For many years EA have announced the next FIFA game with a raft of gameplay announcements, but FIFA 15’s E3 announcement bucked the trend. Graphics, presentation and aesthetic touches topped the billing as EA began their annual summer-long marketing campaign. This apparent switch in focus begs a central question: will the gameplay be up to scratch?
First up, incredible visuals. This trailer shows of a lot of the stuff we talked about after the first FIFA 15 playtest, giving you a peek at the pitch deformation, animated ad boards, post movement, player hair movement and player breathing. Seriously.
Disclaimer: I have not played FIFA 15. Was in the wrong country at the wrong time. This is all speculation based off information available to the public. Apologies for the length.
I’m sure that most people have a mental wishlist in mind of announcements they wanted to see. Disillusioned with FIFA 14’s breathtakingly poor balance, my own list included a wide range of gameplay improvements. I wanted to see EA unveil antidotes to the problems which too often reduce FIFA to a shallow husk of a simulation.
Graphics, Presentation, and Emotional Intelligence
The word emotion was front and center when David Rutter took center stage at EA’s E3 conference. FIFA 15 we are told will make us “feel the game” – this year’s tagline. It’s a lofty and understandable ambition for a franchise which, despite its booming popularity, has forever been criticised as lacking atmosphere.
How do they plan to achieve this more immersive experience? First up, EA boast of improved visuals, thanks to an overhauled lighting system, upgraded character models, and the new dynamic pitch, which players will leave their mark on, and vice versa. FIFA 15 definitely looks better than FIFA 14, by some distance, but even so it’s fairly ordinary looking up against contemporary games in other genres. There was no footage to be found from a gameplay perspective, so how much these improvements really matter when the level of detail is dialed down is yet to be seen.
Further improvements are seen in the crowd, which is now more frequently in focus. Impressively modeled and animated, you only had to see it recreating the poznań to know that FIFA 15 will comfortably take the title as most authentic football title this year. Goal celebrations also see a major upgrade, with the whole team involved – something that hasn’t been seen since the childish custom celebrations were implemented some years ago. Fingers crossed this will lead to more believable looking celebrations, but I’m not sure those will return until the custom celebrations are removed. Call me boring, but custom celebrations wreck immersion, and only serve to be FIFA’s analogue to the first person shooter genre’s teabagging.
Perhaps most significantly, EA have developed what they call “emotional intelligence”. The new feature sees the relationships between players tracked in real time throughout the match, reflecting in how players react to events. In general, if you told me one of EA’s biggest new features was a new level of artificial intelligence I’d be extremely happy, but in this case, I think their priorities are out of sort.
FIFA has long had miniature cutscenes, and so far as I can tell almost everyone prefers to skip through them as quickly as possible. It’s not impossible that the new feature could revitalise the dull repetitive deadball scenes, but EA’s historical success with this kind of feature are hardy endearing. Presentational improvements are endearing the first few times you see them, but usually tiresome by the tenth time, and downright irritating by the 100th.
An addendum to the talk about emotional intelligence is the information that it will not affect play. This was no doubt meant to relieve a fanbase still suspicious of scripting, handicapping, and momentum. In some ways though, it seems like a pity. The emotional states of player should matter in a football simulation – not necessarily in a one off competitive match, but in Career Mode? It’s certainly something a game like Football Manager would deal with.
EA are in a very tricky position when it comes to these type of features. There is no doubt that EA did look into ideas like momentum, and at one point considered them part of a natural progression for sports simulation. The scripting debacle has put a hard stop to all that.
To me, scripting and handicapping are blanket terms to describe something more complicated but less sinister. I focused in my last article on the lack of control we users often have over the game. The lack of control, combined with some massively obfuscated mechanics, makes for a game where outcomes often don’t make a great deal of sense, nor feel particularly fair. As patronising as this will likely sound, it is quite natural for people without control over proceedings to assume that something else is in control. Ancient tribes prayed to volcano God, lest they were drowned in lava, and FIFA players believe in a devious AI script that determines the outcomes of matches.
EA’s view is that scripting does not exist. My view is also that scripting doesn’t exist, but I think it is up to EA to look at solving the things which have made people believe in it.
Agility & Control
For about the fifth game in a row, FIFA will finally allow you to play like Messi thanks to changes to dribbling. Players will now have better close control and feel more responsive, and finally, dominant foot dribbling will be part of the game, leading to the differences between dribblers being more noticeable.
I’m pleased to hear that the unrealistic two footed dribbling will be a thing of the past, but an alarm bell rings in my head at the continual mentions of responsiveness. FIFA 14’s Precision Movement was a huge change to the way that players in are animated, and the way they move. The change had a number of consequences and chief among them was a much greater sense in momentum when dribbling. To me, it was one of the most important steps forward FIFA had taken in a long time, let down by an uneven implementation.
