One of the main pieces of feedback the EA Sports team in Vancouver has received since the release of the phenomenally-successful FIFA 13 is that matches can, at times, feel too open, too back-and-forth. It's undeniably exciting, but perhaps unfairly favours route-one football. The changes introduced in FIFA 14 attempt to nurture the art of build-up play, of crafting an attack through the centre of the park, with the hope that the resulting goal will feel all the more satisfying. Dribbling is reliably one of the most exciting aspects of the sport – that engrossing combination of athleticism and arrogance required to beat an opponent – yet that thrill has always been difficult to capture. FIFA 13 definitely made an effort to rectify that with the introduction of Complete Dribbling, the ability to manipulate the ball in all-directions while standing still. FIFA 14 takes the next logical step – you’ll now be able to move freely while sprinting with the ball at your feet. It’s correcting something that’s long been an accepted but archaic feature of football games: sprinting players are restricted to a measly turning circle of 22.5 degrees. Real-life players aren’t limited by this arbitrary value, however, and can twist and turn in a variety of ways, bamboozling defenders with mazy runs. To introduce this feature, and keep things realistic and more importantly fair, FIFA 14 is also introducing its players to the physical force of momentum.
Momentum does not care for dribbling, and will do it's very best to stop players from doing anything too outlandish. That means players won't be able to change direction instantly without consequence. And you can even see the invisible force working upon the players – new animations let players shift their weight from side-to-side, throwing their arms out to maintain balance. Running with the ball definitely looks more fluid and realistic than before.
Accompanying the introduction of any new feature that benefits attacking comes the worry of making the game unfair to those stuck defending. But the new fluid dribbling system is offset by what EA is calling 'variable dribble touches' – basically, the ball won't be stuck to your player's gluey toes. When sprinting at full-pace, the distance of the ball from the player's foot will vary, depending on the heaviness of the touch. It'll give defenders valuable opportunities to win the ball back, preventing this new approach to dribbling from becoming totally unstoppable. Naturally more gifted players – think Messi, Ronaldo, Bale – will be able to keep the ball more tightly under their spell than an intrepid centre-half wandering into the final third.Complementing the enhanced dribbling mechanics is the ability to protect the ball. It's best to think of them working in tandem – this is reflected by how they've been mapped to the controller. Sprinting remains on RT/R2 but shielding – previously a fiddly combination of button presses – is now simply activated by holding down LT/L2. While it may not sound like the most spectacular addition, the ability to shield the ball really has the potential to add a huge amount to FIFA's gameplay. It's perhaps most useful to think of it as the ability to buy time on the ball. You can now use LT/L2 to throw your weight around, backing into opponents sniffing around the ball. Time it correctly and you'll win that half-yard to set off on a run, make a considered pass or unleash a more composed shot. It’s making FIFA 14 more physical, and is in many ways the opposite of last-year’s push-pull mechanic that was given to defenders (that's when you tap O or B to jostle or pull the shirt of a nippy winger). Yes, it’s time to give defender’s a taste of their own medicine. Stronger players will naturally be able to shield the ball more effectively. So while Messi might be the best if you want to go on intricate runs, if you want to get physical it’s probably best to do so with traditional number 9s, like Didier Drogba or Andy Carroll.
Build-up play is not only being supported by what you can do on the ball but what your teammates are doing all around you. There’s been a drive to make them much smarter. Marking is much tighter with players making more intelligent defensive decisions right across the pitch. Previously, defenders made judgement calls based on single frames of animation, but that wouldn’t always cope so well with players who check their runs or more complex attacking plays. FIFA 14's defenders now make decisions based on multiple frames of gameplay, resulting in more reliable, less impulsive decision making.
Your team will also defend much more cohesively, boxing in players, denying that easy outlet pass. This intelligence is also present when you’re attacking, too – players will now cannily check their runs, turn defenders, run along the defensive line. They’re all handy visual cues, subtly letting you know what options are available. It not only looks closer to the real game with lots of incidents happening across the field, it's hoped that it'll also provide a more intuitive way of conveying information to the player, especially those unfamiliar with the series.The intention isn't to make the game more challenging but all that more satisfying. There’s that word yet again. If last year was all about ‘unpredictability’, FIFA 14 is definitely about creating ‘satisfaction’ and nowhere is this more evident than scoring goals.
Ah yes, that unrivalled moment of pure elation which defines the sport. Scoring in FIFA isn't always easy. It shouldn't be, but sometimes you're left baffled as to why your shot was so hopelessly, embarrassingly off target. If you're a FIFA aficionado you'll probably know exactly what you did wrong, but other people aren't so sure. One of the reasons for this confusion is the lack of visual feedback given to the player – that is, the character animation in FIFA 13 doesn’t reflect what you did wrong.
Players in FIFA 14 contextually adjust to their feet and stride length to prepare themselves to shoot. FIFA’s producers refer to this as ‘getting into phase’. So if the ball is stuck under your feet or you’re being closely marked by defenders, the resulting shot will reflect these pressures – it’ll be snatched or taken slightly off-balance.
The biggest overhaul to shooting is probably the ball physics themselves. EA Vancouver has decided to adopt a "non-linear drag coefficient which more accurately imitates the flight of a ball than the extant linear deceleration algorithm". Got that? Yeah, me neither, but what that actually means is that balls now fly through the air with greater realism. It allows for a variety of new shot types (you can see some of them in action in the video above). There’s nothing predictable nor plodding about the ball's trajectory – it'll dip and fizz with all the erratic energy of a modern ball. These physics are specific to shooting either - you'll notice the effects in long-ball crosses and so on.
Those are the big marquee features – dribbling, shielding, team-mate intelligence. But there promises to be a glut of tweaks to fundamental elements too, such as curved lofted through-balls and second-chance tackles. Elsewhere, career mode will benefit from a cleaned-up user-interface and a refreshed approach to scouting, which simplifies the process of finding the exact player you need for your side.
These features were showcased using brief examples taken from the game and using test-bed footage (an early version of the game without finished graphics), so I didn't get to play the game or put any of these new features to the test. They promise to make the game more exciting, even a touch more accessible, but each new addition seems to have been smartly integrated into the existing gameplay. Dribbling doesn't confer an unfair advantage to attackers because defenders are now much smarter and track runs more closely.
FIFA isn't broke – 65 million games are played globally each week – so there's no pressing need to 'fix' it. In fact, there's a bigger risking of alienating that audience by making the wrong change. It's far too soon to know if EA has succeeded in creating a more satisfying experience but I'm already waiting for kick-off.
FIFA 14 has so far only been announced on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC for release later this year. Currently there's no mention of it on handheld or next-gen platforms.