But what I surprised by was the impact these visual improvements had on the game itself. They’re not just cosmetic tweaks. The biggest learning curve for me during my first hands-on experience was the way in which players transitioned from a jog into an energetic sprint. The decision to use sprint now feels like a meaningful choice – you are expending valuable energy, after all – not just the automatic reaction whenever you get the ball. Your player now bursts into a powerful sprint, knocking the ball ahead of them. It’s more realistic and brings another of FIFA 14’s headline features – ‘variable dribble touches’ – into play.
If you don’t use it intelligently when there’s space ahead of you it’s very easy for the defending team to win back possession; the ball is there for the taking. Initially, this might not sound like a lot of fun, but there are definitely significant advantages to this new approach to sprinting. If timed just right, you can really burst past defenders like never before, leaving fullbacks suitably embarrassed. Once I’d acclimatised to it, I felt like I had the ability to really get in behind defences like never before. Even though sprinting feels more explosive, the overall game feels a little slower, more considered – they're trying to give midfield play a little more craft, but some might find this a tad sluggish.
Shielding is another notable change to this year’s instalment. When you’re in possession, LT/L2 now lets you protect the ball, harnessing the physicality of your player. When held down your player will use their body to hold back the opposition, doing their very best to protect the ball. I struggled to really get used to it in the time I had with the game. I suspect I was overdoing it, unnecessarily restricting my movement, inadvertently making it easier for the opposition to close down my players.
It’s easy to see how shielding could productively dovetail with the game’s more explosive approach to sprinting. Back into a defender, use physicality by holding LT/L2 to turn them, before hitting sprint to leave them behind as you bear down on goal – if mastered, this could prove to be a really potent combination. Well, that’s the theory, but I failed to really get a hang of it during my first session with the game. The potential is definitely there, though, and I was getting better at it – the learning curve is just a bit steeper than I’d anticipated.
There’s tons of nice little touches, too. I had definitely had more options on the ball going forward and these were particularly noticeable since players making runs would visually demand the ball, pointing to where they wanted it played. It’s one of those great features which makes the game more realistic but it also doubles up as a nice gameplay cue. Similarly, FIFA 14’s range of different shot types – from knuckle shots which bend in the air to low, punchy volleys – and the way in which the type of shot will vary depending on the position of the player also added a new layer of visual flair. But it’s worth flagging that these new shot types aren’t accessed through modifiers – they’re entirely contextual. It’s making the game more satisfying to watch without making it more difficult to play, which I believe is the right balance.
As I see it, there’s always a healthy tension at the heart of FIFA, or any sports game for that matter, between making a game fun, enjoyable, thrilling, and the impetus to bring it closer to real-life. A more realistic sports game doesn’t always mean it’ll be more fun – in fact, it’s easy to see how a more realistic game would be less fun. Some of these changes – the way in which players move, how they sprint with ball – make FIFA 14 visually more accurate, but they also affect the gameplay. It's a slower but potentially more skilful game this time around. It’s way too soon to say these are good or bad changes – we'll naturally reserve judgement until we've played it more – but what’s certain is you’ll have to adapt your game to get the most of FIFA this year.