FIFA 15 – logo

“WHAT!? How was that a penalty? This is BULLS***!”

I yelled at the official. Totally fuming. Sure, the slide tackle had come from behind, but it was pure class and all ball. A clear dive in my book. Too late.

“Now I’ve got to stop this penalty kick. This is it boys…if this goes through we’re done…”

Yup, the new FIFA is finally upon us.

Arguably one of the world’s most popular sports simulation titles, FIFA 15 has been thrown out to the hungry masses, predictably topping Destiny in the UK’s sales charts in it’s first week.

Year after year players get to turn themselves into the world’s best soccer (yes, I’m going to call it soccer for the duration, this is the only warning you’ll get) stars, compete with and against top teams, as well as yell at each other via headsets about how that offside call was complete and utter blasphemy and the ref should be tossed for it, only to have the replay refute what they were so sure of five seconds earlier.

Disagreeable calls notwithstanding, FIFA has a reputation for quality and accuracy that games like Pro Evolution Soccer, although excellent in their own right, just can’t seem to touch year-over-year.

However, this is the first time I’ve questioned what happened in the quality assurance for a title of this size, despite its many improvements.

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Look at those sexy blue eyes.

There’s no denying that FIFA has always been a pretty game, especially considering the amount of content that is always packed into it, but this year EA Canada took it to an entirely different level.

Player models, even those outside the Barclays Premier League, were greatly improved. In many years past, if a player was part of a smaller club, their model might have been off by a bit (understandably – I mean there are thousands of players to scan in) but that’s not the case this year…or at least the margin of error was greatly reduced. In any case, the players looked damned good, but since I play with the camera so far out, that improvement didn’t weigh in heavily with its importance.

From afar, the games were more crisp and inviting when it came to their looks. Updated lighting systems and weather events created a look that seemed nearly as advanced from last year’s game as FIFA was from PS2 to PS3.

Player movements appeared more fluid than previous iterations and their running soon tore apart the pitch, leaving it brown with mud, gouges, or simply indented with thousands of footprints. Field wear was pushed to new heights this year, and even individual blades of grass were made not only visible, but reacted to players as they were trampled in pursuit of victory.

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Despite the great improvements in player appearance and movement from last year, there were still a few disjointed and awkward incidents in which, for instance, a player’s arm would go all the way around them, resulting not in a broken arm, but a creepily mangled human-form kicking around a synthetic leather sphere filled with air.

These events were few and far between, but noticeable enough to leave some work for EA Canada to do for FIFA 16 – in the interest of fairness though, I have yet to play a sports title where this didn’t happen.

Managing to hold my attention even during events like the aforementioned hyper-flexible player, was the sweet, soothing voices of Martin Tyler, Alan Smith, Clive Tyldesly and Andy Townsend.

For FIFA this year, EA touted a massively improved commentary system, where comments would be made on crowd chants, player reactions, and more. While this was partially true, and will be touched more upon later, the overall quality of commentary over FIFA 14 wasn’t greatly improved. After the first few minutes of new lines came out in my first few matches, it was back to hearing how every header reminded Martin Tyler of Alan Smith’s old days on the pitch, and how the ref’s were doing a fantastic job of calling the games (even if they were, that offside call cost me silverware…dammit).

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“An Alan Smith classic!”

Despite the fact the commentary got a bit repetitive and wasn’t a huge jump from last year, I have to attribute some of it to playing over 30 games in one day, I mean, how much could there possibly be to say?

Turns out, quite a bit actually – at least for me.

There were a few areas where FIFA 15 actually packed in more quality features than they have in recent years, one of those being the gameplay.

Drastically different than FIFA 14, goalies had the most to show off when it came down to it, with over 50 new moves, a redesigned AI, and massively improved reactions to shots. If you go into FIFA 15 thinking the same finesse shots from the corner of the box will get in every time, then you’re going to be in for a world of frustration.

Combined with the new goalie moves, attackers have become more adept at seeking out and exploiting the next-gen keeper and their reactions to in game situations. Scoring demands a lot more ingenuity and forethought than usual from players, but with improved precision of first touches and realistic ball movement, this should start to come more naturally to those who find themselves logging quite a few hours of game time.

Defending – on the other hand – is an entirely new and more frustrating monster than ever before. Apart from my suspect one-on-one defensive skills, FIFA 15 has brought in a host of new animations, tackles, and aggressiveness off the ball. Shoulder lunges, ‘possession’ tackles and full-body tackles litter the field with messy, untidy defending, and they took a fair amount of time to get used to.

There was a menu option to revert to the tackling style used in FIFA 14, but for the sake of this review, and the unfortunate destruction of my sanity, I refused to take the forbidden fruit despite it screaming out to me like the Ark of the Covenant did to Indiana Jones.

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Saw this quite a bit in those first few matches.

