FIFA 15 review: football fantasy

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, Win, Wii, PS Vita, 3DS, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher EA Sports
Developer EA Canada
Release Date Sep 26, 2014

One play and its aftermath fairly summarize the subtle distinction of FIFA 15 from the five-year run of best-in-class offerings that preceded it.

It was beyond the 90th minute in a match between FC Barcelona, one of the best teams in the game, and Tottenham Hotspur, under my frantic direction. We'd given up a goal at the end of the first half and now I was looking at a 1-0 loss. I sent the entire team into an all-out attack.

Then the miracle happened. Not only did it look like one, it felt like one.

My goalkeeper scooped up an indifferent Barcelona shot and boomed the ball well past midfield. Federico Fazio chest-trapped it and, in one motion, turned and lobbed a soft ball to Emmanuel Adebayor, steaming in from the left. The striker headed it into the back of the net past the bewildered defenders and a frozen goalkeeper. It must have taken less than 10 seconds, start to finish.

In that scene are the key ingredients of the FIFA 15 experience

Adebayor raced to the corner flag, pursued by nine delirious teammates, and was pinned to the ground. White Hart Lane shook; the speakers poured forth the crowd's joy. The camera vibrated as the images cycled — there's Messi! Head down, hands on hips! Absolutely stoic.

In that scene are the key ingredients of the FIFA 15 experience: the new television presentation, the emphasis on player reactions and emotions, a lucky bounce or two from the new momentum-based physics added to the ball, a goalie caught flat-footed, and a big goal. Absolutely the big goal.

fifa 15 review

Players that are constantly jostled or pressed can reach a breaking point

That may not sound like much of a change over the past four years of best-in-class offerings, and indeed, structurally, the major modes and components of FIFA 15 are only modestly adjusted. The player emotion would be nearly unrecognizable without the broadcast package that highlights it. Conversely, a video game approximating a televised event needs something compelling to show. FIFA 15 goes over the top to highlight exhausted, jubilant teammates hugging it out on the pitch as the crowd goes bananas, but not to the point that it feels unearned.

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Having gotten so much of the fundamentals right over the past four or five years, FIFA's developers have the luxury of trying to introduce player emotions and reactions not just into cutscenes after an event, but during the game itself. It's a worthy first stab, and it impressed me when I saw a player stop during the action and complain to the official about being grabbed, and an opposing player exploited the lapse to drive at the goal. Players that are constantly jostled or pressed can reach a breaking point and do something rash. And as a side effect of that, I've seen more fouls called this year than before, which advances the realism of the match.

Players' emotions and reactions will be mostly visible in the replays, though. Big misses will finish with a shot of a player patting the goalkeeper on the back, and cheap goals will often see a frustrated goalie (especially one who has been taking a lot of shots) lashing out, presumably at his defenders.

On its own, player emotion would need to be a lot more demonstrative to be counted as an improvement worth mentioning. But combined with the raucous crowd atmosphere (which got a huge boost in last year's FIFA 14) and a better broadcast package to showcase it all, FIFA 15 is better than any other sports video game at communicating the feeling of everyone in the moment, where its peers offer only pure crowd volume and expository dialogue from the commentators.

Scoring helps drive a lot of the game's emotion, of course, and scoring gets a lot of help this year with new momentum-based ball physics. Defenders and the goalkeeper will get in the way of more shots, but their rebounds will be less predictable and more apt to bounce further away. In past editions, the absence of momentum meant balls would stop dead and fall to the earth once they hit something; that made it easy for the defense to take possession of missed shots, and thus shot opportunities were almost too precious. The chance to get a second bite at the apple is nice, knowing the scoring chance I so carefully created doesn't go entirely to waste if I can keep the ball low and try to play a rebound.

That's critical to enjoyment of this game, considering how much work usually goes into moving and securing the ball in the game's compressed time span (most FIFA halves last between six and eight minutes in real time). Even more work is necessary this year, as FIFA 15 has increased the number of ways you can be jostled off the ball, and faster defenders seem to hang with you every step of the way. Passing, trapping and dribbling on a sprint is more precarious, but it also makes a counter-attacking strategy more viable.

FIFA 15 remains as visually arresting as ever, and it goes all-out to indulge fans of the Barclays Premier League. Players for those sides look a lot more lifelike, after sitting for head scans in the off-season (more than 200 were added in). Any game played between two BPL sides also gets a specialized presentation, including the same graphics packages and music seen and heard on TV. English-language commentators Martin Tyler and Alan Smith also have a lot more to discuss when they are on their home turf. And in a big plus for a game that uses generic stadiums more than any other, all 20 of this year's BPL venues are in the game.

There are other leagues, of course, and they all benefit from the richer lighting and little highlights like persistent turf deformation from slide tackles, or divots left by cleats. The entire goal structure moves when a screamer plunges into the back of the net, a beautiful little exclamation point on the moment. The replays also include goal-line technology showing how the ball didn't fully cross the line before getting kicked out. It was agonizing when it happened to me, but it adds to the broadcast authenticity.

FIFA 15 remains as visually arresting as ever, and it goes all out to indulge fans

fifa 15 review

The modes through which FIFA 15 serves all of this do not differ greatly from previous editions. Playing as a manager or as a single professional is still largely the same experience. Player fatigue still has little palpable effect from game to game (or much within a game, either). Ultimate Team brings in the ability to loan out (or be loaned) players they way they are in international club competition.

The breadth of FIFA 15's offering is still strong, and still as seductive as its forebears ever were. Avid football fans can still lose hours on end to it without a care; newcomers trying to understand the culture of the sport will be exposed to an authentic landscape of player, rivalries and interactions between clubs of the major domestic leagues in Europe.

Wrap Up:

FIFA 15 is what fans have come to expect, but it wears its changes well

Longtime fans may be restless for new modes of play — particularly an online franchise mode that never seems to materialize — but FIFA's success has provided a strong case for not fixing that which isn't broken. The main difference with FIFA 15 is how it sells what it has changed. FIFA 15 layers on atmospheric changes like television presentation and player reactions to highlight what already works rather than tamper with it.

FIFA 15 was reviewed on the Xbox One using a retail disc purchased by Polygon staff. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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