Over the past decade, EA Sports have often been accused of playing it safe with new entries in their best-selling FIFA series. Critics often pillory the video gaming giant for the ostensible similarities between each of its annual instalments, and the lack of revolutionary gameplay mechanics they bring with them.
Indeed, from the outset in FIFA 15, the cynics and jaded fans are likely to be unimpressed; those looking for innovation may want to focus their attention elsewhere. It’s easy to see things from EA’s point of view, of course: as every great football manager would ask you; why change a winning formation?
From our point of view, FIFA is the number one footballing sim for a reason, and we’d rather see EA focus their efforts on ironing out the minor grievances we have with their solid base game, rather than spending time on making wholesale changes simply for the sake of change. Thankfully, that seems to be exactly what has happened during the development of FIFA 15.
That’s not to say the traditional hyperbole of promised new features has been absent. Over the last few months, the publisher has expended a lot of its promotional efforts in touting the introduction of FIFA’s emotion and intensity engine, designed to bring a more true-to-life, involved experience to players. And we must admit, it delivers. Whether it’s pushing an opponent following a badly-timed tackle or cursing a teammate when they squander a last-minute chance, over 600 emotional reactions have been implemented in FIFA 15, with facial expressions and body language letting gamers know the emotions of each of the 22 players on the pitch.
Similarly, the reactions of crowds, commentators and pitch-side substitutes have all been tweaked, designed to keep players immersed in the FIFA game experience. Add to this a much-polished visual presentation – which is now closer to a real-life Sky Sports broadcast than we previously thought possible – and it’s clear EA have hit the back of the net on this front. Fully licensed stadiums for each of the 20 teams in the Barclays Premier League, goal-line technology and contextual commentary remarks from Martin Tyler and Alan Smith (although the endless World Cup references are already beginning to grate) all play a part in contributing towards FIFA 15’s improved match-day feel.
FIFA has always excelled on the graphics front, and this year is no exception. The game’s players appear more detailed and authentic than ever before, looking athletic and moving realistically thanks to improved character models, body rigging and the introduction of hair movement and visible breathing.
The improved on-field presentation also carries through to FIFA’s pre-match menus, with the somewhat tired squad and formations view of yesteryear being replaced with a more intuitive, visual view of the player’s squad in which tactical changes and substitutes can be made effortlessly.
Superlatives, “emotional intelligence” and aesthetics aside, developers EA Canada have made a number of other tweaks to FIFA 15’s gameplay. Up to six preset team sheets – each with their own line-up and strategy – can be saved per club, allowing players to select the most appropriate squad to face their next opponents without having to continually make a number of manual adjustments between games. Additionally, greater depth has been added to player-specific tactics; up to five attacking and defending instructions can now be applied to each outfield player. These range from managing forward runs and specifying man-marking, to selecting the defensive positions more offense-oriented players should take up when required.
Strategic improvements seem the order of the day, with new team tactics including the infamous Park the Bus, popularised by Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea (or so detractors would claim), and All Out Attack being added to the more conventional sliders that range from Ultra Defensive to Ultra Attacking. Teammates and opponents now recognise what’s happening in a match and adjust their play style accordingly; gone are the days of AI teams lackadaisically passing the ball around their own half when they need a goal to avoid losing with two minutes remaining.
More accessible preset corner tactics, accessed by a simple press of the D-pad, as well as the ability to use the right thumbstick to switch to the receiver for set-pieces, also allow for more creative and exciting attacking opportunities.
Speaking of creating chances, the passing system seems more fluid and generally faster this year, with AI players making more intelligent runs both on and off the ball; straying offside far less often than they tended to in FIFA 14. Up front, it’s largely more of the same as last year, although headers mercifully seem to have been made more balanced and less overpowered (particularly from corners); both they and standard shots require greater precision and timing on the part of the player to pull off successfully.
At the back, the introduction of more realistic shoulder barges and shirt-pulling mechanics allows for more tactical and varied defending in FIFA 15. Additionally, slide tackles have also been tweaked to ensure perfect timing is required on the part of the player to win the ball fairly.
Possibly the most significant gameplay change to FIFA this year is a complete overhaul of the goalkeeping system – though we’re still a little undecided as to whether or not it’s been a wholly positive transition. Although over 50 new save animations have been introduced – with goalies having the ability to adjust their movement mid-flight to make last ditch saves – we’ve witnessed some frightfully incompetent AI goalkeeping in the first couple of days since release; with keepers often making a decent save… only to palm the ball straight into the path of a grateful attacker who is all too willing to slot it home. It feels awful to be on the receiving end of such howlers, and although they do happen in real life, the frequency at which we’ve witnessed them occur in FIFA 15 is somewhat alarming.
That said, there are some ‘keeping positives: finally gone are the days of shots trickling into the net at a snail’s pace with the goalie completely stranded following only the slightest of opposition deflections. A problem that existed last year saw goalkeepers often failing to pick the ball up if it fell to them right at the edge of – but inside – the penalty area; often resulting in needlessly risky clearances and intercepted balls. Although this persisted in the demo build we played earlier in the month, it seems to have been patched in time for the retail release, for which players will no doubt be grateful.
Outside of the major gameplay additions we’ve outlined, FIFA 15’s engine has been finely tuned throughout, which has led us to having more entertaining and dramatic matches than ever before. While not being particularly impressive in their own right, small tweaks like improved ball and cloth physics, penalty distraction tactics – carried over from EA’s World Cup game – and closer ball control fit together nicely to enhance the overall experience of the game.
After the criminal removal of the offline Tournament mode and online couch co-op from the PS4 and XB1 versions of FIFA 14, EA have listened to the fans’ outrage and reinstated both features this year. Besides the inclusion of guests, FIFA 15’s online modes themselves are largely the same as last year, though now include smoother transitions between matches. At the time of writing, there are a few teething issues with online play, including the rather infuriating bug of season wins not counting towards a player’s record due to server problems. We expect to see these patched in a couple of days, however.
EA’s favourite cash cow, the card-collecting Ultimate Team mode, returns with a few new additions including loan players and a greater focus on building team chemistry. Career mode is also present and correct, with its minimal changes including a cosmetic makeover and an enhanced player scouting system. Although it obviously lacks the depth of dedicated management sims such as Football Manager, it remains a decent distraction.
While by no means revolutionary, FIFA 15 remains the number one video game representation of the self-styled beautiful game. Although we were impressed with the demo for PES 2015, released earlier in the week, it’s clear the Konami franchise is still standing in the shadow cast by its gargantuan EA Sports rival. FIFA 15 is far greater than the sum of its parts; indeed, virtual football has never been this good.