FIFA 15 review: Parking the bus

PS4/Xbox One/PC - also available on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, 3DS and PS Vita

What is the ideal reality for an annual sports video game series? For players, a relevant, modern game in a franchise should be relentlessly entertaining. It should have long legs, allowing players to extend the experience for months as a reliable means of getting their sports fix.

EA's FIFA series is one of those properties, as demonstrated in the previous generation through this year's edition, FIFA 15. The soccer simulations have been operating at an incredibly high level for years, and it seems as if each version is still an improvement over the last. There's a downside to being at the top, however: Those improvements will shrink in scale, and the reasons to choose the latest game over the last one one shrink along with those changes.

While the publisher's first efforts in its transition to Xbox One and PS4 last year were gorgeous in their own right, FIFA 15 makes a bigger stride in delivering presentational elements that set it apart from other sports games. Players emote in ways that help tell the on-field story of soccer from near-missed goals to celebratory last-second triumphs. Similar to Madden 15's post-whistle, in-engine animations, every digital footballer on the field reacts and animates based on the circumstances of the on-field play.

Colliding opponents might stand up and push one another while jawing for a moment, or a player might turn to their teammate and give them a thumbs-up after missing a shot to let them know the missed goal was the fault of their foot, not a bad pass. A player might discuss their foul with the referee, or even run up and smack the flag in the corner of the field. Some moments play out in the engine, but most are close-up cuts to the animations, often accompanied by expertly-delivered lines from the returning commentary team, Martin Tyler and Alan Smith. Sports games often tout "like it looks on TV" presentation, but FIFA 15's broadcast style is much more lifelike thanks to these subtle changes.

One of EA's other marquee presentational changes is what the company calls "Living Pitch." Basically, the field degrades as athletes plod across it over the course of a match. Clips of grass whip through the air as you dig in for a shot at the goal, and streaks of dirt mark the path of slide tackles. Yep, we're talking about realistic grass, which you may not notice all that often while playing, though it may occasionally garner wistful looks from your inner amateur lawncare enthusiast. The battered field doesn't seem to affect the physics of the ball – it just looks nice. Seriously, this is where we are with the FIFA series.

More importantly, the on-field gameplay formula received a few tweaks this year as well. CPU opponents seem to hang on to the ball and dribble it across the field much more frequently, calmly jogging past any of my direct sprint-and-tackle attempts. The incessant march and conservative pass attempts of my opponents led me to change my defense tactics this year; attempting to step in to the computer opponent's stride usually left my player in the dust. It was continually aggravating until I started corralling defenders out to the sidelines.

The game's AI tended to boot the ball out of bounds needlessly on moderate difficulties occasionally even dribbling it out to change possession. While that was problematic for my teammates in the single-athlete career mode, it was a game-saver against FIFA 15's cagier CPU opponents. I still managed precise slide tackles, but it seems as if fouls are given out a little more regularly by default (though you can adjust the frequency of fouls, among other things, in the options). On offense, I found that crosses into the box were more difficult to pull off, but that jogging and shaking an opponent before whistling past them was much easier. As a result, most of my goals came from breakaways and deft one-two passes down the middle of the field as opposed to crosses from the wingers. FIFA 15's offense feels dominant in that way, and satisfying goals are even better with the aforementioned player emotions factored in.

EA also added new tactics, and blessed CPU opponents with the know-how to execute them. Opponents will "park the bus" to ride an early lead, for example, or hold the ball in the corner of the field when they're ahead late in the game. My AI teammates were rarely out of position thankfully, though there were occasional moments where I didn't think they fought hard enough for balls in the open field. Even with infrequent hiccups, however, player behavior is arguably at its best in the series, as talented opponents on higher difficulties require a strong tactical approach. You can't just sprint down the sidelines and cross it in for an opportunistic header and expect it to work every time.

Improved player intelligence was a point of emphasis for the developer this year, starting with goalkeepers. EA claims it has "rewritten" goalies for FIFA 15, and their natural reactions and animations make that apparent, as they lunge and dive for balls as they might in real life. And yet, there were instances of me scoring against keepers that froze in their tracks and watched the ball sail past them, no more than an arm's length away. These "deer in the headlights" moments are relatively rare, though, and the improved defenders encourage you to change up your approach and think tactically. Or you might just get lucky, since EA made a point of adding more deflections off goalie's limbs to the equation.

Some FIFA 15's broader, more noticeable changes are more cosmetic, but they make a world of difference in focusing the experience. Take the game's menus as a good example of positive movement for the series. Clicking the right stick in FIFA 15 pulls up an EA Sports Football Club widget now, which includes a social feed with your friends' updates within FIFA, and easy access to the game's catalog of unlockable items like balls, uniforms and career mode boosts. Additionally, FIFA 15 features a dedicated "Match Day" hub with real world news and score updates for players' favorite teams populated from around the web. The news updates could use larger text – they can be tough to read – but both UI changes are a vast improvement over past games, and they further transform FIFA into a soccer portal, not just a video game that compliments the sport.

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FIFA's fantasy-style Ultimate Team mode also received a few tweaks, and it's better off for it. The squad-building, card pack-buying mode is a little more friendly in FIFA 15 thanks to the addition of loan players. Those looking to temporarily fill a hole on their ultimate teams can now opt for a rental player of sorts, which expire after a set number of games. FUT players also get to plan team reconstructions in advance with concept squads, a planning tool that allows strategists to link together teams with high chemistry before they even own some of the players. Both changes offered more flexibility, and dipping into the loan section offers FUT a much-needed boost at the outset, making it easier to get into. Even so FIFA still hasn't reached the level of organizational clarity seen in Madden 15's Ultimate Team mode, particularly its intuitive binder system.

FIFA 15 is a marvelous soccer game, and it's certainly better than FIFA 14, but the series' improvements felt even more marginal this year. The game captures the thrill of soccer unlike ever before, but the new, emotional player animations are only a small addition to what was already a great product. Even as FIFA 15 transitions further into a soccer portal with its Match Day hub and news feed widget, it's markedly similar to last year's game at its core, which can (and should) make players question the annual upgrade. Still, even if you argue that EA Sports is now "parking the bus" with FIFA 15, it's a fantastic entry in what's become a very reliable series.

This review is based on a retail PS4 copy of FIFA 15, provided by Electronic Arts. Images: EA.

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