With every annual release of EA's FIFA series there's one obvious, but legitimate, question that is kicked into play more than any other: 'do we need another one of these?' With gameplay and game mode alterations that only the most hardened of subscribers ever recognise, is EA justified in releasing tweaked editions of what is essentially the same game every annum?
Over the next few months, in the run-up to the release of 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, that question takes on greater meaning. Released worldwide this April, this officially licensed digital recreation of July's World Cup will become the second full-price FIFA title to launch in six and half months, following FIFA 14's release in September last year.
To try and understand the value for the consumer in having so many FIFA titles available in such a short amount of time, we sat down with 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil producer Matt Prior to get his take on what makes his upcoming game worthwhile.
"We want returning FIFA players to really have a different experience from what they're used to," explains Prior when told that I already own FIFA 14 and am curious as to how World Cup represents genuine progression, "which is why we've changed the gameplay more than we ever have for an 'event' title in the past. It's a full and feature-rich game that taps in on the passion and atmosphere of the World Cup... we're the only game that provides that.
"From a gameplay standpoint, we're the best game out there when we launch because we've taken FIFA but made improvements to it. We're really a standard FIFA plus a whole lot more development on top, so if you want the 'cutting edge' game then that's what this is."
Seeing as World Cup Brazil's release is being limited to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it's difficult not to take the 'cutting edge' claim without a pinch of salt. Getting first-hand experience of the game in action is a chance for me to be impressed by the new player animations (mainly concerned with fanciful passes and flicks) and the ability to use another player's back as a springboard to jump higher during headers, but I leave without definite assurance that the physics model here is superior to that used in next-gen editions of FIFA 14.
"We want returning FIFA players to really have a different experience from what they're used to."
Little doubt exists that World Cup Brazil represents the pinnacle of World Cup-specific games so far, however, and Prior is keen to promote exactly that as a key reason for FIFA 14 owners to invest in the series again so soon after the series' latest release.
"There's also a lot of content that you can't get in other FIFA games: the 203 national teams, the authentic World Cup stadiums, and the general sense of atmosphere we've built around this to match the actual World Cup," exudes a genuinely passionate Prior.
"It really is the most immersive atmosphere we've had. A typical FIFA can't focus in on one particular area as it has to cover so many different leagues - they don't have the luxury of concentrating on making one tournament as true a representation as possible, but that's what we've done."
For the indoctrinated football obsessive, myself included, Prior is right to suggest that digitally recreating the atmosphere of the sport's most iconic and important event is enough to attract players. Trying to mimic what we're going to be watching on television this summer within the boundaries of FIFA 14--without the official branding, kits, stadiums and samba music--would feel like a comparatively hollow endeavour.
The obvious question then becomes, how worthwhile are these 'event' games following the end of the tournament in question?
"People play them a lot after the tournament is finished," is Prior's response. "For the last one [2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa] people were playing a couple of years after the end of the World Cup, and we keep all the online servers running to allow them to play multiplayer over that time." It might be worth remembering, however, that EA shut down the servers for its 2010 World Cup game back in December 2011.
"I think the popularity remains because there are a massive amount of people that only buy the World Cup games. For those people, the World Cup is the only time that they're genuinely interested in football and so it's the only football game they buy."
"We were in production at the same time as FIFA 14, so it's a completely different team."
For the casual FIFA fan, those tempted to indulge in a World Cup edition but not the 'primary' releases, these extra-curricular releases do seem to represent value for money. Whether or not that's the case for regular buyers is less clear and will likely be determined by how much time you spend playing World Cup games, rather than watching World Cup games, while the real tournament is being played.
Despite the comparatively short amount of time separating the release of this game from that of FIFA 14, Prior is keen to leave me in no doubt that World Cup Brazil featured anything other than full developer support.
"No. We were in production at the same time as FIFA 14, so it's a completely different team," Prior bluntly responds to my question of whether or not the FIFA 14 team was rushed into creating World Cup Brazil following the former's completion. "September or October 2012 we started [development], so we've been working on it for 16 months or whatever it is now."
"It's a full team as well, it's the equivalent [size] of the team that worked on FIFA 14 - it's not just a few people altering an existing game. You couldn't make a game that's as feature-rich as this one without a full team. It takes just too much effort."
With such a 'feature-rich' game, it's tempting to see World Cup Brazil as a test bed for FIFA 15--a relatively low-risk means of experimenting with new features and judging relevant player response.
"I wouldn't say that we're using the game as a test bed," Prior tells me. "We're an evolution of the most recent game engine, so, yeah, anything we do would naturally roll into future editions of the game engine and the series.
"Obviously, the caveat to that is that we'll be monitoring player feedback. If we hear that there are things people really don't like about the game--and I would be surprised if that's the case--then we would certainly look at that and re-evaluate whether or not to continue doing it. Much of what we've done was driven by feedback we received from FIFA 14, so we do listen to what players are saying."
Aside from the in-match animations and player abilities, much of World Cup Brazil's feature list is populated by game modes and presentation enhancements. 'Story of Finals' is one of the more interesting elements, a mode in which you attempt to mimic or better events that have happened in the real World Cup. Brazil play Croatia in the opening game of the tournament, for example, a game which might see tournament poster-boy Neymar score a hat-trick--a feat that Story of Finals might task you with equally. These scenarios are promised to be made available within an hour of the match in question coming to a close.
What value, however, does a mode such as this retain once the World Cup has ended and England have definitely lifted the trophy?
Speaking to Prior, it's clear that a lot of work has gone into making World Cup Brazil a game that represents value for money and, as a standalone proposition, it probably will provide a worthwhile amount of content. If, however, you're part of the regular FIFA crowd and have not long ago ploughed your cash into FIFA 14, then World Cup Brazil is not a standalone proposition--it's the second full-priced FIFA game in half a year.
The seriousness of your World Cup fever, then, will determine whether or not you decide to double up on FIFA this year.