​2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil review: Qualifier

The FIFA World Cup is one of the grandest, most cherished sporting events in the world. The quadrennial competition pits teams of the best soccer players on the planet against one another, each representing dozens of nations (hundreds in the qualifying stages). To do the competition justice, a video game would need to elicit how special the World Cup is, especially to nations that hold the sport closer to their hearts (I'm looking at you, everyone but the United States).

Purely by virtue of existing as a stand-alone product, you'd think 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil would drive home the event's importance as its own entity outside of soccer. However, EA Sports seemingly spent more time trying to convince us that 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil is worthy of being its own $60 retail game than delivering enough to separate it from the main series in a truly meaningful way.
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2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil (5/5/14)

2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil's striking visual style immediately denotes how it differs from FIFA 14. It carries the same menu and layout format as last year's primary FIFA game, but its clean lines and white backdrops are replaced with colorful paint splatters and strokes to give every element of the game an uneven, worldly feel. That vibe carries through the game's pinpoint commentary as well as the frequent cuts to your team's manager and fans during games. Likewise, though EA Sports opted for Xbox 360 and PS3 instead of their next-gen counterparts, the stadiums hosting the World Cup this year are shown in fantastic detail. From a purely visual standpoint, the game celebrates the World Cup in a magnificent manner.

If only World Cup Brazil's merits rested on its graphics. On the field, it's nearly identical to the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of FIFA 14, save for a few differences. While the last-gen versions of FIFA 14 felt somewhat slow, and passes seemed a bit vulnerable (read our review here), World Cup Brazil seems faster by comparison. In a way, the juiced-up athletes feel a touch smarter and more capable overall than in FIFA 14, and they probably should, given that World Cup Brazil comprises international squads only. Still, it's a small change that, even in addition to tweaked penalty kicks and new over-the-back header animation, doesn't feel substantially different than FIFA 14. This isn't to say that World Cup Brazil is unsatisfactory – just like FIFA 14, it doesn't have many honest flaws in the actual flow of the game.

World Cup Brazil tries to set itself apart from FIFA 14 with a handful of different modes, which generally amount to familiar career, challenge, season and tournament formats with a World Cup twist. Captain Your Country puts you in the cleats of one athlete, real or player-created, vying for a spot on an international squad starting in 2010 and leading up to this year's World Cup tournament. You must outperform three "rivals" on the same team, both in matches and during training sessions, to eventually earn the captain's armband and participate in the competition.

Rivals push the challenge of standard single-athlete career modes to new heights. Their inclusion offers more to shoot for than just self-improvement, as your mid-match rating is joined by three others on the screen. Another fantastic addition is using L1/LB to automatically guide your player to his correct position, helping to prevent you from randomly roaming the field and knocking down your match rating. Here's hoping that FIFA 15 adopts that function later this year. Still, Captain Your Country isn't particularly deep, as your character's skills and attributes automatically adjust based on your performance, unlike the Be a Pro career modes in proper FIFA games. It really doesn't match the nuances of those modes, but it remains the most enjoyable mode in World Cup Brazil.

Captain Your Country is joined by a few full-team control modes that mimic tournament and season-style play. The offline Road to the FIFA World Cup mode has you play through the qualifying rounds as one of 203 nations battling their way to the World Cup finals. Meanwhile, Online FIFA World Cup starts in the later group stages, challenging players to beat opponents online and eventually win the cup. Each mode feels just barely distinct from one another, and not enough to be naturally rewarding in their own ways.

One noteworthy addition here is EA Sports Talk Radio, in which radio and podcast personalities discuss the tournaments between matches in the offline World Cup and Captain Your Country modes. The radio hosts come in two pairs: Andy Goldstein and Ian Darke, and Men in Blazers hosts Michael Davies and Roger Bennett. Each pair is equally entertaining, and selectable at the start of your career. It's a major plus.

Two other modes offer more distinct ways to enjoy the World Cup tournament: Road to Rio de Janeiro and Story of Qualifying. The former replaces the online World Cup format with one that more or less resembles online seasons mode from FIFA 14, in which players start out at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, challenging other players to advance through the tournament's 12 Brazilian venues to reach Rio's Estadio do Maradana and win the World Cup trophy. Losing matches means relegation to previous venues. While the balance between progression and regression is fun, Road to Rio is similar to Online FIFA World Cup in that it acts as a different type of window dressing for online matches, making it feel more like a filler mode than a must-play inclusion.

Story of Qualifying, meanwhile, plops players into 60 different real-life situations that happened during the World Cup qualifying matches held between June 2011 and November 2013. For example, the bite-sized, goal-oriented mode might challenge you to topple Bulgaria with four minutes left in the game as a 10-man Italian squad. Or, playing as Ireland against Kazakhstan, you might have to knock in a penalty kick and then proceed to score a game-winning goal with one minute to play. If anything, Story of Qualifying does a good job of illustrating how the World Cup's festivities stretch beyond the lone summer that the actual tournament is held.

Players will have a chance to continue the celebration with Story of Finals, which offers similar challenges based on matches from the upcoming World Cup tournament. The mode isn't open to play just yet, given that the games still haven't occurred, so I can't speak to whether it will be well-supported by EA. As for World Cup Brazil's overall online functionality, I had some troubles connecting with other players during my time with Road to Rio de Janeiro and Online FIFA World Cup, but the actual matches were as smooth as they were in FIFA 14.

For a game in a side series that you get just once every four years, 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil doesn't quite feel unique, and it's special only in superficial ways. Sure, it offers the glamour and excitement of the World Cup visually, and the inclusion of radio personalities in select offline modes is a brilliant one, but it isn't something I would return to in off-years between World Cups. Captain Your Country doesn't stack up to the depth and nuance of FIFA's traditional Be a Pro mode, and the insubstantial Road to Rio de Janeiro and Online FIFA World Cup are just dressed-up excuses to play others online. 2014 FIFA World Cup is a reliable on-field game, and its depiction of soccer is as superb as that of FIFA 14, but it's only valuable to the sport's biggest World Cup fans. It behaves more like a one-off version of the sport, one that's not particularly worthwhile with another main entry in the series just months away.

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, provided by Electronic Arts. Images: Electronic Arts.

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