Reviewed on Xbox One
There was a time when you would fall in to one of two camps: FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer. That time is long since passed. Sadly, Pro Evo hasn’t been relevant since a few years into the shelf life of last generation’s consoles, as the unstoppable money machine at EA actually managed to not only churn out a fully-licenced, well presented product – but an unbelievably playable one as well.
Every September we’re treated to a new FIFA title, and thank goodness for that. The chances are that if you’re both a fan of football and of gaming then it’s the highlight of the year for you – I know that it is for me. For me, FIFA is the most important purchase of the year, as I know that it is without question the one title that I will still be playing in 12 months’ time. Enormous, brilliant titles like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto may be ‘better’ games in their own right, but even the most dedicated of players would struggle to still sit down and play it every single day for 52 weeks.
I am a FIFA fan. You are too. The problem is, a lot of other reviewers around the web aren’t. Not like you and I are, anyway. They haven’t sunk dozens of hours into getting Accrington Stanley into the Champions League. They haven’t unpacked thousands of quick-sell gold packs in the desperate hope of landing an Ultimate Team in-form Cristiano Ronaldo. They may know games, and they may play FIFA, but they don’t love it like the hardcore fan base does.
That’s why I’m going to spare you the usual trite predictability and structure of a standard FIFA game review and tell you what you want to know, fan-to-fan.
The bottom line is that FIFA 15 is a better game of football than FIFA 14. It’s simply a far more realistic, more balanced experience, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise either has a hard time adapting their style of play or is simply not very good. It’s not without its flaws of course, but we’ll get to that later.
The gameplay experience isn’t unrecognisable from 14, but there’s been so many little tweaks and reworks that it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable thing when you take to the pitch for the first time is the weight players carry.
It seems like every new iteration of the franchise has been plugged by the EA Canada crew talking of how much ‘weightier’ players are. How they all carry so much more momentum, and that you’ll really feel clashes and challenges. And as you know, previously this has been bollocks.
This time around though, it bears repeating. Players have genuine momentum. Stand perfectly still at a set piece controlling a receiver and flick the left analogue stick quickly, and the player doesn’t just take a perfect step one way or the other. They actually dip their shoulder and head off in that direction, meaning one step is actually followed by two or three little steps as they try to stop. There’s a more even distribution of weight throughout the bodies of players, and it feels amazing.
This inherently alters the way you play the game in almost every scenario. As well as lending bigger, stronger players more power, it also grants smaller, nimbler players more agility. Run shoulder-to-shoulder against Lucas Moura with Mats Hummels and you’ll shrug him off the ball with laughable ease. Try to take him on on the turn going back on your heels and he’ll dance away like a gazelle from a milk float.
This also means that you can’t just take the fastest defender you can find and stick them at full-back expecting them to dominate. For once there’s room in the game for slower full-backs like Branislav Ivanovic and Christophe Jallet – jockeying is infinitely harder and holding down the ‘contain’ button no longer turns your defender into a magnet. Defenders who are actually good at defending are vital, with pace an added bonus.
On the other hand, using agile, technical forwards is more fun than ever. It’s a common complaint that players like Leo Messi can just never seem to get in the game. Everything that makes him the special player that he is in real life just wasn’t there on past FIFA titles. With FIFA 15, though, that’s a thing of the past.
When players like Messi get running at full speed it’s truly frightening. Leave late or dive in early and you’ll be left for dead. You know, just like what happens every single weekend in real life.
This realism is enhanced by the tweaks to the dribbling system. You’ll now find that weak foot ratings actually matter. To use Messi as an example again, he’ll take 99% of his touches when dribbling with his stronger left foot. It doesn’t add or take away much mechanically, but it certainly adds to authenticity. Conversely, players like his teammate Pedro Rodriguez, who has a 5-star rated weak foot, will use both feet for more timely or suitable touches.
When this is combined with the new momentum system, dribbling offers both a great deal more control and a great deal more realism. Touches aren’t symmetrical or evenly weighted – your player might take two smaller touches to balance and positioning himself before pushing off into a sprint.
