The latest installment of EA Sports’ globally popular soccer simulator, FIFA 14, hit the streets Tuesday. While it won’t shatter sales records in the way that Grand Theft Auto V has, FIFA 14 should maintain its place among the best-selling games worldwide for the simple reasons that soccer is the world’s most popular sport, and Electronic Arts is among the most massive game developers around. The new installment’s predecessor, FIFA 13, managed to be the highest-selling game of 2013 at the time of its launch. So FIFA 14 should be big. Does it deserve to be?
I had the chance to kick FIFA 14 for a couple hours on its debut day. The graphics are gorgeous, but not groundbreaking. The fact is, the FIFA franchise has looked great for years, and as the hardware that drives it — in my case, a PS3 — hasn’t changed in years, neither will the look of the game. The players’ faces do look a bit closer to their real-life counterparts than in previous versions. The crowds in the stands do come alive a bit more realistically than before. The grass looks like grass and the stadium color palettes appear to have been pushed toward more realism — they seem a bit more muted, as if the paints even in the spectacular Emirates Stadium in London have faded a bit. Playing during rain produces nice splashes off the grass. Overall the game looks fantastic, while not looking massively different from the previous version.
EA says it has upgraded the game’s engine to make matches play more realistically, with better ball physics and more intelligent player movement.
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I haven’t noticed much in the physics area during gameplay, which were already good on previous versions. The improved physics have been apparent in the game’s many shooting, passing and ball control tutorials though. I did notice improved player ball control during action — a good dribbler in real life is also a good dribbler in the game, but if you insist on sprinting while dribbling, chances are the ball will get a bit too far ahead of your player and you’ll end up losing possession.
I have already noticed that players do make more realistic runs off the ball. Defenders are smarter, goal keepers make fewer idiotic mistakes, and the ability to slip a ball trough to a player on the attack has improved. That’s all a very welcome development that EA’s soccer rival, Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer, got right a couple of years ago. Pro Ev’s weakness has always been its lack of rights to use real teams in some real leagues, but its actual gameplay jumped ahead of FIFA around 2012. That probably won’t be the case as of FIFA 14. The whole game has slowed down a notch in FIFA 14, to deliver a less arcade-like, but more realistic, feel. And FIFA has all of the major leagues available, so if you’re a loathsome Liverpool fan, you can score with arm-biter Luis Suarez to your dark heart’s content.
I spent most of my time with the game in Career Mode. Career comes in two flavors, you can be a club manager in charge of all aspects of running a club, from finances and transfers to tactics on the pitch, or you can be a player. Having played manager mode to death in previous versions, I chose the other option, which is to become a player on the club of your choice. This mode allows you to create a player from scratch, from his name to his preferred foot and position to his appearance. I built a player with my name, though slightly taller and a whole lot younger and faster, to become Arsenal’s latest striker wonderkid, but mostly to see myself in an Arsenal kit on the pitch. But my avatar started life only rated a 66 out of 100 skill level, so even after a pair of impressive pre-season performances including a brace in my debut, manager Arsene Wenger unceremoniously notified me that I was to be loaned out for the season. So now my younger virtual self is toiling down in League 1, hoping to impress my new manager and my mother club enough to leap back up to the top flight. There is no guarantee that that will ever happen. The manager has set out goals for me to hit and earn my place back up. If I don’t hit those goals, I’m probably going to be sold away from Arsenal and may not make it even two leagues below where I started. So the pressure is on to perform in every single match.
All that is very interesting, but even better is the overlay of international play. My avatar got a call up to the US Men’s National Team. I was benched for the first match but made a starter for the second. Scoring on my first cap, an away match against South Africa, and playing alongside fellow Texan Clint Dempsey leading the line was quite fun. Then I got the hook in the second half in favor of Jozy Altidore. It was hard to argue with the manager’s call.
So the bottom line is, FIFA 14 is very deep and provides several modes of play. These modes have been around in previous versions and continue to be worth the price of admission if you’re a soccer fan. You can stick to playing one-off club or international friendlies, manage a club through a season or several seasons, and even take your player all the way through a career to become a manager as well. And that’s to say nothing of FIFA Ultimate Team, which allows you to build a club from the ground up using and trading real players. That mode is so deep it deserves its own article to delve into it. If you liked previous versions of FIFA, FIFA 14 will not disappoint. Well, not entirely.
FIFA 14, like other EA sports titles, feels like a bureaucrat’s dream when you first launch it. So much of the game depends on connecting to EA’s servers that it demands you to fill in your email and so forth before you can play. But EA’s servers were overwhelmed on launch day, so logging on was hit or miss. At one point I was playing an Ultimate Team friendly and the connection to the server died, killing the match in the process. That’s unacceptable.
Additionally, not all of the team rosters are up to date. Arsenal, for instance, broke its transfer record in the real wold when it bought midfielder Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid on deadline day this year. Fire up FIFA 14, load up Arsenal for a friendly, and there’s a conspicuous absence in the midfield. I rubbed my eyes, checked twice, and sure enough, no Wizard of Ozil. According to FIFA 14, Ozil is still plying his trade in Spain. It was easy to fix this — I just had to go into the customize mode and transfer him from Real to Arsenal. But I shouldn’t have had to. EA delays the launch of its FIFA games to late September expressly so it can have all the team rosters right. Those rosters are one of the main reasons that players play the game. It’s like leaving Anquan Boldin on the Ravens in Madden 25. Ridiculous. This glaring error has me wondering what else the game got wrong deeper down, but I haven’t had time to check all of the dozens of teams and rosters available in the game. I probably never will. Who has the time to cross-check all the rosters in Saudi Arabia’s soccer league? Not this guy.
FIFA 14 will be a hit. EA’s marketing muscle will ensure that it is, and the gameplay improvements are not earth-shaking but do refine things very well. It’s fun to pick up a game or manage a career or a whole club. Career Mode and Ultimate Team remain the reasons to keep FIFA 14 in your console or PC for a good solid year.