We’ve been kicking digital FIFA footballs for over two decades. Think about that for a moment. Two decades of development has gone into a series, which, for many people around the world, is the benchmark for whether or not they buy the new consoles.
While many of us get caught up in proverbial discussions about whether or not launch titles have better modelling for fire, water or cars than the previous generation, smart football fans know better. Launch sports games are often of middling quality, and some FIFA fans wait patiently for an iteration that delivers on the promise of a better football experience.
Thankfully, EA Canada’s FIFA 15 emerges from the tunnel with swagger and a youthful exuberance beguiling a series now in its early twenties.
As with all annual releases, tweaks have been made to FIFA’s controls and animation, and its been gussied up in an attempt to better simulate a great football video game, rather than football itself. The glitz of FIFA 15 is infectious, and thanks to some very clever design, it’s welcoming, rewarding and will be my most played version is years.
Varying levels of handholding are available with player controls, meaning returning FIFA fans, new and veteran can modify AI and assisted player inputs to suit their own individual need. The sliders are self-explanatory, and gameplay will adjust to player skill level. The gulf between difficulty settings is narrowed by the assisted controls, meaning the learning curve for FIFA 15 is made more accessible. Higher difficulties remain borderline impenetrable to average players, but that’s the whole point of simulations; and this is where FIFA 15’s aspirations clearly reside.
Through best-in-class user interface, FIFA 15 unifies its popular FIFA Ultimate Team mode (FUT) with Career Mode into a sleekly designed hub. Hopping from FUT to Career Mode to an Online Friendly is effortless, and sets the bar for other sports games to follow. Sharing a common user-friendly menu system and joint experience points used to unlock new in-game rewards, FIFA 15 wants you to keep playing, and rewards you for doing so. Unlocking custom heritage kits, balls, celebrations and FUT loan players will have you switching between modes frequently, and allows for much greater variety.
FIFA’s money-maker, the ever popular FUT mode, provides an opportunity to build and trade players into playable fantasy football teams. It is clear this is the jewel in FIFA’s crown; built upon a near infinite player roster of tradable virtual collectable cards, and all the trimmings of a traditional managerial mode can be found within. It’s a sign of the times that micro transactions enable users to not only buy credits to purchase players, but it is possible to buy one time-use items to register a win, draw and even the appointment yourself as manager to your national team. It could be argued this ‘pay-to-win’ approach cheapens the experience, and serves to explore the ugly money-grubbing side of real world football. Paying to win is against the romantic notion of football, but you can’t fault EA for offering a shortcut to impatient or fair weather fans. If anything, the option to do so embraces the glitz and glamour of the modern world game.
It’s a focus on the popularized natured of football that makes FIFA 15 in equal parts mesmerizing and alienating. While I appreciate 90 per cent of the audience will experience FIFA as highly ranked clubs in multi-billion dollar leagues, playing home games in the A-League means beige models of home grounds incorrectly labelled with Italian, Spanish and Portuguese names. Veteran FIFA commentary team staples Alan Smith and the immortal Martin Tyler are acceptable, but hearing a jarring English accent from your ground announcer at Melbourne Victory home games ruins the illusion of a football simulation. If effort is going to be made to include a division like the A-League, surely we can expect small and noticeable cosmetic improvements in an annual release most of us also bought last year.
The gulf between the bright lights of the English Premier League and the A-League are painfully obvious when playing with the lower division leagues, where players fail to resemble their likeness at all, extending to players capped at International level who’ve been modeled in previous FIFA World Cup video games. FIFA 15 demonstrates the gulf widening in world football.
Understandably with an enormous player count, not all players can be accurately represented, but sometimes it feels like the developers aren’t even trying. It’s a shame, as an enormous amount of content has again been included, extending to a deep player roster, a record number of clubs, leagues and stadiums.
When applied correctly, the realism of the FIFA simulation is awe-inspiring. On the pitch, intricate commentary and bespoke banter between pundits and vocal crowds builds atmosphere. Big matches between rivals clubs feel passionate, special. Witnessing Lionel Messi’s in-game likeness as it glides up the pitch like a tiny Argentinian gazelle is proof EA Canada can build a true simulation that captures the living essence of The World Game.
The detailed emotion of football is captured beautifully in FIFA 15, with player facial expressions and the body language perfectly realised. You’ll witness the moment of ecstasy following a goal celebration, made all the better by the goal scorer’s panicked expressions which turn to anger, staring down a linesman. The technical capabilities of FIFA’s engine continue to improve and edge toward hyperrealism, and in doing so; cut corners become more apparent to fans.
Despite its shortcomings, this is the best FIFA experience in years. FIFA 15 wants everything to be big, bright and shiny. And for many people, that’s football. For others, they come to FIFA seeking an authentic simulation of football; attending a midweek match, hoping for promotion and fearing relegation.
At its worst, the disparity of FIFA 15’s attention to detail hurts the experience, and reminds us of its poor cousin PES; who lumps gorgeously crafted clubs (for which they hold the license) with also-ran poor imitations to make up the numbers. If you are going to own the FIFA license, EA, please do it justice.
The inherit problem with FIFA 15 is not every moment in football is a cup final. Often it is standing in the rain, watching the players you call by their first names at the tail end of 3-nil drubbing, knowing you’re going to do it all again next week. We can hope that next season, EA Canada continues to iterate, and strikes a balance between footballing glamour and realizing the beauty and passion of mid-table obscurity, because all football fans deserve the chance to experience a real simulation of the game we love.
The Author: Paul "Hoops" Houlihan is host of The Fourth Player Podcast
. Connect with Paul on Twitter at @paulyhouly