I just love soccer. I played for a good part of my life and have watched it religiously. I still have a large library of games on VHS and DVD including USA’s only win over Brazil. I have MLS, National Team, Futsal, beach soccer, and old Major Indoor Soccer League games. It’s a beautiful game in all its forms. Now in mid-life, I have been relegated from being a player to the sidelines either photographing or coaching whenever I can. So when I get the itch, soccer games on PC or console have been a great distraction.
Over the years, EA’s FIFA series has been my favorite. At first simply because it was the only game available at the local game store. Then I learned about Konami’s Pro Evolution and several other minor (and brief) competitors. Pro Evo really set the bar pretty high for accurate gameplay. For a few years I thought it couldn’t get any better. But EA has deep pockets and paid for the authentic team and name rights for just about every major league and competition. So that’s where my time was spent. EA has evolved to the point where FIFA is one of its highest selling games every year, so that’s where their development money goes. So much that their other dev teams borrow the FIFA technology for NHL, NCAA and other games. They have learned how to make the money flow.
EA’s micro-transaction cash cow has returned in FIFA 14 on Xbox 360. Not too many years ago EA didn’t care much about FIFA. They were so far behind Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer (aka Winning Eleven) that they had no choice but to hire away some of Konami’s staff to get EA up to speed. They did so very quickly. The past few years FIFA has not only passed PES as the fan favorite, it has proven to be one of the most popular games worldwide. Every year it’s a tight race for Sports Game of the Year between FIFA, NBA 2K and MLB: The Show. All other games need not apply.
The menu system on FIFA 14 has evolved to a tile system similar to Windows 8. I hate Windows 8 with the heat of a supernova, so I wasn’t happy with the new UI at first, but it actually works better than previous years, especially if you like using the Kinect to do your touchscreen-style interface, although some things are slightly more difficult to find.
The gameplay engine has been tweaked a little bit. It honestly feels a lot closer to Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer. Even on amateur mode there are noticeable changes that take some adjustment. You can’t as easily run through a defense to get breakaways. You actually have to pass and move to space. The defensive and goalie AI has improved though some would say not enough. That said, having played both FIFA 14 and Pro Evo 2014 I would give PES a very slight edge in gameplay. Their players just seem to have more accurate weight and balance. It’s about the only area PES is competitive. FIFA is very, very close though.
The real difference between FIFA and PES comes in the licensed players and teams. FIFA has 33 leagues, 600 clubs, 47 national teams and over 16,000 players and their stats (many with facial maps and mo-cap). PES has 81 national teams and around 150 clubs – sort of. Most of the teams are pseudonyms like “Man Blue” for Manchester City. That is just staggering. Now to be clear, PES has a significant fan base who yearly edit the files to be as accurate as fans can make them. It’s great to have customization options. But that’s just a lot of work and sometimes fan are not as accurate with their favorite teams. EA has groups of ‘scouts’ who pour over the FIFA data sets before being published. Those data sets are updated frequently as players are transferred or other changed occur and are available as free downloads in-game.
Also FIFA 14 has their online Creation Centre web app to allow users to fill in the gaps. You can create players, teams or tournaments for anyone to download. Users have created an incredible wealth of teams over the past several years so any of the few teams or leagues that are not licensed in FIFA are available for download. Anything from the Canadian national team to fantasy teams like the Cleveland Force Best XI are available. Historical teams are my favorite to put up against more recent teams just to see how it may have happened – especially old EPL teams featuring Beckham or Cantona.
The Career mode lets you manage or lace up the boots and play out a long career. This year instead of working my way up in England’s FA, I decided to try out playing in Major League Soccer. It’s a different animal – though this season EA decided to make the divisions accurate instead of using a single table like previous years. It was almost as if to say ‘hey, MLS, having a single table like everyone else in the world would be a good thing.’ But they’d probably expect a promotion/relegation system next.
Both management and player career modes are a real joy to play and add even more value to FIFA 14. Simple improvements like having the ability to request to be subbed out of a game are now in FIFA 14 and those little things are what makes it special. Previous years I seemed to write more about the limits in sports games, but this year FIFA 14 really rises above most complaints. The great thing about career player or be-a-pro mode is the unique opportunity to teach kids the game. In a tangible way kids (and parents) can learn about offside and the benefits of playing your position. All of these skills translate to online play and even on the real pitch in local leagues.
If you have used EA’s Game Face in the past to put yourself in the games, you should really revisit this seldom used feature on the EASports.com website. Once you’ve uploaded a front and side view of your head to the Game Face rendering engine, you can download it to several different games for use on your created player. So far it supports soccer, football, tennis and golf. EA has improved the facial rendering so much that it’s really a little freaky to see how accurate the facial mapping can be.
