There can be a divide between 'FIFA the core game' and 'FIFA the wider experience'. What looks like football doesn't always feel like football, and crafting a playable product from the world's most beloved sport is more complex than making sure Neymar's nose hairs are accurate. This year FIFA 15 pulls off a difficult trick. Not only is the game closer to a TV-style broadcast than ever, but the experience is better than FIFA's been in years.
The presentation's been completely revamped, affecting everything from fully remodelled players, to authentic camera angles, to bouncy hair physics and turf degradation. The best stuff is reserved for the English proportion of the game because, well, we kinda invented football. For the first time, all 20 Barclay's Premier League stadia are faithfully represented, from West Ham's Boleyn Ground to Leicester City's King Power Stadium. Preceding clashes you'll see a birdseye view, before the camera dips down for some stadium-specific shots. In Liverpool's ground, for instance, the camera cuts to the iconic Anfield sign in the tunnel.
Onto the pitch, screen furniture now bears the Premier League's official glossy blue and white stylings. Extra care has been given to team sheets, over which commentators Martin Tyler and Alan Smith recite the line-ups in frighteningly realistic detail. "Today Àngel Rangel partners with Ashley Williams in defense," Tyler says of Swansea City's roster in an increasingly tired croak.
During games, new replays stand out. Blaze a shot wide and you're treated to a super-slow-mo replay of your player's disappointed little face; goalkeepers who've kept their side in it are slooowly patted on the back. It looks astonishingly authentic - and thank the footballing gods that no longer do floating cameras mysteriously emerge onto the pitch from unknown origin to document celebrations.
Ultimate Team is FIFA's breakout feature, and it's better than ever. Here you buy and sell Panini-style cards with others online to create dream teams, and if you're an annoying YouTube personality, record yourself opening packs and gurning like a moron. Like before it's all about chemistry; place players in their correct positions and next to compatriots for better performance. Concept Squads are the big new feature, letting you assemble any players in non-playable practice teams to test chemistry before you commit to a purchase. You can also loan world-class players for a few games, too, if you don't want to stump up the insane fees that the likes of Bale and Robben command.
Granted, this all sounds very annoying and superfluous and distracting, but it's not. Football is more than a game about kicking a ball around, despite what your mum says. It's about the passion and pageantry. FIFA didn't appreciate this before, but it does now. And besides, you can skip everything if you must.
Though yes, you can argue FIFA's improvements are lopsided. Besides a sprinkling of new animations giving extra nuance to shooting and dribbling, matches themselves don't play hugely differently to before. At least FIFA 14's over-pronounced momentum has reduced, meaning players are quicker to start and stop, and physical confrontations feel weightier and dynamic. Even the most fearsome rat king-style tangles of limbs don't show clipping.
There's greater tactical variety, too. You can push men up the field during goal kicks, crowd the keeper during corners, and even 'park the bus' during open play, options all accessible from the D-pad. The result is a pacier game than 14, if not quite as arcade-quick as 13.
The players themselves bring a fair bit of vitality, too, being more lifelike, with over 200 Premier League faces re-scanned. They’re still strangely stylised and not a patch on the pockmarked imperfection of PES' mugs, but at least lesser players now have proper faces. Advancements continue below the neck, giving players better muscle definition--they actually look like athletes. With the Emotion Engine, they act like athletes too. Strikers pout petulantly when they miss shots, and all players point fingers after reckless challenges. But it’s not perfect. During one fumbled chance, my teammate flung his hands to his head and forgot to put them down, even after collecting the ball and dribbling with it.
Off the pitch, shiny new menus hide a distinct lack of new modes--that's FIFA 15 in a microcosm. Not that there's anything extra EA could possibly cram in. Career lets you manage or play with anyone, from Bursapor to Shrewsbury. Highlights of the Week let you relive recent high-profile games. Match Day alters player stats based on real world form, and Match Day Live gives you a stream of stats and stories based on a team of your choice. In Career, these stories are tailored to your own team. Enquire about a transfer and the media will sniff out the story; score with Di María on his debut and you can read about him starting with a bang. FIFA's growing relationship with the real thing makes you feel more connected than ever, whether you carve through mountains of text or merely catch it in your periphery.
"Feel the game" is the advertising slogan this year. At first it sounds like another meaningless phrase spun by marketing men, but the more you play FIFA 15 the more it makes sense. The new stadia, the remodeled players, the live news feeds, the ultra-slow replays of crunching tackles - FIFA 15 feels more like football than ever.
Improvements largely concern presentation over play, but they're crucial in making you feel closer to the game than ever. The best football game just got better.
This game was reviewed on PS4.
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