Oh, and players can nod the ball. No more botched counter-attacks from waiting for passes to drop to knee-height before taking a touch. The first time you see a player do it you may actually quiver with joy.
Notice how many times the word ‘real’ was used in describing all that. It’s what FIFA fans have been clamouring for, and it’s just what’s been delivered. The same can be said of the ball physics.
The alterations are extremely subtle, but there’s enough there for you to say to yourself ‘that would have been a goal on FIFA 14’ almost every time you sit down to play. Players can hit the ball harder. The ball moves less predictably. Strikers with a 60 rating for finishing often shank shots, struggling to find the corner of the goal from the edge of the box.
Again, these new ball dynamics combine nicely with the new sense of momentum. A chipped throughball between the centre-back and full-back that would previously have been easy homed onto by a lightning-reflexed, laser-guided defender now make it through to the striker. The ball comes up and down quicker – it almost feels heavier. Chipped shots take a more realistic arc, and cross-field balls don’t feel like striking a birthday balloon.
One change that EA has been hyping up is the reworked goalkeepers. They’re undoubtedly a huge positive, but sadly where we also see one of the negatives creeping in.
Most noticeable of all the changes is the way the ball interacts with them. After a year of playing any one release of FIFA you can generally know what shots will be goals, what shots will be saved, and where the ball will go after those saves. It may be early doors right now, but the process seems to be entirely randomised now. Shots come off of body parts in every direction – there’s no guarantees.
You can also nutmeg the keeper. You. Can nutmeg. The keeper. This is huge. There’s no forcefield between their legs any more. There’s more ways to score, and that can only be a good thing. Not to flog a dead horse, but because of the momentum system you can actually take the ball around them as well. They’re no longer gravitationally attracted to the ball at the striker’s feet, and as such have to spread themselves and risk wiping out the forward when they want to claim the ball. Red cards and penalties are often given, and it’s amazing.
Unfortunately keepers seem to sometimes be left confused by this new independence. They’ll rush out and miss the ball, or slide under bobbling shots, or sometimes even plain refuse to pick the ball up. Nothing makes you want to smash everything within arm’s length more than conceding a last minute equaliser thanks to your keeper running towards where the ball is rather than where it will be and diving parallel to a tame shot’s trajectory as it trickles over the line.
How these things are even possible to exist isn’t clear, but they do. They by no means break the game, but they might break a few controllers.
Player faces have always been a little hit-and-miss within FIFA, and the dichotomy is particularly noticeable this year. Every single Premier League player within sniffing distance of the first team has had their whole head scanned into the game, meaning that if you’re playing with Premier League clubs you’re in for a treat. Each crease and crevasse on Joleon Lescott’s forehead is just so, and Hugo Lloris is a digital dreamboat.
Unfortunately, to make way for such an effort and the assuredly massive file sizes of these likenesses other players have had to make way. And we’re not just talking about those in the Korean K-League Classic or Saudi Premier League. Nemanja Vidic looks like he was sculpted by the blind woman from Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ music video, and, clearly not just intent on nerfing his stats, Antonio Di Natale has received a facial downgrade too.
Worryingly, these players have actually had their previous scans removed from the game. Obafemi Martins, Rafael MÃ¡rquez, Giovani dos Santos, Stephen Caulker, Ricardo Quaresma and Antonio Candreva are also all the same. Again, it serves no real functional purpose but it certainly dents your emersion to see a generic create-a-player running around pretending to be an Italian international.
The Premier League also reaps the greatest rewards from the latest changes to presentation. When playing a Premier League fixture you’re treated to a host of new, authentic graphics that mimic exactly what fans watching the division outside of Britain see. There’s even real names for the referees, although inexplicably you still get the odd game refereed by Hayden Pennyfeather or Liam Keymer. Oh, and all 20 stadia are in the game. Your Turf Moor dreams are a reality.
This complements the shift towards a more broadcast-style approach in the general look of the game. The ‘goal-line technology’ replay is even there for when the ref has to make a close call on a shot. There’s a lot more replay angles shown after highlights, commentators hark back to earlier goals in the game, and players get shown close up as they prepare for corners, react to fouls and the like. It’s nice and all, but it can be a little grating having to hammer the pass button twenty times just to get to the point where your keeper can take a goal kick.
