Every year around this time, football fans are checking their calendars and fixture lists for when their team are playing their greatest rivals and potential competitors for league titles. They look towards the coming season with an air of anticipation and trepidation, wondering if their team will be able to bring home silverware and live up to expectations, or if their season will end in ultimate disappointment. For a lot of fans, the annual arrival of the season's FIFA
title carries many of the same hopes and fears; will it live up to expectations, will last season's deficiencies and weaknesses be fixed. Challenging for the title or simply heading for relegation? Luckily we don't have to wait half a season to answer that, we already know.
It seems like only yesterday that we were busy reviewing FIFA 14
and yet here we are already a season further with the latest title on our desk. EA have made a lot of bold claims about emotions, better AI, ever better physics models, and vastly improved goalkeeping, but as ever, the first thing that you see is the visual presentation and it's a good place to start. Everything has been given a bit of polish; the menus and interface have the same format as last year, but look sharper. Shiny polishing aside, it's only when the game gets going do you see what EA are rightly so proud of.
On the new consoles, the game simply looks stunning. Player models and faces are increasingly lifelike, not quite uncanny valley, but we're getting there. The stadiums too are more accurately modeled, and even the pitches are becoming more real. Watching grass grow can be a euphemism for something extremely boring, but over the duration of a game, the pitch shows wear and tear, and begins to cut up. It's hard to say that field degradation impacts the physics of the game, but from a visual point of view, it's one of those small details that make the experience feel all the more real and life-like.
In fact, it seems like EA have gone all out to make the game experience look and feel as much like its real life counterpart as they possibly can. TV segues, replays, team sheets, and multiple camera shots are all there. Commentators even refer to upcoming matches that players can 'see' on EA Sports. If you glimpsed the demo through a shop window, you'd struggle to tell at a glance if it was the video game or a real game. Even goal line technology is included this year. In the beginning, it might seem a little over the top, perhaps a little bloated even, but as you get into it, the experience feels all the more real because of it, and despite having your fingers dancing over a controller, you still feel like it's the real thing, almost like a very playable simulation.
This realism also manifests itself in the actual gameplay. Ball physics have been tweaked yet again, and you notice it with deflections and bounces being more unpredictable. The player physics too have been improved. In previous years, a badly timed tackle, a push or a little shove would be enough to break an opponent'sstride and allow you steal the ball. This year, players now have much improved balance and better control of the ball. Even lower league players can be difficult to dispossess; mistime a tackle and they'll simply dance past you leaving you standing, and in the penalty area this causes no end of stress and panic. This year's learning curve has become the art of tackling but the flip-side is that the player can also benefit from this improved balance and control and become a mini-Messi themselves, waltzing past defenders before unleashing the perfect shot.
It's here that the much heralded improved goalkeeping AI kicks in. You can be halfway out of your seat, ready to celebrate a potential goal of the season, only to see the goalkeeper thwart your effort with a miraculous, world class save. The reactions and animations are brilliant to behold, and despite the incredible saves, it never feels like it is cheating. You may well curse as the shot stopper blocks another one of your goal bound efforts, but it now feels like you have come against a world class keeper and that feels fair.
Of course, the AI is not yet perfect and on occasions it can be far from it. In one game I watched the goalkeeper jog past a tame backpass from one the defenders, with the ball rolling slowly into the goal. Another time, my own keeper was challenging with two attackers for a mid-air through ball from the halfway line. All three missed, with my keeper spreading his arms wide, and ball simply went between them like an aerial nutmeg and ended up in the net. Communication with the virtual back line could be improved too, with the keeper occasionally rushing out to clear a ball when the defender is almost there. Yes, the goalkeepers are vastly improved, but intentionally or otherwise, they seem to be equally prone to making the same howlers as their real life counterparts.
As a manager, that can leave you fuming, but this year you have a finer degree of control over your team and your players, so at least you can perform a finer degree of damage limitation if needed. The team can be set for all-out attack or you can instruct them to park the proverbial bus (apparently it's a legitimate strategy after all). It works too; you may be a goal down, chasing the game, and the opponent AI will decide to run down the clock by holding the ball by the corner flag, and it's equally frustrating as you see those precious remaining seconds ticking down.
On top of more advanced team strategies, you now have the opportunity to give individual players instructions; tell them to get around the back, in the box, become the target man, or hang back whilst attacking. There a number of options for the different positions on the field, and it adds just that little bit of extra depth to the tactics and strategies. All of this can be saved as team sheets, which can then be later applied on the fly during a game, either through the menu, or in some cases, using voice commands.
Kinect voice control returns but much like last year, it's only useful for voicing quick commands such as "Swap Wings". Trying to use Kinect to make substitutions is still cumbersome and it is still quicker to use the controller and go through the menu. That being said, it remains fun to tell the referee what you thought of his latest decision or berate your players, the latter of which is meant to have an emotional impact on the players but it is difficult to tell.
