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FIFA 14 review: Plateau


Apparently following an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" methodology, the FIFA team hasn't introduced any large, game-changing features this year. Heading into the next console generation, this is very much a "tune-up" year in regards to FIFA 14, and for good reason: It's pretty hard to top EA Canada's efforts with the FIFA series in recent years. Each iteration of the soccer sim has gradually tapered off its impactful improvements, with the introduction of physics in FIFA 12 and then First Touch Control in FIFA 13.

Continuing the trend, the biggest on-field changes in FIFA 14 revolve around one of the first things players will notice: The game feels a bit slower. The fact is, the game's actual speed may not be any slower than before, but the continual tweaking of passing and dribbling mechanics has lead to FIFA 14 becoming a much more methodical game than before. Your team's progressions seem to take a little longer since the defense plays your attackers tighter, resulting in passing lanes that are a tad harder to find. The dribbling mechanics added in FIFA 13 have been altered – no longer requiring players to hold the left trigger – and effectively performing some of the fun combinations from last year is more difficult and confusing now.

Gallery: FIFA 14 (6/6/13) | 8 Photos

The left trigger is now used mostly for protecting the ball from defenders. Holding the trigger causes your player to shield the ball, a strategy that seems especially effective along the wings, yet otherwise ineffective against even a mediocre defense. Still, it causes your player to slow down and wait for teammates to better position themselves to receive a pass, which also happened much slower than I would like. When sprinting, the ball gets knocked a little further away than it did a year ago, lending more vulnerability to faster styles of play, especially when considering tweaks made to First Touch Control.

Introduced last year, First Touch Control causes more unpredictability in the ball's movements, and this year it's more sensitive to less skillful athletes. This causes a much clearer differentiation in how teams play and how players effectively move the ball around the pitch. While I can't necessarily say that Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo feel different from one another, they certainly perform better than a no-name player from some two-star Chilean club. The former two superstars might be able to get away with sprinting around the field a little and still avoid confrontation, but with the majority of teams you'll need to employ a slower, more tactical strategy, as less skilled athletes are more likely to lose control of the ball.

If EA Canada's goal is to eradicate the arguably cheap "sprint and through pass" tactic employed by some in the past, they've done an admirable job in doing so with the game's AI alone. In the mid-to-high difficulty levels, the opposition snuffs out passes and makes tackles with ease, and then knocks the ball around your challenges when on the attack. It seemed as if opponents, regardless of their supposed skill level, navigated the field and the openings in my defense much easier than my team could. Additionally, don't bother trying to tackle a CPU-controlled player that is sprinting along the sideline while shielding the ball; it seems downright impossible to get the ball away from them until they're already in the box and approaching the net. The saving grace here is that slide tackling is more viable this year and no longer a guaranteed penalty, thanks in part to a slightly cleaned-up physics engine that doesn't have players falling over one other as much.

FIFA 14 review Plateau
Still, I frequently caught myself pondering whether I'd inherited a team full of lobotomized players. If the ball fell dead in open space, my team would show almost no effort, merely jogging in the ball's direction and allowing a CPU opponent to regain possession first. If an attacker approached my CPU-controlled defenders, they would offer a nice cushion of space with lots of room to pass the ball. When I locked to an individual player on the field in career mode and timed a run to get past the defense, my teammates were almost always off by a beat, performing late passes often enough that we'd rack up double-digit offsides penalties in every game. My best bet for success was to carefully control every player on my team and trap attackers myself, which certainly slows things down.

FIFA 14's AI is polarizing. The game's smarter defense offers a new challenge and forces players to think more tactically. Your CPU teammates, however, are frustrating and practically useless roughly 75 percent of the time, creating more offsides penalties than scoring chances. Yet shaky AI is just one slice of the game's on-field play, the majority of which remains as rewarding and fun as ever, and ultimately doesn't feel too far removed from FIFA 13. For instance, the sheer unpredictability of the ball's movements in last year's game and the excitement it brought is still there in FIFA 14, so it's worth putting up with a few brain-dead teammates.

The manager side of career mode, meanwhile, receives a nice addition in the form of the Global Transfer Network. Players now have more control in managing a team of scouts, giving instructions on what types of players to search for in their assigned countries. Using the Global Transfer Network, I was able to discover a 19-year-old striker with plenty of speed stuck on a Brazilian club, and all the while the system was intuitive as can be. That's a credit to FIFA 14's overhauled user interface, which is nearly identical to the excellent system in Madden 25. The majority of the game's menus are now large tiles that have more pop, and even with the occasional stutter, navigation is exactly as easy as it should be. It's especially nice to have that in a mode with as much nuance as career mode or FIFA Ultimate Team.

FIFA 14 review Plateau
As for EA's favorite money-making and card-collecting mode, Ultimate Team has its share of improvements, including changes to team chemistry. FIFA 13's version of Ultimate Team brought chemistry into the mix, in which players would perform better if their given club, nationality or league matched with those near them on the team. FIFA 14 takes team chemistry a step further by introducing loyalty and player style bonuses, the latter offering a variety of player skill boosts for your team. Cards that are fresh from an opened pack start out with a "basic" chemistry style, and can be upgraded to others like "sniper," which markedly improves a player's shooting and dribbling abilities. By requiring you to take more specifics into account when building your team, Ultimate Team becomes much more enjoyable and challenging.

While online play in various modes went off without a hitch, the game froze twice within the career mode menus, and my system locked up once when booting up the game. Those instances, in addition to the clear balance issues with opposition and teammate AI will likely warrant some attention from EA in future updates.

That aside, FIFA 14 carries on the tradition of being one of the cleanest experiences in the publisher's sports lineup. It mixes up the formula a touch by slowing the pace of the game down and forcing players to think more tactically by using adjusted dribbling mechanics. The result is a more deliberate, challenging game with less forgiveness, though it still mostly resembles the FIFA we're used to. It's better in some ways, especially with the fresh menu system and added strategic depth in both manager career mode and Ultimate Team.

FIFA 13 took larger strides than this year's offering, but even with only minor improvements and changes, FIFA 14 remains an excellent soccer sim.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of FIFA 14, provided by Electronic Arts.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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