Now comfortable and confident with its position right at the very top of the football gaming league, FIFA remains a solid and reliable choice this year. But with Pro Evolution Soccer slowly but surely closing the gap between itself and EA's consistent franchise, does FIFA 14 do enough to secure its lead?
The short answer is yes – albeit not a resounding one. In order to really pass judgement on the annual series, it's almost a necessity to look back and remember what mechanics and improvements helped to make the game what it is today – and in that regard, this year's instalment doesn't add all that much. That said, the changes that have been made are just enough to keep its nose in front.
When you first boot up the release, it's immediately apparent that one such change was long overdue. For a while now, the title's menus have been a bit of a mess – particularly in Career and Ultimate Team. With so many categories and subcategories to scroll through, getting into the content that you actually want to play has been an exercise in unnecessary frustration. In the latest entry, however, the user interface has had a complete overhaul, and now sports a fresh-looking, easy-to-navigate, square-grid menu system. And the best part is that the majority of the long load times that came with the older versions are nowhere to be found, although we still came across some serious input lag when rearranging our squad.
A shiny new interface usually doesn't mean much when it comes to a sequel, but the series has been in desperate need of one for years now. It's been a long time coming, but its introduction alters every function that stems from it. For example, Career mode was bogged down in so many submenus that it could take minutes to simply get from managing your squad to checking your emails, but the revision means that you're able to quickly shift between the main tabs while retaining control over the content each of them holds. To be fair, it still isn't perfect, but with so many options at your fingertips, there really isn't much more that can be done.
Speaking of the game's most complex mode, it houses another of the title's biggest alterations. As a manager, you're now able to recruit and dispatch talent scouts all over the world, who'll then report back on players that meet your desired requirements. The depth on offer marks a definite improvement over the previous system, giving you the opportunity to single out specific traits that'll strengthen your squad, making it much easier to pick out the fastest wingers, the most accurate strikers, and the bulkiest defenders.
Meanwhile, Ultimate Team continues to be an integral part of the FIFA experience, with EA pushing the addictive mode further and further into the limelight. And why not – the component is arguably the franchise's most inventive and easily its most successful. Much like fantasy football leagues, your goal is to cobble together the best team that you possibly can, and you do this through purchasing packs that contain a random assortment of players.
The packs themselves can be bought with in-game currency or actual money, which no doubt leads to a nice little profit for the publisher, with fans constantly clamouring to find the likes of cover stars Messi or Bale in one lucky selection. Another of EA's properties, Mass Effect 3, features a similar system that's built into its cooperative mode, and both rely heavily on the addictive quality that comes with never quite knowing what you'll unlock.
FIFA's take on the trading card mechanic takes it one step further, though, giving you the opportunity to swap your findings with other users, which results in a market-like atmosphere. You'll be taking your unlikely squad into tournaments, only to come up against opponents who have somehow managed to get their grubby mitts on a collection of some of the best players in the world, and it's this constant sense of progression and the burning desire to build upon your team that sustains the mode.
But essentially, it's the small additions to the mode which allow it to evolve. Previously, the inclusion of formation cards meant that players were stuck in their predetermined role until you came across consumable tokens that could be used to alter it. If you were trying to switch up your squad's formation for tactical purposes, this convoluted way of adjusting things would often sour the process – but now, formation cards have been removed, meaning you can set up positioning any way that you want. Not only does this allow for more experimentation, it also gives you access to further customisation, as you can utilise chemistry cards to permanently increase the stats of your team. In essence, this light RPG mechanic means that you can transform a darting midfielder like Iniesta into a more aggressive attacker, if that better suits your style of play.
Of course, all of the modes in the world wouldn't be enough to save a sports title if the core gameplay didn't hold up, and in that regard, FIFA 14's is as rock solid as ever. Barring a few minor tweaks to things like through balls and lobbed passes, there really isn't much new to see here, despite what the developer might state. It's still the most accessible football that you'll find on a home console, and general play retains that slightly weighted feel. The only instantly noticeable change is that you no longer have to hold down L2 when performing skill moves with the right analog stick, which makes the techniques far more user-friendly, especially to less familiar users who aren't keen on wrapping every finger around the controller.
Despite the lack of obvious additions to the core gameplay, the more superficial aspects of the beautiful game have been nicely tuned. Shots that are destined to go wide of the goal, for instance, now tend to hit the woodwork much more frequently, as a satisfying 'THONK' echoes from the speakers and the DualShock 3 vibrates madly. On top of this, stylish, contextual strikes are also more frequent, giving almost every match at least one cinematic moment that's full of flair.
The players may still look like strange rubber men and the commentators still spout lines that you've already heard hundreds of times before, but FIFA 14 manages to do just enough to keep its lead on the competition. While it's more evolution than revolution, the series finally sports a suitable interface and plays host to a number of subtle but welcome improvements. EA continues to build upon an already unbeatable champion, but if you haven't yet taken the shot, it might be worth waiting to see how your team fares on the PlayStation 4.