There is a certain predictability about some of the soccer club leagues around the world. Teams like Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United drain drama from their respective leagues, where top honors really are contested only amongst a few rich clubs. While the FIFA franchise itself has turned into a predictable top-of-the-table juggernaut for EA Sports, that monotony masks some of the hard work that goes into the title and that which still needs to be done.
The changes in FIFA 14 can be felt throughout the game, and many add extra layers to the experience. Players' actions in relation to the ball seem more free and unpredictable, leading to less reliance on canned animations. The fact that you have to be more careful with your first touch — lest you lose control of the ball — is a good change and led me to be more thoughtful with my actions.
This also dovetails nicely into another added aspect of FIFA 14's gameplay: Body shielding with the left trigger helped me keep possession, even if my careless first touches slowed down my attacks and got me into predicaments in the first place.
Some of the new features expand areas of the game but don't always make it a deeper experience. Look under the surface of the gameplay, and despite its improvements, it falls into the same ruts. Canned sequences mean that tackles still magically send the ball straight to the feet of an opponent, true battles for 50-50 balls are rare, and players still fall down after routine shots or insignificant contact.
Elsewhere, Ultimate Team adds new ways to build chemistry via Chemistry Styles. While it makes it harder (and possibly more expensive) to build that perfect team, I like the flexibility to change players' styles and attributes. If I want a certain player on my roster but my play style isn't suited to his skills, I have a way to make him more useful now.
FIFA 14 also expands its breadth with the addition of co-op play to the Seasons format, and a new scouting mechanic for the Career mode. The latter tasks you with setting up scouting network (separate from the one for youth players) to do your due diligence for transfer signings. While it's just a more convoluted way to get you to the same end result as last year, good scouts cost you money, and it adds drama to the transfer windows. In all, this year's additions aren't seismic shifts, but they're welcome.
Despite the new look and scouting system for the Career mode, the series needs to address the player communication system. The game's execution of the concept of morale is inconsistent, particularly in relation to what players tell you and what they do. For example, a low morale rating might make a player unhappy, but his form remains high and he doesn't ask for the transfer that he's been threatening all season.
Fatigue also isn't realized, as you can play the same lineup without substitutions. This undercuts the need for the lower end of your roster and therefore your youth system. These aren't game-killers, but realizing them is like pulling back the curtain and uncovering less depth than you had hoped was there.
Looking past such a calculating diagnostic, losing yourself in this game is still easy. The kinds of shots players get off are varied due to how they strike the ball (and with which foot), and the controls hit a sweet spot of being easy to pull off and capable of letting you engineer some incisive attacks. These aspects are not to be underestimated as they give you confidence going forward and the ability to score from some new areas. Combine this with all the different game modes, and you have a title that can satisfy in many ways.
They say that athletes excel when they're able to execute on instinct. Regardless of its drawbacks, this game lets you live in that moment and relish its qualities.
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Style: one- to seven-player sports (PS3), one- to four-player (Xbox 360), 22-player online
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Canada
ESRB rating: E