STAFF REVIEW of FIFA Soccer 14 (Xbox 360)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013.
by Scott Fowler

FIFA Soccer 14 Box art Football. Soccer. Depending on your location, and your affinity for "accuracy", this sport goes by both names. For me personally, I adjust as I go. With my European friends, and some select American super-fans, I call it football, but for everyone else it's soccer. EA Sports has launched its seasonal cult classic FIFA 14, beloved the world over in all markets, and probably easily their hands-down leader in international sales. How does this year’s title hold up? Let's take a look and see.

I feel that I have to be totally transparent in these reviews. For me personally, I pick up the FIFA release every year, but I'm not a "launch day" player. More importantly, though, I'm not a major football/soccer fan. I know the leagues, I know most marquee players, but I'm not an avid fan. I'm not saying any of this for any reason other than full disclosure of my FIFA habits. Those of you reading this that are die hard soccer fanatics, or consider yourselves hooligans may want to keep that in mind as you read my thoughts.

I wouldn't want any crazed Liverpool fan coming after me for EPL inaccuracies or perceived injustices. Besides, I'm a Magpies guy myself, so if you want to talk misery...

Anyway, on to the game!

Since I'm still relatively new to, I want to say something with regards to sports reviews, and more specifically, with regards to franchise-level reviews.

FIFA, Madden, NHL, NBA, MLB, etc. These sports don't change year to year. One of the biggest laments among sports game fans is the inevitable "$60 for a roster upgrade?" gripe. It's not entirely without merit, but it also "is what it is". Soccer, as a sport, has not had wholesale changes since last years title was released. The continuity of a sports franchise is a double-edged sword for developers. On the one hand, you have a winning model, there's the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mantra. What that usually means in development circles is stick to what works. On the other hand, things become stale and stagnant over time. The traditional offerings always hold true, especially with EA: Ultimate Team. Online Modes, Career Modes, and the rest are usually only tweaked in small ways each year, partially because it's all they need, and mostly because they're wildly successful.

What many developers face this year, though, is somewhat unique. How to keep a franchise going on a console that's end-of-life, with a new generation on the horizon, and keep fans happy, while dedicating enough resources to the new platform to make a truly remarkable launch product? EA Sports has done well by both standards with this years FIFA 14. The changes to the core game have been subtle, mostly along the AI side, and actually achieve their goals of improved gameplay and more accurate simulation. I'll get into those in a second.

Let's dig in. Up front, I really like the menu and navigation screens. Microsoft and Xbox's big push toward tiles interfaces is not lost here, but I think it makes significant improvements on last years framework and layout. That’s not to say it's perfect, because a few inconsistencies exist within the navigation, but what you get is a clean very current UI and layout, and it makes some nice strides in this area. The cut-scene and pregame animations feel lighter, and refreshed, with the exploded soccer ball animations and such presenting very nicely. There are still some really minor inconsistencies: things like using the "Y" button to jump to the top of a sub menu to select advance versus using the A button like you do everywhere else, but that's being nit-picky of me, and quite honestly doesn't detract at all from the layout.

Game presentation is still super clean, with some minor shading and shadow enhancement/changes to put a slight more bit of polish on an otherwise solid aspect of the franchise.

Now let's talk gameplay. I noticed the subtle AI changes. My FIFA 13 tricks of how to burst out ahead on the lower difficulties and dribble in and score at will had been thwarted. Ok, so that's probably a good thing, because it means that I'll have to put some time in to figure things out, which is always part of the fun. Once I got my new tricks in the easier levels, the challenge of the AI on the harder difficulty levels really became intense. So intense, in fact, that I had to take it down a notch to even remotely compete with the AI. Again, you die hards are going to have your hands full playing this on some of the higher levels of difficulty, because this is no joke. It's freakin' Hard.

The overall simulation aspect has some interesting things going for it. I found that this year’s title forced the mid-field game to be played much closer to the sport itself. What does that mean? Well, in previous years, it was basically all defense, or all offense, and rarely did the play on the pitch take place at midfield. Midfield sort of became relegated to big outlet passes and poor defending breakdowns when I got too committed offensively. This year, there's a lot more time muddying up the middle of the field, because there's more challenges, and successful ones, and the ability to just drop to some front running striker has been significantly reduced.

New this year is "Precision Movement". I find this really taking the animations and player elements to a new level within the game. Specifically, things like dribbling, and the way the player with the ball looks/behaves/acts. Its just cleaner.

I've also found that AI teammates show up more. I know its not the same sport, but this years title makes the "One-timer" hockey pass and shot style of play much easier, because AI teammates are actually much better positioned than years past. Makes for some pretty lopsided scores on the lower levels, but just shows the advance in the team style of play. I'm personally curious to how much of this was driven by the Next Gen console work, because every piece of information I've gotten from people who's played the soccer titles on the next gen consoles says that the team AI and the volume of player interactions make these sports game really shine by comparison. Let's hope that is the case moving forward.

Also new this year is the "Global Transfer Network", allowing teams to build scouting programs and scout players all over the world. Obviously, scouting stars in the La Liga and EPL, you know what you get, but I found it an interesting way to get a peak at some up and comers around the world. Pick what your after, pick a region, and assign your scout accordingly, and you get what you're after broken down very nicely. Is it perfect? No, but it's a welcome addition and puts the season/career tracking components on par with the recruiting efforts in Madden and the like.

The Online play and Ultimate team modes haven't departed much from previous iterations, and unfortunately I didn't have enough time to get into them in earnest, but this is one of the games with massive online following, especially internationally, so clearly EA is doing most things right in this regard.

All in all, I think FIFA is a great way for EA to head off into the sunset on their Soccer franchise on the current generation of consoles.

Broken Record time these days. Keep it up, like the AI Changes, keep it going w/ the NextGen consoles and really bring sports gaming up a notch in realism!

Overall: 8.7 / 10
Gameplay: 8.7 / 10
Visuals: 8.6 / 10
Sound: 8.6 / 10


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