Reviewing FIFA tends to get harder as the years pass, especially when there are no new gameplay innovations or drastic blueprint alterations to shout about. Last year's entry felt like a step up purely because of the graphical and technical improvements that came courtesy of new hardware, but FIFA 15 is obviously unable to enjoy the same situation – unless this is your first foray into the beautiful game on the PlayStation 4.
As such, it's rather difficult to really pin down what FIFA improves upon this time around, especially since it looks just about the same as last year's entry, despite sporting a few smoother animations and a number of slightly better looking player models. Perhaps the only somewhat obvious change from the previous instalment is that matches seem to have a quicker pace about them.
The ball travels faster, general play seems a touch smoother, and there's a more noticeable sense of back and forth as both teams scuffle for possession. Where FIFA 14 attempted to emphasise slower offensive build ups and blistering counter attacks, FIFA 15 almost feels like you're always racing up and down the pitch. Whether this is a good or bad thing will likely come down to personal preference, but overall, the faster pace suits shorter matches a little better.
Everything's a lot more intense because of this, too. Last year, it was often incredibly hard to shake off defenders, who would stick to your player like glue if you got too close. Here, while controlling a pacey player, you can get into a tangle with the opposition, turn with the ball, and sprint away like a madman. Of course, it's something that's easier said than done, but it feels more realistic nevertheless.
As such, defending tends to require a little more tactical thought. If you've got a midfielder free as your opponent comes screaming towards you, it's usually best to try and close him down two on one, rather than risk tackling him alone. The increase in pace also means that utilising space and dragging defenders away from an area is slightly more important as well, although we daresay that most users should be able to jump straight into the action without a second thought.
After all, this is still the tried and tested template of FIFA at work, even with several engine alterations. Whether or not you actually prefer the faster gameplay, though, there's a definite feeling that playing without the ball isn't as fun as the alternative. Because of some slight tweaks to dribbling, you'll find that even bulkier players can twist and turn with ease, dancing past defenders with just the right control. They won't compare to the likes of Messi, of course, but it won't take much practice before newcomers are breezing through on goal, even without the use of skill moves.
But at times, you won't necessarily have to defend well due to improved 'keepers. Goalies now position themselves far better as shots come flying in, making it a lot harder to find that single area of the net that's nearly always left unguarded. The new system paves the way for some fantastic looking saves, but don't be surprised when frustration starts to kick in as world class goalkeepers like Manuel Neuer and Tim Howard seem utterly impossible to overcome, saving over 20 shots in a single half.
It's not just the man at the back that's undergone an artificial intelligence overhaul, though, as your team mates and opposition alike are now much better at reading the game. In past titles, computer controlled teams tended to crumble well before the final whistle after going 3-0 down, but here, most teams will continue to put up a staunch resistance right until the end. Likewise, if you're in desperate need of a goal, your attacking players will eagerly sprint past you and point for the ball.
Due to these AI changes, proceedings appear more believable, with defenders checking the runs of strikers, and wingers overlapping their opponents and bending their sprints so that they're not caught offside. Just by sitting back and watching two computer controlled teams, it's clear to see that this is the closest FIFA has got to the real world sport.
Things are better off the pitch, too, thanks to a restructured team management menu. No longer do you have to scroll through your active players, substitutes, and reserves to make a simple change. Instead, you're presented with a layout of your current team that's much easier to flick through and replace with those who are sitting on the bench, and the best part is that all of the important information – including energy levels and overall ratings – are clear and easy to see on one handy mini-menu. Simply put, swapping between formations, making a quick substitution, and altering your team's roles has never been this straightforward.
The change also bleeds into the evergreen Ultimate Team mode, where scraping a squad together is an accessible process. The component itself is still as addictive as ever, but the aforementioned gameplay alterations do mean that you'll encounter countless teams that are built to abuse fast, direct centre forwards and strikers. That said, we suppose having to deal with the ups and downs of online play is an expected aspect of FIFA these days, particularly when it comes to the still rampant overuse of aerial through balls, although thankfully, the improved 'keepers are a lot more comfortable with dashing off their line and closing down attackers this time around.
However, 'improvement' is likely a word that's alien to EA's servers. At this point, they're a running joke, and that doesn't change with FIFA 15. Frequent disconnects are still a problem – even when playing single player modes – and although we didn't encounter anything too terrible, there have been reports that a constant connection to the servers can bring the game grinding to a halt, with ridiculous amounts of input lag and stuttering resulting in an unplayable mess. Again, the experience has been a buttery smooth one for us, especially thanks to snappier and more professional opening and ending match cinematics, but these issues can't be ignored entirely.
FIFA 15 boasts everything that we've come to expect from EA's annual footy sim. All of the teams, stadiums, and modes are here, packaged alongside numerous alterations that don't promise much individually, but affect the game in a largely positive way when combined. The franchise can still pride itself on being top of the league, but it seems content to hold onto its position with rather predictable 1-0 victories.