 version has suffered as a result. At least from a visual standpoint. Faces and hairstyles aside, everything is identical to last year's edition (and maybe even the year before that). But it's the inside that counts, and even if the crowd looks as though it has been ported over from a unthawed Nintendo 64 cartridge, FIFA 14 still has a lot to offer on our older consoles.
The biggest new feature is called precision movement, a result of a reworked physics engine. This means that players don't simply flow across the pitch with complete disregard of the laws of nature. Instead, they need to accelerate, gain momentum and push off to turn. It basically changes everything. Somewhat.
Shots, feints, runs, dribbles, passes, long balls, tackles and saves are all ingredients that need to be considered with the more realistic on-pitch movement.
It's a welcome change that adds to a more realistic look, but it soon becomes painfully obvious that this new system could have done with some more polish.
An example of this was when Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos mauled a poor Villareal striker to such an extent that he picked up a knee injury. The ball ended up right next to the injured player, and Ramos was caught in a situation where he didn't know what to do, and wound up jumping back and forth on the spot. We were able to run in with another striker, break away and - with only the keeper left to pass -score a bizarre goal. The situation was due to the new realistic physics engine not allowing for Ramos to run through the injured player and he was left not knowing how to deal with the situation. (It should be pointed out that EA warned us that there would be bugs in the review code and that these should be ironed out in time for release. Then again, it's hard to tell which bugs will be fixed and which are beyond saving at this point.)
There are also other parts of the game were the more cumbersome, realistic physics engine collides with old systems. The off-side flag is raised more often than ever as attackers don't turn around quick enough after runs, and it sometimes becomes painfully obvious that the animations haven't really caught up with the new systems.
It is what it is, but we were expecting more after similar alterations in NHL 14. On the other hand that game was developed solely for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It's going to be interesting to see just how wide the divide between current-gen FIFA 14 and next-gen is in a couple of months. Clearly a lot of resources have been put into the Ignite Engine, but it remains to be seen how that pans out.
EA have pointed out that precision movement isn't meant to give players more control, but to reinvent virtual football in a more realistic version. We get their point as we miss a scoring chance as our player is unbalanced. Where previous versions had allowed us to trigger a pre-determined animation, FIFA 14 analyses the steps taken before attempting the shot, and the player's run in with a defender a couple of yards back sets him up for failure. It's completely logical that we miss as the ball is rolling away from us after the duel.
The physical part of the game is something that is more heavily emphasised than before. We're forced to scrap the old tactics of running straight into a defender, as this now results in a frontal collision rather than keeping the momentum and continuing on with the ball. You also have a new option of pressing down the left shoulder buttons in order to turn you back towards the defender and shield the ball.
We start out the career with the "lowly" IFK Gothenburg as manager. The talented Robin Söder and Sunderland washout Tobias Hysén quickly rise to become lethal strikers and the club is doing really well in the Swedish league while foreign clubs track our progress. Our players improve with time, and part way through the second season, Martin Tyler and Alan Smith praise Tobias Hysén as one of the best players in the world. This also becomes apparent as he feels he needs to make a move to further his career (didn't turn out well for him the last time, but why not?). Bids are started to come in.
We sign a deal, and Hysén is sold for just over a million quid. With him gone, everything changes. We lose one match after another. Regardless of whether we play or simulate, IFK Gothenburg plummet to a mid table position. Robin Söder no longer gets any brilliant throughballs served even if we play according to the same tactics. The rest of the team simply isn't good enough. Something needs to be done about it.
We send our scout to England in the hopes of picking up a young, promising, made up player with some speed. After a quick and costly deal, and some rearrangements we're back in the game again, but we can't quite turn things around. Our failure is complete, and we're not offered any jobs whatsoever. Not even mediocre Saudi teams want us. And it pleases us.
Football is meant to be harsh and unforgiving. Your performance has to have consequences, and this is perhaps the best career mode ever seen in FIFA. Although we tend to grow weary of all the mails that keep dropping in the inbox day after day with the exact same information, the depth, variation and unpredictably is delightful.
When we finally make our way to the manager position at Manchester United with millions to spend, I notice an immense difference, at least on the pitch. New players can perform things unthinkable to our former IFK Gothenburg players, and it's a joy to witness how old abandoned tactics and longshots suddenly pay dividends. We also note that teammates react to what takes place on the pitch. We don't have to order players to come to the aid of an attack who is put under pressure. Instead the midfield moves up to support. It's a detail you won't notice until after a few hours, but it's something that will delight FIFA fanatics.
The number of real players decrease with every season. The majority of players are soon fictional, and some of you may like this more than others. Personally we don't like the confusion it causes, and it's always disappointing when one of our favourite players is retired and replaced by a randomly generated talent.
Martin Tyler and Alan Smith are more muted than in previous games. The dynamic duo seldom speak at length, and only tend to say something when they mention who's got the ball or when there is a scoring opportunity. As usual it painfully awkward to have to listen to outright lies, like when the keeper is being berated when he's faced with an impossible task, but there are also some beauties to be found. One such example was when Smith was talking about Barcelona's Neymar, and Tyler interrupted him for a scoring opportunity. The previous subject was then picked up again without losing a beat and it felt as if Smith and Tyler were actually watching the game.
Audio isn't exactly setting the world on fire. In order to emphasis the crowd sounds, the volume of the commentary is lower, which creates a weird, rather than breathtaking, effect. The music in the menus are among the worse in franchise history and some of the tracks are simply unbearable.
In many ways FIFA 14 offers the same gaming experience as previously with a polished career mode and a rewarding physics engine. The presentation is akin to previous entries, and it's all about what happens on the pitch. Sure we get to choose a celebration when scoring, but we'd have liked to have seen the reaction of owners and the crowd going nuts, just as when we watch a game on TV.
Perhaps the score will be a different one when we are introduced to the next-gen version, but as it stands we cannot fully endorse a purchase if you own last year's edition and you're not a die-hard fan of the series. There is a lot to suggest you may want to wait on PS4 or Xbox One before you boot up this season of FIFA.
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