EA Sports' annual football franchise has enjoyed a good run of late, maintaining steady form over the past few years. The PlayStation 3 version of FIFA 14 was another solid step in the right direction, even if it was more about evolution rather than revolution, as we described in our review. Now, the game makes the jump to Sony's new machine as a PlayStation 4 launch title, and you wouldn't be blamed for thinking that it's probably little more than an aesthetic upgrade – but surprisingly, you'd be wrong. FIFA 14 on the PS4 feels like the title that the developer has always been striving to make, but couldn't due to the technical limitations of ageing hardware.
This is no more apparent than during the initial ten minutes of your time with the release. If you've grabbed a retail version, you'll be thrown straight into a showcase match between Barcelona and Real Madrid, cleverly masking the fact that the game is busy installing data onto your hard drive. Not only is this a great way to get you into the action quickly, but it's also the perfect opportunity for the title to show you just how much things have improved.
For starters, it looks stunning. The floodlights that dot the stadium illuminate it in an eerily realistic way, while the crowds are now made up of fully 3D models which react accordingly to goals and other match highlights. Players' shirts and shorts ruffle and crinkle as they sprint, and you can even pick out individual blades of grass. The attention to detail is often quite staggering, and it goes without saying that this level of refinement just isn't possible on the PS3.
These visual upgrades fuse together to give the title an attribute that it's never quite grasped before – atmosphere. At times, it can feel like you're watching a match live on the television, with the roars of supporters echoing around the perfectly lit arena. Simply put, immersing yourself in FIFA has never been easier, and it's startling to think that the series can only improve upon its graphical prowess from here on out.
However, as previously hinted, the aesthetics aren't the only area to have received a rather substantial boost thanks to EA's new Ignite engine. Gameplay feels incredibly smooth both in terms of player animation, and the natural progression of a match. Going from all-out defence to a blistering counter-attack has never seemed so realistic, as your supporting team mates sprint up the field with almost tangible eagerness.
The commentary teams sound more eager than ever, too, thanks to the introduction of several new contextual scenarios. Because the title offers a much more robust opening to matches – the camera swapping from zooming in on certain players to capturing the crowd – you'll often hear a detailed mention of previous victories or losses depending on your current mode of play, which is a very neat little touch that helps further solidify the release's sense of realism. Overall, commentary is much sharper and on point, removing most, if not all, instances of obvious repetition.
That's not to say that the game perfectly captures the essence of the sport that it's trying to portray – but it's certainly the closest that gaming has ever got. You'll still notice odd artificial intelligence mistakes like players passing the ball back to their keeper only for them to stand there and let it roll out for a corner, and you'll still spot small animation bugs here and there – although even then, you could always argue that actual football is just as unpredictable.
Player collisions, however, are quite the opposite. The new engine works wonders when it comes to playing a more physical game, as smashing into your opposition now rarely results in an awkward tangle of strange physics. Instead, each crunching tackle looks just about as painful as it would in reality, with the victim tumbling to the floor wearing an agonized expression. Meanwhile, going shoulder-to-shoulder with an opponent yields better results, slowing down attackers while avoiding yet more weird limb-knotting that was a common occurrence in previous instalments.
The improved collisions also mean that it's now much easier to gauge exactly how far your control over the ball extends, making the transitions from dribbling to sprinting to setting yourself up for a shot at goal that much more fluid. Likewise, the release also controls like a dream, with even the most subtle push of the left analogue stick resulting in a noticeable flicker of movement from the man on the pitch.
In general, gameplay maintains the relatively slow pace of the title's PS3 counterpart, allowing for some nicely orchestrated build-up play that's accessible, yet feels brilliantly refined. Combine that realistic speed with all of the fluidity that we've mentioned above, however, and FIFA 14 is, without doubt, the most well-realised football game ever made.
Unbelievably, the good news doesn't stop there, either. Back on Sony's old hardware, you could almost hear the title creak under the pressure of loading several menus at once – especially in Career mode, where they would stutter constantly as you shifted from organising your squad to reading about transfer stories. Now, with the increased memory resources that the PS4 offers, there isn't a stumble in sight. You can dart between reading emails, checking the league table, and shuffling your entire team without ever having to worry about the software cracking under the stress.
Even when it comes to playing online, hooking up with opponents is faster regardless of which mode you're enjoying – we even suffered fewer common connection problems. Although having said that, there's nothing much that new hardware can do when it comes to improving EA's servers, which are still prone to ruining a relatively good run of online games with randomly occurring disconnections and poor matchmaking.
Outside of the benefits that come with the Ignite engine, as great as they may be, there are still some recurring problems that haven't quite seen red just yet. Through-balls are still capable of catching entire defences out time and time again, and the lofted variation is just about as outrageously effective as it was on the PS3, which unsurprisingly results in some extremely cheap goals when playing online.
Unfortunately, despite everything that the release does right, it's hard to ignore the fact that the game features less content than its last-gen sibling. The most popular modes have all made it across the generation gap, but components like 'Be a Pro' and 'Tournaments' are inexplicably missing, which is a little bit disappointing.
Several small gameplay niggles and the unexpected absence of a couple of modes prevent FIFA 14 from attaining the perfection of Barcelona's passing statistic – but that doesn't stop the series' PS4 debut from sitting at the top of the league in terms of atmosphere, immersion, polish, and attention to detail. This is not only the most well-realised soccer simulation on the market, it's also one of the best launch titles available for Sony's next generation system.