Staggered. Awed. Impressed. Devoted.
When I take the time to drop those four words, I’m trying to convey the emotion and enjoyment I experience when playing a simple video game called FIFA 14 on the Xbox One.
While I’ve made my appreciation for the Xbox One gaming console widely known, I rarely focus on gaming content. Beyond mere hardware, storage, and raw speed contained in the box lies a vast landscape of entertainment. Yes, there appears to be little doubt though Microsoft currently lags in console sales, their gaming choices edge out the annoying neighbors — at least from where I sit.
When I opened the Xbox One during Christmas 2013, I moved forward with caution. A PC gamer by nature, my brief tours through the land of consoles and controllers had been from the position of a dilettante. But the overwhelmingly positive experience in and around the Xbox One has revolutionized my gaming paradigm on a fundamental level. FIFA 14 had *much* to do with that.
My history of gaming is littered with encounters of first-person shooters, MMORPG’s, racing games, a little RTS (which still confuses me), action-adventure, and “tycoon” themed offerings — but rarely sports in any fashion. I’ve always had a deep rooted passion for English football (ask me why) and have tried to play FIFA on Xbox 360 on a number of prior occasions — but it just peeled off my gaming wall like an old poster. Perhaps the Xbox 360 didn’t do the game justice or I could not master the depth of controller skill needed to get past even the most basic AI opponent. Irrespective, it was always a “meh” kind of reaction. So, when I added FIFA 14 to my Xbox One gaming collection, merely as an afterthought with the vague idea I would “try” once more, I had no idea what lay in store.
Fast forward the eight months since that throw-away decision and I find myself a couple of hundred hours into one of the most satisfying gaming experiences of my adult life. Allow me to share why.
FIFA 14 captures the essence of the English Premier League with precision, fascinating depth and it begins with the carefully crafted ambience.
The interface puts you at the helm of a domestic team in almost any country you choose. For me, that choice is England’s Barclays Premier League and Liverpool FC. Once you choose a team in career mode, you’re faced with a inbox for communication, and a constant ticking news feed covering everything from team, league, and international news. Let’s pause right there. When I say there is a “news feed” I’m talking about content pulled right from the headlines and reactive to decisions you make as club manager. But decisions on what?
Players. This is the heart of the career mode. You begin with the most up to date rosters for your selected team and the season’s budget as set by the Board of Directors. From there, you have the summer transfer window to adjust team rosters, scout new potential players, to buy and sell talent. Want Rooney to play for Liverpool (meh), then try to make that trade happen. Want to get rid of Suarez because he leaves a bad taste in your mouth, get it done. Have designs on bringing in an attacking midfielder from the German national team? Enquire about his availability and bid accordingly.
The depth of the transfer window is shockingly good. The carefully crafted AI will haggle for player prices, while the players themselves will demand high weekly wages or guaranteed playtime on the pitch. At the helm of a small team? Forget signing a big name player; the team prestige simply isn’t good enough so you’re forced to scout for high-potential players who can grow and expand their skills. And this moves to yet another delicious layer in this entertainment cake: player development.
Each player in FIFA 14 has multiple abilities with a fixed number between 1 and 100, along with left or right foot strength, and skill ability. Those numbers translate into tangible behavior in-game. Have a player with high long passing and the “playmaking” trait? You can angle a deep ball into the attacking third, causing questions for the defense. Have a player with the “distance shooter” trait? Take some shots and challenge the keeper from range. And therein lies the unique formula and depth of replay ability for FIFA 14, the player chemistry.
Since January, I’ve started eight Liverpool FC career modes, each lasting between two and four actual seasons. During each transfer window, I add and subtract players from the team and, in doing so, create a unique team wholly different from any prior version — because the traits, abilities, and skills make a difference. As I advance a career, players increase in potential, they actually grow better — some quickly, others with a more steady pace. So, the player you chose to be the future holding midfield option on season one becomes that player in season three due to growth.
Excellent websites like Futhead.com have a searchable database of all the current players, which include comments from other gamers recording their experiences, likes, and dislikes. Futhead.com is an invaluable resource in crafting just the right balance. But beware, as players grow, other clubs pay attention and will aggressively send high money offers for the player you’re so proud of. Such offers put you to the question: sell him and convert that cheddar into a deeper team or hang with the future superstar, enjoying the fruits of your labor?
The AI can also throw wrinkles into even the best laid plans. Now and again, players will complain about lack of time on the pitch and request changes, eventually leading to demands to be sold in the next transfer window. Ignore him and the board will step in, sell the player for a fraction of their value, resolving the inner turmoil of the team but cutting your financial throat. Such is the depth of the AI, it adds yet another level of intrigue, challenge, and excitement to an already stunning game.
And finally we arrive at the steak on the plate: the actual gaming experience on the pitch (read: controller frenzy). Rumor claims there are over 16,000 animations for players, and like amount of depth in commentator chatter. I can tell you from personal experience, I still haven’t hit the bottom of the well in either category. Players animations are smooth, appropriate, and a joy to watch. After playing a couple of hundred games, I still hear new phrasing from the AI commentary (which always makes me smile).
Your success in-game is directly related not only to the carefully crafted team but also your ability to angle passes, read the defense, and master close proximity dribbling. Make the wrong pass or hassle an attacker too aggressively, you’ll pay the price. Game getting too easy? Crank up the difficulty sliders and find that perfect balance of scoring, challenge, and excitement. The depth continues with player fatigue, injuries, player appearance customization, a reasonable AI that doesn’t cheat and flexes from strong to weak for a given game. There is a ton of additional online content, rewards which unlock at changing player levels, leagues, FUT cards, and on and on.
I can say, without reservation, I’ve been bitten with the FIFA bug and will purchase this game as long as it continues a tradition of exceptional presentation and depth (FIFA 15 will be released Sept. 23, 2014). Historically, EA has been slammed for shoddy workmanship, servers which collapse, and incomplete game releases on other titles; however, the FIFA franchise appears to be a stunning exception to that rule.
You’ll Never Walk Alone.