FIFA 15, the 22nd iteration of Electronic Arts’ venerable soccer series, is a stable, effective and slick football simulation game. There is no doubt that it has been designed for the veteran FIFA player: having played many hours of previous FIFAs, sitting down to play the latest one was a comfortable, intuitive and easy experience. The game came back, the controls were the same, I was still pretty terrible and it was still thrilling and infuriating all at the same time.
This, in many ways, is the strength of the series. There is a constant attempt to make the game of soccer more realistic, more challenging and slicker, but to also keep it deeply familiar, and in this FIFA 15 succeeds.
At first glance the Xbox 360 version of the game (on which this review is based) does not include any massive overhauls to the visuals. The interface has some tweaks, both in terms of performance and presentation, but the lay of the land is much the same as in previous versions. In a match there are some improvements, but the players and their movements were already excellent in FIFA 14, and EA has not needed to do too much to improve on them.
The game’s visible improvements are often quite subtle, like changes made to the pitches, the stadium and the crowd visuals. There is an obvious attention to detail on these areas which, accompanied with the improved crowd audio, makes playing each match more immersive than ever. When you are playing a home match, for instance, you can feel the crowd ebb and swell with excitement and see them going wild, making you feel like you’re actually there – especially on a good sound system – more than ever.
The pitches are so effectively nuanced that I would not recommend picking a lower-tiered team who may have an ugly pitch, as it can be quite off-putting after playing on the lustrous big-name ones.
I am sure that as this is FIFA’s first appearance on the new generation of consoles the game looks even better on Xbox One and the PlayStation 4; on 360 it is good but not extensively better than previous games.
Right in the feels
The bits that have been added to FIFA 15’s presentation links directly to a much deeper part of the game, and that is the ‘emotional intelligence’ of the players – a feature EA has been punting quite extensively. Basically, players have stronger reactions to what is happening on the field, so when your top striker misses, you’ll see a cutaway of him showing his dismay. While these cutaways can become a little frustrating in their regularity, they can be skipped, but they also affect how the rest of the game plays. That same top striker who missed, for example, will kick the ground and play the rest of the match with less confidence. Quite impressively, there are over 600 combinations of emotional responses that each player has access to in response to situations that are unfolding on the field.
The idea behind this is ingenious; it could be real shift in the way that FIFA is played and understood. However, I am not convinced. While I was always aware of the impact that this was supposed to have on my game, I did not always feel it throughout the match. There was just not enough feedback for the player. I saw the player get frustrated, I was pleased to see Rooney’s whiney face in such agony, but if I played well, it didn’t really matter and I had no way of telling if Rooney stayed upset or got over himself.
More feedback, please
FIFA needs to consider adding a way for the player to read and gauge how his players are feeling. In the team management screen we get indication of current form and of the stamina, but any more detailed information is lacking. And while it would be difficult to change the AI so as to make Rooney miss even if you are an excellent player, I feel that the players’ moods could have had much more of an impact.
Having said that, the game really does feel more life-like. The tackling system and player-on-player contact is more sophisticated, and players generally seem to run better and appear to have a lot more control over the ball.
This added realism, coupled with the players’ emotional responses, the way the crowds come to life and the additional depth makes FIFA 15 a great addition to the series, but also pushes the game in terms of what a simulation should be. Ironically, sometimes the game is too perfect, too realistic to be a mere game. That seems counter-intuitive, but you have to think about how far they could push the game before it is no longer fun and rather feels like you’re just training or learning or actually watching football – which we all know is immensely tedious and boring. (Surely not all of us? – Ed)
Despite the awesome realism of the game, the defence, which has always been somewhat of a problem for the FIFA series, still hampers the flow and movement of each match. Inevitably you hold down ‘A’ too much and rush in on the player. When playing with more than one player on a team it often looks like a bunch of school children chasing after the ball, which is humorous, but not quite accurate to the actual game of football. It also makes the game biased towards attacking teams. You seldom buy players to bolster your defence, but rather try to buy the top strikers. I guess that is a somewhat realistic view of football as a whole since that’s the way transfers work in the real world, but I do feel EA needs to fix this aspect of their FIFA games (though they have been trying for some time now).
For the most part, FIFA 15’s changes are most obvious in the subtle way they affect each match. However, there has been little change to the game modes. In some ways this is okay; the major overhaul to the game modes happened quite recently and FIFA is still happy with them. FIFA 15’s manager mode has some new tweaks that are simple but clever, but for the most part EA has left FIFA’s game modes intact.
The only mode that has seen major changes, or rather updates, is FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT). FUT is an online version of the game that is about the buying and selling of ‘real’ players; it has online markets that shift and change with input from players around the world. FIFA 15 has also introduced more comprehensive ‘season loans’ of players to the game, where you can borrow high-profile players for a set number of matches. It’s up to you to use them wisely to win those big games.
The newest feature in FUT is Concept Squad, where you build a list of your dream team, and offers the ability to check your current squad against the Concept Squad to see how your players measure up. These introductions are nice elements that make FUT more fun to play by giving you something to aspire to.
However, they do nothing for me, and I’m not a fan of the online version. I find FIFA to be a much more a community-based game, and enjoying the game with friends is a far more rewarding way to play.
One other thing I wasn’t too enamoured with, and that’s the game’s soundtrack. Music is, of course, incredibly subjective but somehow none of the game’s 41+ tracks by mostly-unknowns grabbed me, even after many hours of playing. Give it a listen here and decide for yourself.
A welcome addition
FIFA 15 is a worthy and welcome addition to the series, and is the start of something that may well be the future of FIFA. If the game becomes truly responsive to the emotional AI of each player on your team then FIFA could expand into a new type of game (FIFA Sims? – Ed), and should EA pull that off the simulation aspects will be more encompassing and thus more engrossing. If they focus a bit more on the manager mode and sustain players’ emotional states between matches, they could potentially provide even finer control and inspire a deeper understanding of what it really means to be a football star. EA just needs to consider if this is where they want to go.
If you love FIFA or you’re new to soccer games, you owe it to yourself to get this one as it’s well worth the price, but if you aren’t the biggest FIFA fan and have FIFA 13 or 14 already, you can probably give it a miss. The new game immerses you in situations that other soccer games don’t, and it opens the scope for deep imaginative play and just keeps getting better the more you play.
FIFA 15 is out now for PC (from R599), Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3 (all from R699).
A bit about our guest reviewer
Kieran is a writer, director and game scholar at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he teaches directing and writing for stage and game design. He has written and staged two full length plays, Bang Bang (based on the Bang Bang Club) and The Fellowship of the Farce (a spoof/parody/homage to The Lord of the Rings). He has also produced and directed numerous plays such as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and A.A. Milne’s The Man in the Bowler Hat. Kieran completed his BADA at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2010 and his MA in Digital Arts (Game Studies) in 2014.