As with NHL 14, EA has chosen to stick with their commentary teams from the past few years of FIFA and it has given them a large library of recorded names and situations to utilize. The commentary is impressive – even while playing with MLS teams. Martin Tyler and Alan Smith with an alternate duo of Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend are some of the best in the sport and add a new level of realism that Pro Evo just can’t touch. The EA audio team has really captured the game beyond anything we’ve heard before on any console. Tyler even commented that goalies Marcus Hahnemann (Seattle) and Jon Busch (San Jose) may be retiring after this season which has been rumored all year.
Skill games have been completely updated to have even more fun and challenging skill development. Some new variations on last years games are included with quite a few more to help develop passing, shooting and goalkeeping skills. It’s surprising how much these games actually do help your normal gameplay especially online against real opponents.
Online modes are continuing to be more engrained in all EA Sports games. FIFA is no exception. It is surprisingly fun to compete online in Ultimate Team or other online activities. But just be aware that at any point you don’t have an internet connection, a significant number of modes will be crippled or completely unusable such as Ultimate Team.
FIFA Ultimate Team is again the big addiction (and money drain) for most players. It uses a trading card interface to let you build a club with multiple teams. All 16,000 licensed players are ranked in bronze, silver or gold monikers and you can buy (with real money) packs of digital cards with various players and skill enhancements.
FIFA 14 Ultimate Team (FUT) has been revamped a little bit this season. Most notably are the chemistry connections between players have been altered. The team formation isn’t such a huge factor anymore and now it’s more about the roles of the player. So now you can get cards with chemistry styles for attackers such as “sniper”, “finisher”, “deadeye”, “marksman”, or “hawk” which upgrades specific offensive attributes like shooting, dribbling, heading or passing. In the end this is probably a better system than last year but getting the right combination of players to make a good team isn’t as easy as it once was. But it is incredibly addictive. Especially when you go up against others online and see how their team chemistry makes their weaker team beat your higher rated team. Thus the money begins to flow.
But there is a way to curb some of the cost of building your dream teams. EA sells a package called “Season Ticket”. Basically for $25 you get a year of benefits for several EA Sports games including NHL, FIFA, NCAA, Tiger Woods and Madden. You get to download and play the full game 3 days before it’s released to the general public, then you buy the game on release day and get 24 Gold Premium Packs (1 a week) plus 20% off any future FIFA 14 DLC’s and card packs. That’s over $30 worth of value just for FIFA. Plus you get the same benefits for NHL, NCAA , Madden, and Tiger Woods; all for $25. It’s a great deal for anyone else who is addicted to Ultimate Team and the Creation Centre – especially if you were going to spend money on DLC’s and card packs anyway.
EA really pulls at all the strings by also having a robust auction system (similar to eBay) in-game that allows you to bid on specific players, consumables (contracts, healing cards etc.), coaches, and club items (logos, uniforms, stadiums, and balls). You earn coins by playing games and improving your skills. You can also sell items. The easiest way to build a team with good chemistry is to target players of the same nationality, league and/or team. While the Wayne Rooney’s of the world are incredibly expensive, you can find the rare deal on Van Persie or other highly rated players occasionally poaching a bid at the last second. EA hits all the major internet addition points with FIFA 14 and will do so again next year because they made it fun and we keep coming back for more.
EA has also updated the EA Football Club iOS companion app for iPhone and iPad. It allows you to manage your club while you are on the road. Everything from buying packs of cards to transfers (auctions) and squad lineups are at your fingertips in this free app. It’s a great little bonus to keep you occupied during lunch breaks at work. Unfortunately the FIFA 14 iOS game is completely separate from consoles so you can’t transfer games or FUT teams between devices. Though it also has Ultimate Team and many of the console features, it’s still a completely separate experience.
FIFA 14 is nearly a perfect sports game experience on Xbox 360. The only clear failing in FIFA 14 is the complete lack of women’s teams. Given the Women’s World Cup will be in Canada in 2015 one would expect EA Sports Canada to be working on this long overdue feature for FIFA 15. Even if it’s just a few women’s national teams, it is just time. The addition of women players in Creation Centre would open the gates for a wealth of user created teams from past college, club and national teams. After all, there really isn’t much more EA can do to make FIFA better. They might as well give the users the tools to make something even more special.
This is the bottom line: both FIFA 14 and PES 2014 are $60 games. That’s a lot of money for most people especially these days when it’s unusual for a game to be played more than 2 weeks. But FIFA is one of those rare games that has something for everyone – from quick skill games to full league simulations – and all of them with fully licensed leagues and teams. PES will be in the discount bin shortly. FIFA 14 is one of those rare games where I actually felt like I got my moneys worth and didn’t really mind putting down a few more bucks for additional Ultimate Team items. It doesn’t get better than this for any soccer fan. FIFA 14 is the best, most complete sports game ever.