"Feel the game" is FIFA 15's tagline. Yes, it's kind of awful, but it does encompass what developer EA Canada is trying to do with the latest iteration of EA's football franchise. Rather than load FIFA 15 up with game-changing tweaks like tactical defending, the developer is focusing its efforts on making it look as realistic as possible. The idea is to communicate the same passions and emotions you feel when watching a real match on television or from inside a stadium, with the digital footballers reacting in ways that enhance the situations and events they're involved in.
For example, if a penalty is conceded, a group of players might try to convince the referee that he's made a mistake. Another player might agree with the decision and give his own teammate an angry telling off for lunging in like a madman and giving away the foul in the first place. While all of this is happening, the team that has been awarded the penalty will likely be celebrating and complimenting the ref on a decision well made.
While less sophisticated versions of these reactions have been in FIFA before, they're a noticeable improvement, and really do make matches feel more life-like. If a particular defender has successfully shut down an opposing striker for the game's first hour, then you can expect the attacker to start getting frustrated, shoving and pushing his rival whenever he's trying to occupy the same patch of grass, whether the ball is in their vicinity or not. Elsewhere, an early missed shot might be met with words of encouragement from teammates: too many wasted chances and that encouragement will turn to anger and frustration.
Depending on the context of the match you're involved in, these reactions will manifest in varying degrees of vigor. A major cup final is a match of great importance and passions will run high, while a pre-season friendly is comparatively meaningless and therefore lacks the same passion and emotional urgency. According to FIFA 15 lead producer Sebastian Enrique, this kind of presentation isn't something that's been possible until now, although, one wonders why the FIFA team hasn't taken better advantage of the more powerful PC platform in the past.
"I've been working on FIFA for almost 10 years now and communicating this level of passion within the game is something I've always wanted to do," he explained. "With the previous consoles we just couldn't do it properly; it would have meant taking some memory and processing power away from the gameplay. Gameplay is always priority number one, so we would never have done that."
"I think people expect to be able to experience these kinds of things with the new hardware, which is also why we've worked hard to bring it into FIFA this year. People don't just expect good gameplay anymore, they also want better visuals and presentation, and they want to feel more engaged with every new game they play."
Unlike PES' Heart system, which changes the behaviour of players based on their emotional motivation, FIFA's new focus on emotion does not influence how the game plays. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, playing in an end of season match to decide where the championship goes, is no more likely to score or miss a chance whether he's emitting anger or confidence. Similarly, a frustrated Wayne Rooney is no more likely to get himself sent off than when he's calm.
"Inside the game we don't want to create situations that are unfair for the player," Enrique tells me. "If a player is very angry in the game, puts in some extra aggression when you tell them to perform a tackle and gets sent off for it, then that's a situation that you don't have control over and that wouldn't be fair on you. It's the same reason why we don't have handballs in the game. You don't have control over the player's arms, so if you gave away a penalty because of a handball then you would feel cheated. In the future we might be able to introduce something like this, but we're not at that point yet and so we're not including it."
Player models are getting a facelift too. FIFA 15's representations of Cristiano Ronaldo, Marco Reus, Luis Suarez and others actually look like the finely-tuned, lean, toned athletes they are, as opposed to the lumpy, bulky humanoids they've been in FIFA's past. Crowds are also better represented than before, with unique, team-specific animations added to raise variety. Borussia Dortmund's 'Yellow Wall', for example, sing and scream to the wave of hundreds of flags following a goal, while Liverpool's Kop End fans create a synchronised wave of red banners while singing You'll Never Walk Alone.
While these visual tweaks don't directly influence gameplay, Enrique and his team are right in their belief that it adds a heightened sense of drama to proceedings. Seeing Philip Lahm protest angrily at a throw-in that he thinks should have gone his way, or John Terry scold Peter Cech for giving away a silly own goal, brings events on screen much closer to reality. It makes you feel that the players are part of their world, rather than mechanically going through the motions.
Tweaks to the AI system, though, are designed to bring context-sensitive changes to the way players and teams perform on game day. Most obviously, this is felt in the way teams alter tactics to fit a given situation. If you're losing two nil with only 15 minutes to play then you expect your opponent to sit back and defend the lead, working predominantly to stop you creating scoring chances and keeping men behind the ball. Conversely, if you're beating the CPU three nil at half time you can expect them to throw everything they've got at you in the second half.
Additionally, by employing data mined from football matches around the world, EA Canada is able to have individual players act in a way that much more readily resembles their real-life counterparts. "Our data collection team does a fantastic job. I firmly believe we have the best football database out there. The amount of stuff they capture is truly amazing," exudes Enrique. "We have all the information on tactics, player positioning and which players are more likely to make certain runs and all that kind of thing... including how whole teams move as a unit when defending and attacking. The improvements we've made to teammate AI means they work much harder to get into passing lanes and move into space, which gives you many more opportunities to move the ball around."
"The AI for every player on the pitch is always trying to think two plays ahead--depending on their position on the pitch, their own skill level and where the ball is. Combining that with the new runs the AI players can attempt means everyone is trying really hard to give you the opportunity to create scoring chances and keep possession of the ball."
As far as the ball itself is concerned, its physics system has been tweaked in order to accurately keep track of its spin, momentum and movement through the air. The goal here is to allow you to perform more subtle flicks and changes of ball direction during passes and shots, using the pace and spin of the ball as it arrives at your feet (or head) to knock it on to a teammate or towards goal. It also requires you to think more about such actions, because passing the ball in the opposite direction to its spin can result in an awkward, wayward pass straight to the opposition's feet.
It's important to note that many of these upgrades are specific to the next-gen editions of FIFA 15. Enrique refused to comment on which specific features will not be appearing on the PS3 and Xbox 360, but did confirm that memory and processing limitations will affect the game's scope on those platforms; while FIFA 14 favoured the new consoles in a number of areas, FIFA 15 seems geared towards them in much greater way. Having only played friendly matches with a select few teams, though, it's difficult to get a real sense for how well many of these more interesting presentational, tactical and emotional elements change and diversify depending on the situation. Even so, I get the feeling FIFA 15 is more service pack than fully fledged update over last year's version. Let's hope EA's got something else to shout about later in the year.