This year’s FIFA release has a golden opportunity. This is the first that’s launching on the same day for all platforms, including the new consoles with their greatly improved processors and memory. Long time FIFA fans might reasonably hope for a revolution in gameplay similar to the move from FIFA 08 to FIFA 09.
So does the new game tweak and tinker, like a mid-table manager masterminding a drive for European qualification? Does it sink those hugely improved resources into a run at the title like a perennial under-achiever with a new oil-rich owner? Is it like Everton or Chelsea? Southampton or Manchester City?
As usual, answering those questions is going to take some intricate unravelling of the various threads that make up the monumental yearly achievement that is the largest, most-beloved football franchise in video games. Initially, it seems that there’s no leap here – it’s very much a case of tiny incremental alterations. Given a bit more play time and those small changes, it becomes apparent, force quite a large change in the way the game wants to be played. Maybe there’s a hint of revolution in the air after all.
Perhaps the biggest change, at least under the skin of the game, is the way momentum and strength come to bear during each on-pitch encounter. This is perfectly indicative of a small tweak that has wide-ranging repercussions in how the game plays. As a defender, it has become significantly more difficult to successfully make a tackle.
Sliding tackles were altered in a previous version of FIFA so that the square button (X on Xbox consoles) basically became “push-to-foul” unless you got the positioning and timing absolutely spot-on. FIFA 15 makes a similar change to the circle (B on Xbox) button. It’s no longer the button to mash when you’re challenging for the ball – that results, nine times out of ten, in shirt pulling, an unceremonious shove or a clumsy entangling of legs and the resultant foul. Circle is also less useful when you need to stick a leg in to win the ball.
If your timing and positioning isn’t perfect, it almost always results in a foul or a completely ineffectual lunge in the wrong direction and several frames of animation priority before you have control of your defender again – now ten yards behind the attacker you were attempting to dispossess. The game never feels unfair about it, but given the robot brains often controlling your opponents, their propensity for mistiming challenges is much less frequent and so it is often frustrating that you’re making errors the opposition never does.
The concept of momentum is also apparent in the movement of your attacking players. If you’ve avoided a tackle, you might need a few yards to regain balance and alter course. That means that groups of defenders might close down your most skilful players and easily win the ball simply by harrying them into stumbling from one tackle to the next. But that creates space to exploit elsewhere on the pitch – just as in real football.
The player strength statistic changes tackling and running with the ball in quite significant ways. Go into a tackle with a player who is slight of frame against a player who’s no stranger to the weights bench and you’ll probably just bounce off him. You’ll likely fall over too. It doesn’t seem to matter how perfect your timing is in these instances, you’re always going to struggle to dispossess a very physically strong player with a very light, weak one. Even a well timed tackle that wins the ball might not ultimately be successful for you if your smaller statured defender happens to clip the strong attacker after the initial challenge – he’ll fall over or stumble off balance just as readily as if he’d missed the timing of the tackle completely. Tiny, fast players no longer have as unfair an advantage because of this – you’ll just need to play slightly differently with the varying types of player in possession.
The idea that you’ll need to readjust your playing style permeates deeper too. FIFA 15’s goalkeepers are not only animated with a wider range of movements and reactions, they’re also more difficult to beat. They seem smarter too, so they don’t rush out quite as readily to meet a striker who is preparing a cheeky lob. At the lower difficulty settings, the improved intelligence of AI opponents isn’t a problem – you can still take on entire teams with your silky skills. As you ramp up the difficulty, though, the whole AI seems to become genuinely more intelligent about the way they approach the game. You’ll need to be patient, build up movements and try to pull a team out of shape before finding space to mount an attack.
Happily, the smarter AI also makes an appearance among your teammates. Everyone moves around a little more than in the past, hunting for space, changing angles and offering themselves for a pass. That’s most noticeable with how strikers will more reliably find themselves space in the penalty area so that your tricky wingers now have a greater chance of finding a finishing touch at the end of their expertly weighted cross.
The penalty area is also home to another far-reaching tweak to the gameplay. There are many more deflections, rebounds and scrappy goalmouth scrambles than in previous FIFA games. Given the newfound intelligence of your strike partners, this tends to mean more goals scored by well-positioned poachers feeding off rebounds but it also makes for some comical, and glorious, looping deflections spinning in over the ‘keeper’s head.
Most of the game’s presentation is as exquisite as you’d expect. The new Premier League content (all stadia, teams, many more highly detailed faces, etc.) is very welcome, especially as a fan of a team likely to finish in the bottom half of that league. There’s very little about the front-end of the game that’s markedly different, but the menus never suffered from that frustrating moment of lag that has appeared from time to time in past games. Unfortunately, there is a pause in your input as a match goes into half time or finishes up. You can no longer immediately skip highlights and are forced to watch the first several seconds of them at least, as you hammer away at an unresponsive set of buttons. It’s a minor frustration but one that happens in every match and will hopefully be patched out.
One menu system that is greatly altered and improved is the Team Management screen. It’s no longer an exercise in diving through menus, as everything is presented in a much clearer fashion, although formation names and the way it moves players around when you switch could be a little more intuitive. You can give instructions to the team or individual players and they seem to make tangible differences to the way your team performs on the pitch. For the first time in a FIFA game, there is genuine nuance to the tactical system beyond how far your lines sit up the pitch and how often your players make off-the-ball runs.
Another introduction that makes a big difference during gameplay is the new option to switch to the receivers during corners and throw ins. Basically, you’ll lose control of how the set piece is taken but instead you get to engage in a physical battle for position and call for the pass when you want it. It won’t always come to you but there’s great delight in using this system to create space for yourself and just as much joy in using your greater control over a player’s movement to create that space for someone else.
FIFA’s most played (and, doubtless, its most profitable) game mode doesn’t remain untouched either. Ultimate Team has a couple of new additions that warrant a mention, as well as a whole new attribute on every card to bring the new physicality stats to the fore. The first is the addition of loan players which you can now add to your team for a handful of games. You can choose to use these star players, acquired via the game’s catalogue, at strategic moments to enhance your chances of a successful season. You might want to utilise your loanees during the new Friendly Seasons mode, which is a 1v1 version of Seasons, or simply as a way to test a player before saving up the coins to buy him.
One of the most interesting new additions to FUT is that of Concept Squads. You can basically build a squad with whatever cards you want in this, allowing you to experiment with that Spanish/English League squad you’ve been meaning to build and see how the chemistry looks before you start trying to gather the players up for real. Concept Squads can be shared too, so if you’ve got a particularly potent looking group, you can let your friends try to gather the players themselves.
FIFA 15 is not quite the great leap forward that many would have hoped for but it’s a bigger jump than it initially appears to be. The changes, although infuriating to begin with as they make you re-learn elements of your game, ultimately make for a more realistic game of football. There’s more nuance, more fidelity in the tactical systems and there’s greater movements from the players on the pitch. In a series that is synonymous with incremental improvements, FIFA 15 manages to feel like more of an evolutionary leap.
version tested: PS4