These close ups also help you appreciate two of the other little details thrown in to FIFA 15 – pitch and kit wear-and-tear. The pitch cuts up under duress just as it would in a real game of football, and more severely so depending on the conditions. Take out a forward with a hefty sliding challenge on a rainy day and you’ll notice a streak or divot left in the turf behind you. The tackler will also be left with a corresponding wet or dirty patch on his kit, so players like Wayne Rooney don’t leave the field after every game looking like Michael ‘Clean-Shorts’ Carrick.
Off the pitch the game is largely the same as FIFA 14. Career Mode and Ultimate Team will undoubtedly still be where you spend the majority of your time, and EA has obviously decided not to fix what isn’t broken. That’s not to say that they couldn’t do with a little improvement, far from it, but things definitely haven’t gotten any worse.
Within career mode adjustments have been made to the development cycle of players. Young prospects allegedly improve quicker, even having ‘breakout seasons’ where they leap up a good five points or so (think along the lines of Adnan Januzaj or Raheem Sterling last season). On the other hand, you then have older players showing more realistic signs of ageing. Just look at the start to the season Frank Lampard has had at Manchester City – on FIFA 14 he’d already be haemorrhaging stats all over the place. Not just physical, but technical and mental too.
Obviously that’s not right. Now, the best senior players will lose stats less sharply and in a more realistic manner meaning Francesco Totti won’t just lose the ability to spot a pass overnight, even as his legs continue to slow down.
The biggest difference, for someone who sinks as much time into Career Mode as myself at least, is the ability to save multiple team sheets. No longer do you have to manually rotate every single player in your starting eleven before every match because they’re still knackered from the one before. Now you can set up a first and a second eleven, or maybe a league team and a cup team. Each one can have a different formation and tactics, too, so you can have one setup for when on the road to the big boys and one when at home in a must-win six-pointer. My moderate estimations predict the feature should save you at least 10,000 hours over the next 12 months.
As a small footnote, searching for players is much better, too. You still have to rely, love it or hate it, on the Global Transfer Market for scouting, but now the menu is much more sensibly laid out when performing custom searches. Finally, you don’t have to enter special characters when searching for exotic players. “HÃ¶rÃ°ur MagnÃºsson” can be found under “Hordur Magnusson”. What a time to be alive.
The changes to Ultimate Team are equally inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. You still play tournaments and leagues to win coins to buy packs, but there’s a couple of differences. One immediately noticeable change is on player cards, where the ‘HEA’ attribute has been swapped for ‘PHY’. That’s ‘heading’ for ‘physical’, meaning you now get a better quick-glance at the physical state of your player rather than a fairly meaningless summary of his ability to head a ball. It seems that EA has realised that all people really care about in Ultimate Team is how strong and fast a player is, so why fight it?
Then there’s two functional changes – concept squads and loan players. Concept squads let you construct any team you want from any of the players in the game. Of course you don’t then own these players, and you can’t play as them, but it’s an excellent way to help you visualise just how a certain player would affect the chemistry of your team without you spaffing 300,000 coins on him and then immediately regretting it.
Loan players are exactly what they sound like. Their cards come with a finite number of matches attached, and once they’re up you can’t increase them and they leave your team until you unpack them or decide to purchase them permanently. So be sure to save that Messi loan card for when you really need it.
There’s also a new match type for Ultimate Team – ‘Friendly Seasons’. With this, you can challenge your friends to a series of matches between your respective Ultimate Team squads. Just why it’s taken so long to implement a reliable way of playing your mates online in the game’s most popular mode is a mystery, but it’s better later than never.
Ultimately, you already know whether you’re going to buy this game or not. No FIFA fan doesn’t buy the latest version every year, that would be madness. But hopefully now you can at least rest assured knowing that you’re still going to be getting an excellent game of football.
In a perfect world EA may even iron out some of the goalkeeping issues with a future patch, but even if it doesn’t this is still the deepest, most realistic football game you’ve ever played. Unless Konami pull off nothing short of a miracle this November, it’s hard to imagine FIFA 15 ever leaving your console’s disc drive.