The weight of the player is hugely tangible in FIFA 14 when you’re on the ball, but as soon as you get off it, it’s kind of like going back to FIFA 13. Defenders are so much more mobile than attackers that, despite them generally having lower movement attributes, they still have an unfair advantage. Defending in FIFA is all about sprinting into the dribbler, and you go into the tackle knowing that if they try and beat you, your player can turn faster, accelerate faster, and get to a higher top speed than the attacker.
I am conscious that some felt precision dribbling made on the ball movement sluggish – my response is it feels sluggish relevant to what you’re up against. EA should be doubling down and making off the ball movement more realistic. My worry is that what we may see with FIFA 15 is similar to what we saw with FIFA 09. FIFA 07 and 08 delivered revolutionary and realistic biomechanics, and with FIFA 09, in the name of fluidity and responsiveness, player movement was trivialised for rest of the generation. This must not happen again.
For the first time with FIFA 15, the physics of the ball will be dependent on the physical contact with the player (though not for all interactions, shots are not mentioned). EA describe various ways that correct contacts will be felt in game, saying that it will, for example, transform the fluidity and feeling of passing.
In a sense, this is an impressive technical upgrade. As you’d expect, with improvements in hardware and science, it becomes possible to simulate things which before had to be faked. Even so, I have my doubts about how much difference this will make. EA make the example of passing as an area improved by correct contacts – I won’t deny their statement. I just question whether it’s really what FIFA’s passing needs. Passing is an area with quite a few problems, and none of them have anything to do with how the contact between boot and ball is modeled. No, the issues with FIFA’s passing are due to a shallow error model, and the restrictive assistance.
On the defensive side of the game, EA are talking up changes to tackling. “Possession tackles” will see tacklers rewarded more often with possession of the ball. This seems like a positive change – tackles in FIFA are often needlessly clumsy and it’s not uncommon to make a tackle which actually worsens situations because it goes straight to an unmarked attacker.
Having said that, I’m wary of EA improving players’ tackling abilities. Players are already far too good at making tackles, and tackles are far too frequent. Many users spend the entire game sprinting one player after another directly at the ball carrier – this doesn’t need to be rewarded any more than it currently is. In the long term, EA must break the causal relationship between charging in like a missile and winning the tackle.
Set Piece Control
In my last article, I was critical of aerial play stating that the user (both on the defending and attacking side) has almost no control over what actually happens. It doesn’t seem like anything is going to change with how aerial play works, but EA are offering a new way to take set pieces. Instead of taking the cross, we can select our intended receiver and have the computer take it towards us.
Conceptually, I like it. When playing alone, the lack of movement from the players you are crossing to is a real pain, so to be able to direct that movement yourself seems like a good option. As always, balance is key, and it may be hard to ensure that both the old way of taking corners, and the new way, are worth using.
What we ultimately need though is a lot more activity coming from the AI. On corners right now players move around somewhat randomly, but they should be starting to make runs as the player takes his kick. On the strategic side, I’d love to see the ability to set up attacking and defensive roles for freekicks and corners.
Perhaps the most intriguing changes revolved around the tactical side of FIFA which I don’t believe has seen any real changes since FIFA 09. The details are fairly scant right now, but it is good to see the game moving towards more authentic representations of real life tactics is tantalising. FIFA’s current tactical options are fairly broad, with an endless array of knobs to tweak, but in terms of actually empowering the user to set their team up how they want, I’ve always felt they’re quite weak. It is arguable that, by moving towards more specific routines, like “park the bus”, tactical changes might be more intuitive, more accessible, and more relevant.
On the face of it, these new tactical behaviours should have the largest effect on the way that the CPU plays, but, the official website’s rundown of features attests to this being something available to us users too. It’s not necessarily the tactical overhaul FIFA needs, but any improvements to this long neglected area are worth cheering.
Most of the gameplay details are covered above, but a handful of mentions don’t fit that well into any category. It does sound like some balancing has been done to through balls and headers, according to Nick Channon in a Gamespot interview. Defensive AI seems to have received some attention too – the last man should now be more conservative, backtracking to give his team a better chance to get back.
Ironically, it is these three changes which feel most important, and it is the casual, afterthought nature of their mentions which is so worrying.
Obviously, there is no revolution coming for FIFA 15, and in fact I’d go further than that and say that the list of gameplay improvements is less encouraging than those for the past five FIFAs. From a competitive perspective, FIFA 14 is a significant step back from the games that came before it, and I wanted EA to respond, coming out with gameplay improvements focused towards repairing key areas.
It seems like presentation is the number one priority this year for EA, and it would be easy to point the finger at that, state that FIFA 15 is a case of style over substance and be done with it, but that isn’t really fair. The truth is that the gameplay announcements are inherently unimpressive. Too many important areas are being neglected, and a lot of attention seems to be going where it simply isn’t needed.
Right now, I’m finding it pretty hard to be optimistic about FIFA 15. All the same, I’m conscious of how difficult it is to predict a game’s quality from speculating about gameplay changes. I could be wrong – I hope I’m wrong – and so, for now, like all of you, I’m waiting on the next round of announcements with bated breath.