The more things change, the more they stay the same. This review is going to be a little different. I figured I'd do it via bullet-points, since that's the language sports games tend to speak these days.
- FIFA's crown jewel has long been the fact it holds the rights to the English Premier League, the world's biggest and most popular annual football license. But FIFA 15 is the first year EA has actually doubled down on that property, and it's fantastic. All 20 Premier League teams have their own stadiums in the game, there are custom match intros and more expansive commentary. It's taken years but, so long as you're playing an EPL game, FIFA 15 can finally meet the matchday presentation of American sports games.
- Goalkeepers have had a significant upgrade, and it makes a big difference. Not necessarily when it comes to their behaviour - though I have seen a few more instances of "sweeper keeping" than usual - but their construction. In terms of your shots finding the back of the net, goalkeepers used to be a giant hitbox. You either got it past them or you didn't. This year their stance and movement really makes a difference. I've scored a lot of goals where the ball has dipped under the keeper's butt, or deflected off an extended shin, and likewise I've seen some terrific saves be made with shoulders and knees. It really helps make shooting and scoring (or not scoring) a lot more realistic.
- A big complaint I've had with FIFA over the years has been its fear of counter-attacking football. Through-balls rarely found open space, and even when they did, defenders could easily run down attackers. Not this year. EA have done a complete 180, with through-balls cutting easily into wide open pastures and attackers able to bolt through onto goal once they've got the ball. Some people will complain this throws out balance, but as someone who enjoys this style of football - and let's not forget, a lot of teams score a lot of goals like this - I love it.
- Ball movement has been drastically changed, and while it doesn't grab headlines or dominate back-of-box marketing, it's the biggest alteration (and improvement) to this year's game. Both shots and crosses have a lot more fluidity and variety in their delivery, meaning you don't just see balls come in along the same handful of predictable trajectories. Crossing in particular feels a lot punchier than it used to, and long passes along the deck don't feel like they're stuck in the mud.
What Needs to Change
- The way the game has opened up attacking football is welcome, but only in terms of passing. There's a weird tendency with AI-controlled players to take the ball and run, regardless of who they are of where they are on the pitch, which at times can get ridiculous. Steve Sidwell is not Lionel Messi, but FIFA 15 thinks he is.
- EA's roster of licensed international teams is a joke. While it boasts loads of teams from all over the world, few are using their actual logos and kits, which makes international tournaments/games look strangely low-rent for a series that otherwise prides itself on its licensing and presentation.
- I get what EA was trying to do with the global scouting network in career mode. Make it a more organic process, stop people simply poaching the best players on the planet at the click of a thumbstick. But what they've got here is too slow and too cumbersome. I can understand having to scout unknown 18 year-old kids from the Bundesliga, but do I really need to assign a scout to tell me how Jack Wilshere plays?
- We know, Ultimate Team is now the cornerstone of not just the game, but EA's business surrounding the game. So it's top priority. But I wish elements like Be A Pro and Manager mode were given a similar level of attention. They haven't seen any real changes in years, and while series like NBA2K forge unique sports game experiences - turning them into a commercialised RPG - FIFA lags well behind for those who game mostly on their own.
What Doesn't Need to Change
If you don't play FIFA, know that FIFA's loading screens give you all these little mini-games to play while the code crunches in the background. I wish every game did this. It really helps kill the time, and when you jump from FIFA to a game like Madden, it just crushes you that you have to sit and watch a static screen instead of trying a few passes.
FIFA has the best menu system in video games. Seriously. I don't know how long they spent designing it, or how much money, but it's clear, simple, intuitive and fast.
Look, I like FIFA. I've liked it for a long time, and even when the game has an off year, I've stuck by it and enjoyed my time with it. This year is no different. The EPL presentation is fantastic, and the changes to attacking and shooting really open the game up.
But...I'm starting to get a little restless. After Pro Evo's technical strides last year (its 2013 game looks and animates better than EA's 2014 game), my willingness to sit down and devote dozens/hundreds of hours year-in, year-out to FIFA is no longer guaranteed. This year, for example, once I'd tested out all the new stuff and explored the stuff that had changed, I had little interest in playing for fun. It just all felt too familiar, too similar to the FIFA I'd only stopped playing a couple of months ago.
EA will tell us that their "Ignition" engine was a massive change, but long-time FIFA fans will know better. The animation has gotten a little smoother, the shirt textures a little more detailed, but deep down, in how the players move on the pitch and how everything feels through your controller, the bones of this series haven't seen a total overhaul since FIFA 07. And it's all starting to feel a bit stale.
Hopefully, with the transition between console generations a little less painful by next year, we'll be able to play something fresher when FIFA 16 comes around. That or we could all take a much closer look at Pro Evo when it's out later in the year, since last year's overhaul promised so much...