Set pieces did see a marked improvement though, from a simplicity and accessibility standpoint. The ability to control the player who’s receiving a throw in simply and quickly made for less frustrating situations on the touch line. Corner kicks also got what I’m coining as the ‘one-button’ improvement treatment. Pressing the d-pad prior to taking a corner let me pick from a quick set piece menu, and allowed things like crowding the keeper, or making a run towards the far or near post. While set pieces can still be customized, the aforementioned option allows for a player who might not take the time to set up custom free kicks to have some control over their set pieces.

However, simultaneously the most infuriating and horribly hilarious feature that was tweaked is something called ‘big fall physics.’ Allow me to offer a tacit explanation – if two defenders get within arms reach of each other, one will almost certainly end up flying over the other in a bone shattering collision. This feature was meant to make tackles more intense, but seemingly only provided those of us who often call over a second defender with a comically bad and often exploited train-wreck on field.

I will mention though, my expectations were pushed beyond their limits. I never dreamed I could get so many defenders so hopelessly flailing through the air at the same time. I’m sure those fans in Stamford Bridge weren’t expecting a Cirque du Soleil showing with their soccer.

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I can hear your skepticism from here. Yes, I played FUT games. Just not when I took this screenshot. And I got one pack of FIFA Points. Sue me.

FUT, (FIFA Ultimate Team – although if you don’t know the acronym I’m shocked you’re even reading this review) one of the most popular game modes to come from the last few years of gaming, did indeed see changes. EA Canada took a risk (albeit not a huge one) and tweaked the hyper-popular mode, adding features to improve usability and make it more efficient.

One of the biggest problems with previous versions of FUT was the time-sink that plagued players in it’s menus. It’s a complicated game mode, even complete with it’s own economy, but in years past if I spent eight hours lazing about and playing some FUT, only three or four of those hours were actually spent on the pitch.

The inclusion of ‘Concept Squads’ made planning my dream squad easy (no more notebooks with player’s names, ratings and chemistry jotted like a handwritten dictionary) and more fun than ever before. Also, the new ability to loan players to your squad also made it possible for me to give players a ‘trial period’ of sorts to see how well they fit in with my squad and system. Although I never figured out how the game decided on which players it made available to loan, it did me a great service in helping build my team.

However, one of the features many surface level players may miss is actually probably the most impressive.

From the squad menu, you can press a button and search the transfer market for a player to fill the position your’re hovering over. No more going back-and-forth from the squad tab to the transfer tab, and probably more importantly, no more precious auction time lost loading up those respective tabs.

Another added gem is the quick option to compare market value of players you want to sell or buy. This has been available in the web app for a while now, but has finally made a massively overdue appearance on consoles.

Career mode also saw slight improvements, like being able to keep up to six team sheets, a feature I used in my second game into career mode to adjust my squad to allow for resting my players. You could conceivably have a champions cup sheet, domestic cup sheet, league sheet, etc., making managing your squad that much easier and more in-depth. Player growth menus and the global transfer network system were also tweaked, but not enough to garner a significant improvement from FIFA 14.

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Just a friendly chat about where these two intended to grab a pint after the match.

FIFA has always been about presenting the most faithful representation of soccer to its fans, and this year it hasn’t strayed from that at all.

The most forward facing change in the presentation and realism of the matches are the pre-game and in-game commentary and cut scenes. The commentary can be repetitive after a while, but it does do a good job at recognizing crowd and player emotion, and the cut-scenes add a layer to the gameplay that felt like it was missing last year.

Some cut scenes did get in the way of trying to rush through games, but that’s both an EA-wide issue (Madden being one of the worst) and a player issue. If you’re continuously mashing the ‘A’ or ‘X’ buttons like a maniac, you’re not going to get a smooth, inclusive and realistic experience from the presentation of FIFA 15.

If you let the game flow for itself though, the matches feel much more authentic and emotional, adding a feeling I haven’t gotten from this franchise since I first started playing it. At times the game flirted between frustrating and disappointing when I’d lose, but many-a-time I also found myself fist clenched in victory, standing by my lonesome in my room after getting a late winner, brimming with pride.

FIFA has always felt real, but this year it was taken to a new level, and when the time is taken to appreciate and fully experience it for what it is, many casual and hardcore fans should feel as satisfied as ever.

It is definitely worth noting the game suffered some technical faults, more-so than previous years, like freezing up in the FUT menus, AI not kicking off for minutes at a time from free kicks, and on one occasion completely freezing on the title screen, but it was never enough to completely ruin the experience.

FIFA 15 might not be a huge improvement from last year for those who usually put in hundreds of hours like myself, but that doesn’t mean subtle changes went unnoticed or unappreciated. The soccer sim is great, but still not perfect, although I’m not sure it ever will be.

FIFA 15 was reviewed after spending 25 hours on the pitch, using a retail copy for Xbox One.

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