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Fifa 2015 / 4th of October 2014

With the curse of annual updates, and the limited development schedules that go along with them, it becomes increasingly more difficult for a team to revolutionise their creation, instead modifying it slowly, adding in features in dribs and drabs rather than simply throwing in everything all at once. If this was ever true of one game above all else, it is the sports game, and one release in particular, FIFA. On the Xbox 360, the team behind the most successful sports series in history made the brave decision to start afresh, and plotted out a plan to make FIFA the best football game on the planet, and it worked. But we find ourselves in the early years of a new generation of consoles, and that plan has long since ended, so where does FIFA go from here? Last year’s effort wasn’t bad, and certainly nowhere near the travesty that was the first two efforts on the 360, but was it the next-gen football experience that we were expecting? No. So where does that leave this year’s effort, should the team start all over again from scratch, or was there enough about FIFA 14 to form a sufficient foundation for this year’s effort to show us a glimpse of what the trusty football game can achieve on our new consoles?

Well, there’s no denying that FIFA 15 is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t quite the complete package yet. The key addition to this year’s game is the much touted emotional intelligence system that the developer has bestowed upon its digital players, a feature that can see player’s actions result in any one of 600 different potential reactions, and whilst this all sounds rather intriguing, in practice it just doesn’t quite work. For a start, in the time that I have spent with the game, I can’t recall seeing more than two different emotional reactions to on-field situations, unless one counts the moments when player’s plead their innocence to fouls or offside calls before the referee has even blown his whistle, which sometimes comes at the expense of a rapidly developing attack. In fact, such moments can quickly turn the game in favour of the CPU as players effectively cease to concentrate on the game as opposed to pleading their case to a set of match officials who aren’t even listening. The vastly refined goalkeeper AI is also a tad patchy, with keepers reacting with cat like reflexes to almost every shot that a player can throw at them, pulling the most acrobatic and mesmerising saves out of the bag, yet they are far more likely to be beaten by the weakest of efforts that simply trickle past them, but there can be no denying that their situational awareness on the whole has been vastly improved, and they race out of their goal as a good goalie should, when they should. In goalmouth scrambles though, goalkeepers can prove to be somewhat unreliable though, yet it does seem to make the game a more realistic interpretation of the game as a whole, even if it will have players ripping their hair out-but doesn’t the real game make us do that too?

Refereeing decisions are quite possibly the most puzzling aspect of the game, evidently the match officials AI has been based on those who perpetuated a wealth of mistakes at the 2014 World Cup, and as a result, the officials in FIFA 15 are nothing short of inept. From my experience, it is entirely possible for a human player to concede a free kick by literally looking at an opponent, yet the CPU will block or scythe players about to launch themselves into goal scoring opportunities without so much as conceding a free kick, let alone earning themselves the place in the referee’s book that they so richly deserve.

And finding those scoring opportunities has become considerably harder than it has ever been before, defenders seem to multiply in number as you approach the box, leaving a seemingly impenetrable defensive wall in front of goal, and it is one comprised of players all too eager to throw their bodies in harm’s way. Trying to play through the middle often results in disappointment, and from what I have seen, wing play is not the overpowered route to goal that it once was either. As a result, FIFA 15 can feel rather frustrating at first, yet when the goals do come-and they eventually will-they feel far more rewarding, with victory’s now becoming hard-fought affairs that more accurately replicate the nature of league play, particularly in the lower divisions where every game feels like a battle, and every win is something to be savoured.

Yet for all of its new accomplishments, many of the same flaws are still there to be seen. Clearances from CPU controlled teams still typically fly blindly out of their defensive third and land, inexplicably, at the feet of a midfielder or attacker who seems to have almost free reign to run straight through the middle of the pitch as most of your players are left caught out of position. This has been a problem for as long as I can remember, and yet, despite the claims every year that no part of FIFA is scripted any longer, they always seem to be unfounded when this issue still persists. In cut scenes, players randomly speed up and slow down unnaturally, typically highlighting the lack of smoothing between animations as much as the obvious glitch itself. And for all of the advancements in player AI, they still persist in completely ignoring the most obvious of runs from time to time, typically forcing a potentially dangerous and beautiful looking move to collapse before it can be fully realised.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, FIFA 15 is still a stunning replication of the beautiful game. It’s TV style presentation has reached a whole new level of authenticity, the vast range of stadia all look gorgeous (though there too much emphasis on English football as is always the case), whilst the crowd look far more varied and seem to respond more accurately to the on-field action. The commentary, whilst still feeling far too unnatural, has been improved significantly (though it can still be rather repetitive), the pitch cuts up, and the grass itself is gorgeous. Player models have been improved, their likenesses are clearly more accurate, their physiques more muscular (perhaps overly so) and the animation has been improved and expanded upon, whilst it is still far from perfect, there can be no denying that it is indeed a step in the right direction and at times the game does look breathtakingly good.

I can no longer say with any certainty that the FIFA development team have a clear plan about how they are going to ensure that their game remains the top football simulation available, yet what they have done here-as they always seem to do-is build upon last year’s effort with some solid new features that, with some more tweaking, might just lay the groundwork for a truly revolutionary football experience. And yet, for all of its shortcomings, FIFA 15 is still the one to beat, its passionate, stirring replication of the real game is simply second to none and it proves beyond doubt that there is life still left in the old series yet.

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