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This year’s incarnation of FIFA 14 made me feel awful. Just last week I was playing the recent Pro Evo release and thinking to myself ‘hot damn (I talk like a child from the fifties) Pro Evo might finally have caught up this year’, visualizing the oft benighted lesser sibling ousting EA’s FIFA from atop its footballing throne and declaring itself King of the football titles.

But then FIFA 14 arrived on my door step and Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s pocket sized maestro, looked up at me from the cover and I swear to goodness, the man winked. He knew, as I did, that of course FIFA was still undisputed Empire of the footballing world, the mighty Barcelona to Pro Evo’s Leyton Orient. Whilst Pro Evo seemingly improves every year and FIFA stays almost entirely the same, FIFA is still absolutely always better. It has no need to improve, for it is already, essentially, perfect.

Sorry Pro Evo. Back to Game Spot you go.

With FIFA 14, EA hasn’t given us the ‘marquee’ feature we’ve come to expect from previous years. Too often in the past we’ve been treated to gimmicky innovations like the player impact engine and tactical defending with mixed results, but this year FIFA’s attention has been focused utterly on making sure that all of the little things are done just right. And that’s wonderful.

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Whilst on the surface, improvements over FIFA 13 may feel somewhat superficial, in actuality they’re deeper than ever. The way players go about their business has been drastically modified for the better – passing, shooting and fluid on and off the ball movement are smoother than ever which coupled with significantly more realistic on pitch animation create a wonderful sense of immersion often missing from a sports title. There might well be no one stand out improvement, but as a cumulative effort what improvements we do have go together to result in an absolute triumph.

The players, who in previous years have been slowly benefiting from becoming much more physical in the way they interact with each other, finally feel altogether more human. They build up momentum, turn, maneuver and leap tackles like their real world counterparts and strike the ball so realistically that you can almost hear laces hitting leather.

Having loaded my first career mode match, I spendt the first three quarters of the game fighting out a frustrating 0-0 draw, unable to penetrate the AI’s solid defending, even though the odds are weighed significantly in my own squad’s favour. But on the 75th minute, the ball falls to my long distance specialist, eight yards outside of the box. Just as he would in the premier league, he glances up, sees a path to the goal through a mass of onrushing defenders, shapes his body accordingly and unleashes a veritably majestic screamer, courtesy of the outside of the boot which goes dipping, lunging, sailing its way inexorably into the back of the net, the goalkeeper staring  up at the sky dejectedly whilst my players dance around the center circle in delight. This is FIFA 14.

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Pleasingly, you won’t find yourself relying on Hollywood efforts to find the back of the net – you’ll score from all sorts of situations which were missing from FIFA 13, benefiting the aforementioned sense of impressive realism. Poached headers from the six yard box, scrambled shots taken from the deck having lost your feet, silkily worked passes into the back of the net and goals which see the ball bounce alarmingly close to the goal line are all in evidence and they’re wonderful to see. The ball physics are better than ever and you’ll be marveling at your efforts and calling your flatmates into the living room to take a look at the free kick you’ve just bent over the wall, off the cross bar and in.

The criticism in some quarters of FIFA’s passing system, with EA’s forums seeing Pro Evo fan boys commenting on their own title’s slick feel in that area, could be justifiable, but in the case of Pro Evo it’s a slickness designed to hide failures in other key parts of the game. Fifa has no such troubles and its passing system one might argue is not as slick because it’s so successfully aping the real world, where beautiful one touch passing and moving happen far less often than a hurried tap to your neighbour under pressure of the onrushing 7 ft tall Serbian centre half.

Computer AI still feels a little naive and given a few hours of practice you’ll be falling them easier than is realistic, but improvements in the AI of your team mates are a welcome addition. They’ll make runs into space without being asked, making the through ball feature more useful than ever and it’s an immensely satisfying as part of your attacking game to thread the ball through two defenders and into the path of your forward.

Real world features, always a FIFA strong point are improved once again, with continual updates from the real season, impacting player ability based on their real life form. Commentators in game will pull up a player who’s performing particularly well in the premier league and its satisfying to feel like you’re part of the wider footballing world.

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The game modes themselves are interesting, to the point that I find myself playing offline more than usual – the wealth of  depth in career mode is fantastic and the new mini games feature is a delightful distraction, perfecting various skills and feeling like something one might expect to find on the Wii U, only better. Whilst I’m in the minority of players who rarely engages with Ultimate Team, fans of the system will be pleased to know that it remains in abundance and online friendlies, returning after a confusing one year absence, are more satisfying than ever.

The game day experience itself,  fantastically produced and lovingly directed also shows a marked improvement this year. The sense of drama and excitement are entirely evident before a big game and you can almost smell the pies and barely repressed homophobia in the terraces. Terraces which are, irritatingly, still one of the title’s failings. Considering the improvements in player animation, EA have done little to improve the pitch, the stadia or the crowd themselves in recent years and that’s no different here, with surroundings reminiscent of FIFA 11, which is now four games ago.

With FIFA 14, EA have provided what I’ve been hankering after for a long time. A game which doesn’t rely on gimmicks or Hollywood features, but instead stands on its own two feet by way of immersive, engaging and ultimately realistic game play. This year the gamer feels more in touch with the on pitch action than ever before and I’m sorry to say that Pro-Evo lovers have got at least one more year to wait before they’re back on top. Fifa, indisputably, is still on top. Long live the king.

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