FIFA 14 is the encapsulation of annual game franchises in general: it’s the best game of the series so far, and there are improvements on last year’s effort, but nothing is particularly ground-breaking. That makes it an easy recommendation for newcomers, however it is still worthwhile even for those that own FIFA 13, because so many hours can be sunk into the game.
This year's first improvement is obvious the moment the game starts. An overhauled, tiled UI makes a good first impression and a drastic difference in menu-heavy modes such as Ultimate Team. In-game, what sticks out is a slightly slower pace. This is thanks to a new shielding mechanic that gives stronger players an advantage on the ball, but also something EA is calling Precision Movement.
Body shielding – previously only available from standstill and using multiple buttons – is now possible regardless of player velocity by simply holding the left trigger, and proves equally useful when wanting to protect the ball on both offense and defence. Precision Movement is FIFA’s new locomotion animation system, and it has players shift their weight in a far more realistic manner, and alter their stride fluidly while moving.
The biggest effect this has on gameplay is that players are slower off the mark, but players will quickly adjust. Also, it’s now possible to turn at a much sharper angle while sprinting, but momentum is preserved so on-the-dime about-face manoeuvres simply aren’t possible.
FIFA 14's new Pure Shot mechanic works in tandem with Precision Movement in that players no longer skate or awkwardly hop-step in to the correct stride to take a shot, but instead correct their stride earlier for a much more natural strike. The mechanic’s biggest effect is the ability it grants players to modify an attempt on goal by adding a last-minute dip, rise, or curl to a shot, for example.
On the other end of the park, defenders mark their man in a much tighter fashion and aren’t as prone to ball following, but after prolonged play of arch-rival Pro Evolution Soccer 2014, FIFA’s insistence that the ball be in someone’s possession lest it suffer some form of separation anxiety feels unnatural, and as usual that reflects in the quality of its passing game. Players are also too eager to eat the turf after minimal contact, but perhaps that’s some kind of meta commentary on the state of the Beautiful Game.
Speaking of beautiful, while the new animations are exactly that, FIFA's overall graphics remain unchanged, although to be fair on next-gen consoles it will be a different kettle of fish thanks to EA’s new Ignite Engine.
Offline, Career Mode has been tweaked thanks to a new scouting system, which has the player enlist six scouts of varying abilities to either find the next superstar, or scope a current one so a realistic offer can be made. This adds drama to the game’s transfer system, but a player’s morale still doesn’t affect his on-pitch performance, and a lot of small fish seem to think they’re indispensable, so retaining players is never a particularly large concern. It’s also easy to keep star players on the pitch as fatigue doesn’t factor in across games regardless of how punishing a schedule is, so the need for a deep roster is negated.
Online, FIFA continues to widen its already-substantial lead on the competition. This year there is a new co-op Seasons mode to complement the swathe of heavily-customisable options already available, but the biggest draw remains EA’s fantastic Ultimate Team mode. There, player and formation cards have been substituted out in favour of Chemistry Styles, consumable cards that may be purchased or drawn from the pack that allow a class to be assigned to each player that will permanently affect their stats – at least until a different style card is applied to that player.
Player stats improved in previous games of course, but this new system allows the pinpointing of certain attributes rather than across-the-board stat increases, giving the user greater control. Even managers have a chemistry stat this time around, and a player loyalty stat rewards pitch time as well as the purchase of rather than the winning of players. There are 24 Chemistry styles in all (five of which are goalie-specific) and the maximum individual chemistry stat for an individual has been raised from nine to 10. This kind of granular control will appeal to veterans but isn't so mindboggling that it shuts out rookies, and it's nice to see that EA didn't sleep on its best mode.
FIFA on handheld has long been a simple reskin, whereas the console versions over the past handful of years have tended to each contain slight improvements on an already winning formula. That makes the question on every console-owning football fan's lips, "Is it worth the money this year?" The answer this time around is still a yes, although those who have a next-gen console locked in may wish to exercise some patience.