There's a change of pace about FIFA 14 that can be a little jarring at first. Those long-used run-and-gun attacks up the center of the pitch so beloved by FIFA players are met here with a steely wall of defence and a disheartening counterattack. This is a slower, more considered take on football that rewards careful buildup play and thoughtful strategy over brash tactics, and boy is it all the better for it. A slew of clever changes to the physics--some visible in the eerily realistic-looking animation and some working their magic behind the scenes--and clever control tweaks set this year's game apart from its predecessors. And in typical FIFA style, it's all wrapped up in some wonderfully compelling game modes and the glossiest of presentations.
This doesn't mean you can carve a mazelike path around the pitch without consequence, though. For every twist and turn you make, your players visibly shift their weight around and throw their arms out to keep balance. Overdo it, and the ball, which is no longer magically glued to a player's feet, drifts wide or too far out in front, giving defenders the perfect opportunity to swoop in and steal it. Naturally, some players are better at keeping control of the ball than others, depending on their stats. Figuring out who's the best man for the job and doling out the right strategy to the players is all part of the fun, and it's made easy thanks to a comprehensive and easy-to-use set of management tools that you can dive into before and during matches.
The best players are better equipped to perform showboating skill moves too, which are easier to pull off since you no longer have to hold down a modifier button. With just a few waggles of the right stick, you can indulge in all manner of body feints, stepovers, and sideways rolls, which--when combined with the looser dribbling and slick animation--look spectacular. The ability to actively shield the ball helps things along, giving you a little more time to plan an attack and giving your player those crucial seconds needed to line up a shot. It works well offensively too; some well-timed shielding lets you throw your player's weight around and turn on sixpence, and allows you to brute force defenders away from the ball.
What this all adds up to is a game that looks and feels more like a real game of football than ever before. AI performs more intelligently, boxing in players on the attack and performing runs in just the right places to create some real shooting chances, even if they're offside a little more often than you might like. And when you do get the chance to try to stick one in the back of the net, the ball dips, arcs, and moves with the kind of unpredictability you'd expect from a small round object being whipped through the air at pace. It's a wonderful thing to see in motion, and when you finally make your way to the box and score after a string of deft touches and considerate passing, it feels like you earned it. There's still an element of FIFA's heavy-handed automation at work here, but with FIFA 14 slowing down the pace and making you work harder for a goal, the automation is far less of an issue than in last year's game.
Off the pitch, things are largely the same, with modes like Head to Head Seasons, Ultimate Team, Online Friendlies, Virtual Pro, and Manager to play through, but they remain the most comprehensive and compelling you'll find in a football game. Real-world statistics ensure that every team is kept up to date before the start of every match, while the excellent EA Sports Football Club keeps track of any points earned and ties them to a real-world team for a ranking on a global league table.
A slick new interface that mimics that of the Xbox 360 dashboard not only looks far better than its predecessor, but also keeps the action flowing smoothly in Career mode thanks to a simpler layout and navigation that lets you access all the core functions with just a few flicks of the analogue stick.
Career mode has received some much-needed tweaks, including the option to disable the first summer transfer window, finally giving you the chance to maintain a real-world squad up until the January transfer window. A Global Transfer Network has been introduced too, which masks a player's overall rating (OVR), so you've absolutely got to use scouts to find the best youth players. A tile on the Career mode page keeps you up to date on scouting progress, letting you choose to move forward with in-depth scouting, after which the OVR is finally revealed and you can decide who to purchase. This is far more engaging than simply hitting up the search box and looking for players with the highest OVRs, and it means you've got to put a great deal more thought into your purchases.
Fun skill minigames, swift loading times, and some excellent commentary (complete with rambling pre-match banter) put the finishing touches on what is a fantastic football experience. And, like previous FIFA games, FIFA 14 is beautifully presented. Animations are smooth, and famous players, kits, and stadiums are faithfully re-created with great attention to detail.
You could argue that perhaps it all looks a little too perfect, and a little bit of grit here and there, along with some players who don't look like they've lost all feeling in their upper bodies, would go a long way towards making the game look even better, though it's still leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.
Despite the lack of a defining new feature to attach itself to, FIFA 14 is far more than the sum of its parts.
Despite the lack of a defining new feature to attach itself to, FIFA 14 is far more than the sum of its parts. It's a fundamentally different experience to last year's game, and an entertaining one at that, moving the series ever closer to the realism it so proudly strives for. The only competition FIFA has this year is itself. With a next-gen version just on the horizon, complete with a brand-new engine, you may be thinking about sitting this one out until then. But to do so would mean missing out on what is a fabulous football game, one that feels fresh yet familiar and that pushes even FIFA veterans into new, exciting, and engrossing ways of playing.