And so, with the meat and veg of this year’s Fédération Internationale de Football Association 2015 dispatched, we move on to dessert, with a ragtag assortment of hacks invited down to the Cologne of the North Downs (Guildford) to catch-up with improvements to the match engine and take in a few new features while we were there.
Having had the privilege of attending a few of these EA events over the years, it’s hard not to become just as interested in the marketing aspect of these announcement-dumps as you are in the game itself. The line we were given last time around was “emotion”. FIFA 15 was to be the most “emotional” ever, with gamers reduced to quivering wrecks and every 12-minute match a Last of Us ending and Aeris death wrapped up in one.
After another session with the game it’s clear that what was really meant by “emotion” is “presentation”. To use a technical term, FIFA 15 will be the most presentationy Fifa ever, with more of a focus on things like stadiums (all 20 Premier League grounds scanned with pin-point accuracy), authentic chants (but no rude ones!) and in-game cutaways that 90 per cent of us will do our best to skip whenever possible.
Of course, it’s easy to be a bit too sniffy about these sorts of aesthetic improvements. “FIFA 15 – it’s a bit more fun than last time, we promise!” isn’t going to convince Joe Buystwogamesayearintescos to part with the better part of £50 this Autumn. And the excitement I witnessed on Twitter from fans of smaller teams suggests that being able to play at Selhurst Park is going to go down very well.
Besides, what’s wrong in luxuriating in a bit of window dressing now and then? The crowds and pitches, in particular, look fantastic – every bit as impressive as you’d hoped they might, what with us standing on the vanguard of a new technological generation. Even the commentary has benefited from these expanded capabilities, with “stitched” audio ramping up the realism up another tiny notch. Robot Martin Tyler even reads out the teamsheets before each match.
Nevertheless, this is all still dessert, a great wobbly blancmange of Poznans and photoshopped Jack Wilshere heads. The gameplay experience itself is still what really matters and, thankfully, it still looks to be coming along very nicely.
Despite some reservations about the new player models – with the strength attribute seemingly linked to shoulder size, Ricky Lambert looks more like a NFL running back or Dynasty-era Joan Collins than the nation’s most beloved beetroot-packager turned England international – the verve and zip granted by truncated turning circles still represents a big step-up from last year’s somewhat stodgy outing.
Most prominent among the newly announced gameplay features is a completely rewritten, next-gen-only goalkeeper system, with two years of development time spent creating new, “emergent” behaviours that should rule out some of the more erratic animations and errors we’ve become used to.
If a shot is deflected in FIFA 14, the goalie will still jump in exactly the same way, often leading to the quite ridiculous sight of a fully-stretched keeper arcing towards the top corner of one side of the goal as the ball dribbles, slowly, into the bottom of the other.
In FIFA 15, these animations are no longer so rigidly fixed, so while Joe Hart’s no less likely to save the shot, he’ll at least throw an arm out and act more like a human being. Bringing the keeper out to close off a through ball is also much less of a kamikaze option than it has been, with the AI constantly recalibrating its decisions based on the flight of the ball, the proximity of a defender and so on.
This move away from the game as a collection of thousands of pre-scripted events to a series of constantly reactive and, in EA’s words, “permeable” behaviours is the real, unheralded evolution that’s happening beneath FIFA’s hood. The culmination of all these changes will, hopefully, be a more natural flow to playing the game, and that’s certainly a feeling that impresses upon you once you’ve kicked off.
Away from the pitch, team management has also been completely rewritten, though the fruits of these labours are essentially a collection of slightly different looking menu screens when you pick a formation or make a substitution. One particularly useful result of this work is the ability to save a formation and starting line-up as a “team sheet” – meaning much less fiddling in between matches, as you swap tactics and players in and out, for Career Mode players.
Finally, we come to FIFA Ultimate Team, where EA must be reluctant to rock the boat too much as money continues to pour in.
We originally claimed here that you would loan players using “real-life” money, but that was a misunderstanding on our part. Apologies!]
On one hand it’s a shame that the ornothological element to Ultimate Team – look, a lesser-spotted Cristiano Ronaldo! – will be compromised in such a way. The excitement of seeing a rare player in the wild, let alone getting to play as one, is one of the many small features that have made the card-trading squad-building mode such a phenomenal success.
On the other, the cost of actually buying one of the game’s best players means that, currently, your average Ultimate Team player is unlikely to ever get to use them. At around 500 coins earned per match, and with Messis being traded for a couple of million on average, you’re going to have to play hundreds of games even to get close. Even if you’re willing to resort to back-alley card-farming techniques, we’re talking the investment of some serious man-hours.
As a resolute cheapskate, the very fact that I’d be tempted to pay a fistful of FIFA coins to use Ronaldo for an evening suggests to me that this will be a huge success. With finer details yet to be confirmed, I just hope there’s sensible limits placed on the way the loan system is used lest it spoil the mode’s highly competitive league system. Of course, the cynic in me suggests EA is going to err on “ch-ching” side when trying to strike this balance, but then even they will realise that Ultimate Team is too big a cash cow to risk, er, tipping.
With so much new stuff on the table, there’s every chance Fut 14 Coins could end up feeling like a bit of a work in progress. And it wouldn’t be a great surprise if it took a few next-gen iterations to hit its stride – that’s certainly what happened last time around, both for EA and Konami. What matters most, though, is that in its current state it simply plays better than its predecessor. And with that main course sorted out, it’s hard to imagine it not satisfying our appetites.