A certain predictability surrounds some of the club leagues around the world. Rich teams like Real Madrid, Juventus, and Manchester United drain drama from their respective leagues, where top honors are really only contested amongst a few clubs. While the FIFA franchise itself has turned into a predictable top-of-the-table juggernaut for EA Sports, that monotony masks some of the hard work that goes into the title and that which still needs to be done.
The changes in FIFA 14 can be felt throughout the game, and many of them add extra layers to the experience. Players’ actions in relation to the ball feel more free and unpredictable, leading to less reliance on canned animations. The fact that you have to be more careful with your first touch – lest you lose control of the ball – is a good change, and led me to be more thoughtful with my actions. This also dovetails nicely into another added aspect of FIFA 14’s gameplay – body shielding with the left trigger helped me keep possession, even if my careless first touches slowed down my attacks and got me into predicaments in the first place.
Some of the new features expand areas of the game, but don’t always make it a deeper experience. Look under the surface of the gameplay and despite its improvements, it falls into the same ruts. Canned sequences mean that tackles still magically send the ball straight to the feet of an opponent, true battles for 50-50 balls are rare, and players still fall down after routine shots or insignificant contact. Although my defensive AI showed less confusion in their own box, the defensive help button wasn’t extremely useful since my players often wouldn’t engage the opponent player when called. On the other hand, AI attackers still mess around with the ball too much and can blunt their own counter-attack with questionable decisions.
Elsewhere, Ultimate Team adds new ways to build chemistry via Chemistry Styles. While it makes it harder (and possibly more expensive) to build that perfect team, I like the flexibility to change players’ styles and attributes. If I want a certain player on my roster but my play style isn’t suited to his skills, now I have a way to make him more useful. I also like the way managers are more important thanks to the manager chemistry variable (as opposed to formations) and the fact that players have loyalty-based chemistry with your team. This is higher if you buy that player in a pack (vs. winning them, for example), which is a slight attempt to bring the fun back in buying packs instead of always hitting the transfer market for individual cards. Moreover, it seems like I was getting more coins while playing, which could also be another incentive to buy packs.
FIFA 14 also expands its breadth with the addition of co-op play to the Seasons format, and a new scouting mechanic for the Career mode. The latter tasks you with setting up scouting network (separate from the one for youth players) to do your due diligence for transfer signings. While it’s just a more convoluted way to get you to the same end result as last year, good scouts cost you money and it adds drama to the transfer windows. Different scouts can offer up different players, and the accuracy and speed at which you get their evaluations of players depends on the scout’s skills. Be sure to tweak your instructions to scouts, as this changes who they find. It’s frustrating when they come up empty – especially since there are only select countries they can visit – but you can also use the old search method if you’re looking for a specific player that doesn’t appear in your scouts’ Transfer Network.
Despite the new look and scouting system for the Career mode, the series still needs to address player communication. The morale system is inconsistent, particularly in relation to what the players tell you and what they do. For example, a low morale rating might make a player unhappy, but his form remains high and he doesn’t ask for the transfer that he’s been threatening all season. Furthermore, it seems to live in a vacuum. Low-rated players with no hope of seeing the starting 11 can complain like stars, while others are oblivious of the larger roster ramifications of new players on your roster. I’d also like to see players react to offers from outside clubs a lá this summer’s Luis Suárez, Wayne Rooney, and Gareth Bale melodramas.
Fatigue also isn’t realized, as you can play the same lineup – even with a schedule filled with domestic cups, international appearances, and other competitions – without the need for substitution. This undercuts the need for the lower end of your roster and therefore your youth system. These aren’t game-killers, but realizing them is like pulling back the curtain and uncovering less depth than you initially had hoped was there.
Going forward, apart from the issues needing correction listed above, it would be cool if the career mode continued to evolve; using FUT’s chemistry system and expanding your international manager duties to include player communication/morale and the ability to set up your own friendlies. I’d also like to be able to hire more staff for my club, like physicians to help keep my players avoid injuries and bounce back quicker when they have them.
Looking past such a calculating diagnostic, losing yourself in this game is still easy. The kinds of shots players get off are varied due to how they strike the ball (and with which foot), and the controls hit a sweet spot of being easy to pull off and capable of letting you engineer some incisive attacks. These aspects are not to be underestimated, as they give you confidence going forward and the ability to score from some new areas. Combine this with all the different game modes, and you have a title that can satisfy in many ways.
They say that athletes excel when they’re able to just execute on instinct. Regardless of its drawbacks, this game still lets you live in that moment and relish its qualities.