Players are now have emotions which will affect the way they behave and play, not only affecting their own behavior, but also that of their teammates. One player wasting multiple chances will frustrate the other strikers, much like real life. It is difficult to tell if it actually happens, but it is clearly visualized. Players are seen reacting to the their own teammates when things are not going to plan, and opponents will face up to each other for a verbal exchange of views. It might not be the best example to future players, but it is another example where the presentation has been used to bring more realism in to the game.
Realism is the key this year, without realizing it the player is sucked into a deeply engaging football simulation. True, it remains a game, but it has hidden depths that you really only appreciate after those first few hours or days of playing. It starts to feel so real that you wouldn't be surprised to have Jose Mourinho throwing a tantrum on the touchline, or banners being flown in the skies above Old Trafford. During the set up of a free kick, I was actually surprised and disappointed when the referee failed to use his can of white spray paint to mark the position of the ball and the wall. The way that the game plays and is presented draws the player helplessly in. Those moments on the pitch suddenly feel incredibly real.
Even though the development team have been busy with the graphics and presentation, the audio for the game has not been left out when it comes to improvements. Along with some of the more famous football songs and chants, some of the newer stadiums in the title allow their crowd voices to be heard too. The game also includes some of the most recent chants heard last season including the Liverpool fans singing "poetry in motion", something that, given their recent run of form, won't be heard quite so often this season.
The crowd also voices their opinions with refereeing decisions, bad tackles, close shots, and in certain cases, a little bit of jeering when a player doesn't perform at their best. Again, this is meant to have an impact on the players, but it remains difficult to tell.
However, here are small, finer touches with the audio which do stand out. Playing on a surround sound system, individual voices in the crowd can sometimes be heard, and when the players celebrate close to the cameras you can hear them. In the greater scheme of things it's not a big deal, but again that increased level of detail adds to the overall atmosphere of the game.
The game modes have been left relatively untouched. Career mode plays out the same way, although the global transfer network seems to deliver more potential players than previously, giving you more options - which is useful given the prices of the players in the game. Virtual pro returns for both single-player and online, and pro clubs are back, too. Seasons, friendly seasons, and co-op seasons are all available, and tournaments make a welcome return. FIFA Ultimate Team has also returned with the added inclusion of concept squads. Players can experiment with building a squad with players they don't yet own allowing them to check out the chemistry and rating values. It's a nice little touch, but nothing that you couldn't already find on a number of websites.
It is worth noting at this stage that we are beginning to see a bigger difference between the console versions. When FIFA 14
arrived on the Xbox One, it was a launch title and had the feel of a launch title. This year, the difference in the games and the way that they look and play seems considerably larger. Certain concessions and omissions have to be made for the Xbox 360 version and ensuring that the previous gen title doesn't quite have the same degree of refinement or fidelity that the Xbox One version has.
One thing that is consistent over both versions is the music. As always, audiophiles can rejoice as the quality of the music and soundtrack is outstanding. The selected 'trax' are as diverse as ever covering a number of different artists and it remains a great way of expanding your musical knowledge.
It's worth noting that the divergent versions of the game have had an impact on the achievement lists which differ slightly. Both editions total 1000G, but the Xbox One version does this over 45 achievements whereas the Xbox 360 version has only 38. Whilst most are common, the Xbox 360 has a couple for free kicks and penalties, and the Xbox One has a few relating to the virtual pro mode, and a couple for using a particular mentality within the game. For the rest, it's the usual mix of game modes both online and offline, career progression, and a few for special tricks or events. As usual, for most players obtaining a high achievement score will not be too difficult.
EA have clearly been busy refining the franchise over the years with each new iteration bringing a number of changes and tweaks, that on the surface you wouldn't make a big deal of. However, the sum of those parts together makes for an incredibly realistic and immersive football experience. FIFA 15
retains its place at the top of table and continues to shine as a stunning football sports package. The visual and audio presentation on the Xbox One version is outstanding. With the game continually evolving, there remains a learning curve to overcome, but it's worth the effort as it feels increasingly real with all the looks and sounds of its real-life counterpart. The beautiful game just got a little more beautiful, but also a little more difficult and a lot more real. For the fans this advancement means another big step forward for the title. I'm not a fan of marketing hype, but when EA announced, "Feel the game," they were bang on.
The reviewer spent around 20 hours playing the retail version of FIFA 15 for the Xbox One in Career mode, Virtual Pro; online and offline, a few custom tournaments, FUT, and online multiplayer modes. In that time, 23 of the 45 achievements were unlocked. This copy of FIFA 15 was personally purchased by the reviewer.