FIFA 14 made it quite clear that EA's main focus was not on making changes to the gameplay. We noticed only a few small improvements, but also we have to admit that the visual bump on the new generation of consoles played a big part in how we experienced the action on the pitch. Besides a better flow and almost life-like animations (especially when crossing), there was not many new features. Not unexpectedly, this appears to be the same idea that the developer is pursuing for the next chapter in the series.
EA Canada recently completed a European tour where they showed off the 50-60 per cent of FIFA 15 which is actually done, and we visited them on the tour's final day. The disappointment was palpable when they opened by saying that they could not say anything about either Ultimate Team or the various game modes. It was in fact theese two things that we (and the twenty other journalists who were present) wanted to know more about. Will they reintroduce tournaments? What changes are coming to Ultimate Team? No, they would not talk about that. We could ask, but they would not answer. What's left to ask about then?
It's actually hard to say. The hour-long presentation covers essentially everything, so we're reduced to being a passive recipient of information. The biggest news according to them is that FIFA 15 for PC will be built on the same version as the one for Playstation 4 and Xbox One. Some of the journalists cheer, while we look around quizzically. Wasn't that a given? The platform is way ahead of all the consoles, but in 2013 had PC gamers still had to settle for an inferior version of the game. Surely anything else would be terrible for FIFA 15.
Having announced that the PC platform will join the new-generation, EA hits us with what they think is important - namely, to recreate the commitment that many of us feels when our team plays. That is our commitment as spectators. We look quizzically around again, but the other guys are smiling. Are we alone in thinking that improvements to the actual football would have been better? Well, to make us feel the game (this is what EA calls it; Feel the Game), they have focused on what they call Emotion & Intensity. This means that players on your team and supporters who follow them, behave differently in terms of how important a game is. So there is a difference in the season's final game after the league is settled, and a final of a tournament, or a match to decide who's to top the table.
This is also reflected in players' behavior on the pitch. They are a bit more intense and hardworking in important games, while other times they may be more laid back. For our part, all matches are equally important, but we understand the point. And we also think it's a nice feature. All the players on the pitch now have an attitude towards the others (regardless of which team they play for), and this attitude is changing through the game. This is really only expressed through the visuals, so it does not affect actual gameplay. It is nevertheless somewhat interesting to see that teammates do not care about Bale powering the first shot into the stands, but getting increasingly frustrated by seeing him miss the goal time after time instead of playing in a free and well-positioned Benzema. The atmosphere can also get testy if Alonso and Koke have several clashes, but it does not affect the game - it just shows us frowning faces and players yelling at each other.
We're still not getting any sense of this being a big step for the series, but then it still remains to try the game. Fortunately, that's the next thing on the agenda. First thing we start a match with everything being set to assisted. Some new skill games are added while waiting for the match to load, but the menu is as we know it from last year. The presentation has, however, received some adjustments. The camera flying over the stadium is depicting a vibrant atmosphere, and it looks decent. The character models are also altered. The players now look more athletic, and the kits fit properly. Actually, all the physical appearances of the players look more realistic, which increases the pleasure of being a spectator.
The referee blows his whistle and we immediately notice that much is different. There are no major changes, but EA has definitely made positive adjustments. Touching the ball feels more real, the player we control moves with shorter steps to change direction quickly, and the ball has significantly more weight. Now it's our turn to smile. Players touch the ball with both the inside and outside of the foot, and they are faster to deliver passes than in FIFA 14. It actually feels very good to dribble past the defender, sprint towards the corner flag and send a cross without the player needing one last touch while he turns his body towards the box. Finally we feel in control of our player and we smile once more. Zlatan fires a shot into the crossbar that's left quivering. This is a new feature this year and we like it. He also gets the rebound and together we trick Pique with a single shot feint before placing a driven shot past the keeper and into the goal. The net also has much better physics than last year, and it feels just a bit sweeter to score a goal.
Now that we're ahead, we can play defensivly and try to hold the lead. It's not something we usually do, but we have to test the game's new features. One of these is that the standard tactics found on the directional pad has gotten an extra bar in both directions. To the right we find 'All Out Attacking', but that's not what we need. In the other direction we find 'Park the Bus' (think Chelsea's tactics) and it simply means that you have ten men behind the ball at all times. It's a rather defensive play. Our opponent still gets a goal, so we're back to square one, and we can attack again. Offensive football is always much more enjoyable.
Set pieces, such as corners and throw-ins, have been updated. Instead of relying on the AI-controlled players to break free, you can now switch to any player on the pitch before calling for the ball. It opens up a whole different dynamic when you're alone on the team.
Unfortunately, this was really all we got to experience regarding real positive changes. Little things like the wear and tear on the field due to player movement and sliding tackles, the corner flag's new physics and shirt pulling don't do too much to the overall feel of game, although it seems more realistic for a spectator. We can only speak for ourselves, but we can't remember anyone wanting to watch us play FIFA.
The rest is as it has been for some years now. When it's time for balancing the match, the players on the winning team start to fumble in that strange FIFA-way. This predetermined balancing to create nerves in the game seemingly manifests itself in sequences that feel scripted, where everything goes one team's way in order for them to get a goal. We like to win, but it doesn't taste as sweet when the last minute goal is a result of a string of strange events that basically never happens in real football.
We still want more control over our players. We're often unable to meet the ball because FIFA (the game, not the organization) wants us to stand perfectly still. The same applies to passes that are much harder than the button-press would suggest. It's very frustrating to see the ball go to the player offside rather than stopping at the guy waiting who's onside - also known as the player the pass was intended for. There is also still a problem with players pretending to do a good run, then stopping a meter or two before they are offside. If they don't feint the run, they go too early. This is just as annoying. What's wrong with curved runs or smart moves to get in behind the defenders? What's wrong with real football?
When all is said and done, the actual feel on the pitch is an improvement from FIFA 14. It's far from the progress we'd hoped for, but we have to admit that FIFA 15 is better, although it's still better in the wrong way in our opinion. Moreover, we know nothing about the career section, or Ultimate Team or tournaments, so for now we're going to have to settle for a modest ‘yay' for FIFA 15. We're more excited to try it when they have completed the last 40 to 50 per cent as we've seen before that a lot can happen with this game in the last few months of development.