EA Sports' FIFA Soccer franchise is one of a precious few in the sports genre that garners perennial critical acclaim as well as world-beating commercial success. Yet the explanation for that success, according to developer EA Canada, is actually rather mundane.
"I think the main thing that keeps us ahead of the curve is focusing on the right thing. So, staying away from gimmicky features that sound marketable, are costly and at the end of the day, our end fans — it's not what they want," said Santiago Jaramillo, a producer on FIFA 14, in an interview with Polygon last week.
"What people want more than anything is a solid, good fabric of gameplay experience that focuses on the fundamentals," he continued. "You can just pick it up, play it, and feel it, and explore it and it doesn't break — it's not like a house of cards with two really shiny features and then it breaks.
"We focus less on the shiny things and more on the fundamentals."
That's the ethos of the FIFA development team, and it shows in FIFA 14. I played a full match, England vs. the Netherlands, and while it didn't seem leaps and bounds ahead of FIFA 13, everything felt just a bit better, with a few notable improvements that could really change play near the nets.
As they do every year, the marketing people at EA have come up with buzzwords for the changes EA Canada is making with FIFA 14. The developers tout features with names like "Pure Shot," "Real Ball Physics" and "Precision Movement," but the terms are really just shorthand for the often subtle ways in which the studio is attempting to improve its soccer game.
The new shooting mechanics, in particular, stood out during the international friendly I played — even though only one goal was scored in the match, and I did it. In previous FIFA games, aiming a shot with the right power was difficult to do without sending the ball flying into the crowd, especially close to the net. I still needed to employ a fine touch on the shoot button, but I noticed that players' animations are more closely aligned with the position of the ball on shots. If you don't put a pass in the right place, your teammate won't be able to get much mustard on the ball.
AI teammates also seem to do a better job of putting themselves in position; that applies both on offense and defense. One of my few issues with FIFA 13 was that defenders failed to be aggressive in stopping attackers within the penalty box. This time around, I managed to pitch a shutout as the Netherlands; it wasn't because I was playing better defense than last year, but because my computer-controlled teammates were.
And on the other side of the ball, both my opponent and I had a number of scoring chances because our AI teammates worked together with us to create them. It felt like they were actually responding to our movements. And it was an AI teammate who made my goal possible, leaping into the air for a header off my corner kick.
"We focus less on the shiny things and more on the fundamentals"
I did notice some lingering weirdness in the real-time physics system, though it had more to do with dribbling than with laughable collisions between players. Jaramillo said the developers are still ironing out the kinks with unresponsiveness in dribbling and "continue to polish" the interactions in the physics engine.
FIFA 14 so far feels like an enhanced version of last year's game, which doesn't sound impressive but is in line with the developers' philosophy. EA Canada keeps doing complex under-the-hood work to make the gameplay more lifelike, and it's encouraging that the team shows no sign of slowing down as it approaches next-generation consoles.
"Soccer's a very simple sport — it doesn't have fancy helmets, and it doesn't have weird plays and it doesn't play on ice," said Jaramillo. "It's a simple, simple game, but when you add depth to that simplicity, that's when you create the gameplay experience that FIFA has been able to do."
FIFA 14 will be released Sept. 24 on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC. It will be a launch title on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 later this fall.
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