For the past two years the team at EA Canada has been working very hard to introduce unpredictability into the world of FIFA. It's understandable -- as beautiful as the structured, near-perfect game of football is, the glory of the sport is in the human element, the unexpected.
It's why they've worked so hard to create a game where players don't receive the ball perfectly every time. Where running headers don't ping exactly to teammates and even if you do the same three actions every time you take a corner, it won't always bounce off your centre-back's head and into the goal.
When you're watching football, that's what you want to see. It's the element of chance; the influence of lady luck that means your underdog team has a chance, if only they want it enough
. It's what makes following your team worth it in the good times and the bad (unless those bad times happen to include a match-fixing scandal of legendary proportions, Lazio
When you're playing the sport though, unpredictability is the devil. Football players spend their entire lives doing their best to know exactly how the ball will react when it hits their body, and they get paid millions of dollars to know it. Unhindered, their passes should (and do) go where they intend.
Missed passes and bad first touches are sources of great frustration to players -- and the same goes for those playing FIFA.
The way FIFA goes about handling player stats is by managing both player and team advantages. If you pit the Brisbane Roar against a team like Manchester United the team from Queensland will -- as a unit -- move much slower than Man U, and individual players will be dramatically outpaced as well. This stat balancing carries across to the ball skills as well. Manchester's players will make great passes, control the ball exceptionally and generally make the Mighty Roar look like amateurs.
If you take Manchester United and put them in a match against their equals, the balancing system kicks in again. Now you'll witness sloppier play from both sides. Because both sides are even and football in FIFA is unpredictable, you'll see fantastic players take the ball out of play while trying to control a pass, or accidentally head an uncontested air-ball to the opposition.
In general this doesn't affect gameplay too much. Because
you know players are capable of frankly embarrassing mistakes you're able to plan around it. You play a bit more conservatively, you slow down your play of the ball and you don't contest headers when the opposition is in an obvious area of attack. In the end, you're actually learning to play better football.
Where it impacts the game is in your forward line. If anything can happen, you often have little to lose by having your forward try something out of the ordinary against a defender. If you can read your opponent's plan of attack, you can throw the dice and try to intercept a goofy dribble or poor pass. It doesn't matter if it doesn't work -- you're not out of position defensively, and if it works you've got a decent play on goal.
This isn't entirely unrealistic. Many a goal has been scored because a defender screwed up at a poor moment, but these occasions are few and far between. Defenders also get paid millions of dollars, and so seeing this should be a one in 1000 occurrence -- but in FIFA 14 it can happen multiple times per game.
The solution appears to be a much higher rate of injuries related to fatigue. Two games in a row Lionel Messi didn't make it past the 75th minute for me due to an injury, and both times he still had roughly 25% of his stamina left.
I'm going to digress for a second, but the way FIFA 14 treats its cover athlete is odd. Messi is routinely ranked the number one player in the world -- his speed and acceleration combine with his ball-handling skills to create a small yet agile player capable of carving through defences.
In FIFA 14, however, his 1.69m frame gets shoved off the ball at will, and the new shielding technique tied to the left trigger is not capable of compensating for this. What this means is that you're better off sending the ball to Neymar (who is inexplicably rated just 84) and shooting the ball through to Messi once you've carved up the defence. Or better yet, using a team with a speedy and
strong striker, like Bayern Munich's Mario Mandžukić.
This is because in FIFA 14 player collisions are of greater importance than ever -- the Player Impact Engine is more prevalent and as a result stronger players can stay on the ball for much longer. This also means that players often collide off the ball and fall down, ruining runs or defences at inopportune moments.
Mario Mandžukić is rated 83 by the way. I can't work out how the leading scorer of the UEFA Champions League's winning team is rated just 83, but if you know what you're doing in FIFA Ultimate Team it can translate into major savings.
FIFA Ultimate Team is the part-TCG part-Fantasy League mode that EA Sports has finally eliminated most of the pay-to-win vibe from. When you begin you get a Bronze pack of cards which gives you enough players to get started (with a half-star team no less) and you're tasked with creating your Ultimate Team. Or at least a good team.
To create your team you'll need to buy gold packs of cards and trade those cards on the in-game auction house for gold. You can earn packs of cards and gold by playing games and completing challenges, and you earn enough that it no longer feels like purchasing packs of cards with real money is the only way to get ahead. Once you've earnt some in-game capital you can then head to the auction house and trade players.
Which brings us back to Mandžukić, who at just an 83 rating regularly goes for about 3000 gold pieces on the in-game auction house. In Fantasy League terms, this makes Mario a sleeper -- someone who goes cheap but offers quite a bit of potential down the line when he starts to score goals in real life, and they push his stats up to something sensible. Neymar should be a sleeper too, but his high profile sale to Barcelona has him valued at around 300,000 gold on the Transfer market.
If you ever spent just as much time sitting at the Auction House in Orgrimmar as you did Raiding you'll know how addictive the trading meta-game can be, and I'll freely admit to being sucked in by it. You can absolutely manage a solid team in FUT without paying a cent, which makes the mode a wonderful mixture of team management, auction watching and playing actual FIFA.
Still, it's about time someone drew a line in the sand over some recurring issues in FIFA. The AI hasn't been good enough for years. Not the AI competing against you, mind you -- World Class opponents are a great way to train yourself out of most of your worst habits (like an over-reliance on the chip and chase).
No, the AI in question is the one helping the player. Football players don't usually stand on the spot waiting for passes to reach them. They certainly don't do it when an opponent is standing right next to them, but they do it quite a bit in FIFA 14, and they've done it since FIFA 11. The AI that decides Auto-Switching is also underwhelming, and I've seen it switch to the wrong person on more than one occasion. FIFA still can't work out who the best player to switch to is and the Left Button change is still rigidly tied to the player who is closest to the ball (even if they're not the best player to move to).
The new attacking AI, where players will make runs off the ball realistically, has earnt me more offsides than I can count, but it only serves to highlight the problem of the millimetre perfect linesman AI. It's odd for EA Canada to have introduced unpredictability amongst the players while the Linespeople are still evidently using lasers to determine a back lines position.
The commentators still argue wholeheartedly that the referees are correct in every circumstance, which is odd, because the commentators in NHL 14 will often speculate that a whistle might have been blown by mistake. It seems like the team is kowtowing to the will of the FIFA organisation in some of these instances, unwilling as they are to admit fallibility on behalf of the officials. The game also still has trouble determining what a back-pass is, and handballs are still enough of an issue for their existence in the ruleset to default to 'off'.
I suppose the problem is that these are not dealbreakers for many players, and so allocating significant resources to solving the 'back-pass' issue might be wasted -- especially when the many teams at EA Sports are routinely accused of not making grand enough changes in their yearly updates.
That said, it's about time the team decided to eliminate these issues once and for all. I've given up on a dive button (or button combination, as it exists in Pro Evo), but if FIFA 15 wants to be the most realistic football simulation on the market it could at least look into these other legacy problems.
FIFA 14 is a solid game, and the changes to FIFA Ultimate Team certainly improve that aspect, but I have too many issues with other elements of it to wholeheartedly recommend it. The Xbox One version seems to be a lot more fluid -- physical interactions between players seem tempered and the way your team-mate AI moves to open up options for you is significantly better. Still, I think EA needs to go back to the drawing board on its interpretation of unpredictability's role in sports games, because while it might make the game look more realistic to watch, it makes it feel frustrating to play.