In our first visit to EA Guildford as Futhead News, it was time to get hands-on with the current-gen version of FIFA 14. To our surprise there was also a new gameplay announcement waiting in the form of Precision Movement which ratcheted up our high expectations even further. So after a very brief presentation and an interview slot, we got down to business and played FIFA 14.
- Console - Xbox 360
- Build Version - Pre-Alpha (60% complete)
- Game Speed - Normal
- Teams We Used - Napoli, AC Milian, Liverpool, Man City, Spurs, PSG, Marseille, Dortmund, NY Red Bulls, Boca Juniors.
One of the fundamental elements of FIFA's gameplay that the community have urged EA to improve for many years has been player locomotion. The way players move in FIFA 13 for example regularly defies the laws of physics with sharp turns carrying no momentum penalty, and players pivoting effortlessly, almost gliding across the playing surface. Thankfully these issues are now a thing of the past, and it's down to the biggest FIFA gameplay change since 360 degree dribbling - Precision Movement.
EA have dropped the canned and blended animation sequences from previous FIFA titles and now deal with player locomotion on a step by step basis, animating and recalculating on-the-fly as players move and change direction. Visually it actually looks quite subtle because even FIFA 13 from a distance appears to be authentic. But when you zoom in and compare the foot planting with FIFA 14 side-by-side, you realise just how far removed from reality last years game really was.
"Precision Movement is a triumph not only for FIFA 14, but also for the community that so aggressively lobbied for its inclusion."
The result of these bio-mechanics changes are actually quite staggering. FIFA 14's "Normal" game speed hasn't actually changed and yet the game feels noticeably slower and more methodical in flow than its predecessor. Players now have varying acceleration curves (rather than linear) which means different types of players now feel very different to control in FIFA 14. We learnt very quickly at the playtest for example that trying 180 turns with lumbering center backs was not advisable when a quicker, more nimble striker was in close proximity. The momentum penalty for changing direction rapidly is now so prominent that more often than not you'll simply want to play the way you're facing, just as a player would in real life.
The other major impact Precision Movement has had is on sprinting as there are now proper locomotion physics to handle the deceleration process from a full sprint which makes constantly holding the right-trigger, more of a hindrance than an exploit. When you eventually want to turn, the kind of angles you can generate whilst sprinting at full speed are now much smaller. So if you want to turn sharply, you'll have to slow down to get the desired result. It's a step change which I'm sure will irk a sub-section of the FIFA community, but the benefits of Precision Movement are so far reaching that it would be hard for their complaints to hold any weight.
I actually felt however that the changes to player locomotion were almost too pronounced in this build - a sentence I never thought I'd write. What I mean is that defenders and larger players physically felt perfect to control. You had to be careful in possession and play more simply with them, but when you did get the ball to a Nasri, Silva, Messi, Suarez, etc I didn't feel that the difference in dribbling skill was wide enough in comparison. EA need to be careful not to dull the responsiveness that FIFA is so famous for, whilst also trying maintaining the integrity of Precision Movement at all costs. It's an almost impossible task but if EA can sharpen up just the better dribblers in the game, I think they'll be on to a real winner.
So there's some work for EA to do on the balancing out these attribute based issues but overall Precision Movement is a triumph, not only for FIFA 14, but also for the community that so aggressively lobbied for its inclusion. It's probably the best and most important change EA have ever made to FIFA and I can heap no more praise on it than that.
Protect the Ball
Protect the Ball was one of the new features that I was most looking forward to trying out at the FIFA 14 play test but sadly it ended up being the the most disappointing. We haven't been able to shield the ball effectively in FIFA since about FIFA 09 so to see it still not working properly now, after EA's announcements is a worry. That's not to say the feature is useless and in fact when Protect the Ball actually works it's quite brilliant. Those instances of joy were just way too infrequent in this build.
Protect the Ball is initiated by holding LT and what this does is allow your player to turn and shield whilst continuing to move with the ball. However, the only time it seemed to work was when a defender was touch-tight. You can back-in to defenders a bit to help create that closeness and when you do get touch-tight the system can feel really powerful. On the odd occasion that I managed to use Protect the Ball as intended I was able to hold off a defender whilst buying time to maneuver a lay off to a team mate which felt, and looked really nice.
"Some major work is needed here to bring Protect the Ball in to line with the other, more successful gameplay changes in FIFA 14"
The problems arise however when a defender is not close enough and is say two to three yards away from you. This is where the engine gets a bit confused because if you turn to protect the ball when there is that separation, it's very easy for a defender to come in at an adjusted angle and pinch the ball. Its possibly to do with player vision cones in that as soon as your player turns his back, his awareness of what's behind him vanishes and he's then unable to interpret where a defender is/was coming from just seconds ago.
When Protect the Ball works it's great but it was way too hit and miss for me on the day and it felt like it was still very much a work in progress. It's not back to the drawing board but some major work is needed here to bring Protect the Ball in to line with the other, more successful gameplay changes in FIFA 14.
Back to the positives and we're on to Pure Shooting which is a change that in terms of priority at least, I didn't expect EA to invest time in this year. FIFA's ball physics have been exemplary for a few iterations now but EA have raised the bar once again and shooting is at the forefront of these changes. In FIFA 13 you normally score with either a straight shot, or a curled finesses shot and aside from varying shot height and power that's about it. What Pure Shooting does is take that simplistic starting point and redefine the way you can score goals in FIFA with never before seen levels of contextual variance.
In fact, even when you don't score in FIFA 14 the ball movement is still a pleasure to watch. Firing a shot across the keeper that dips and moves and then arcs away at the last second is a joy to behold even if it doesn't nestle in the bottom corner, but when it does the extra "exhileration" EA promised to add to goal scoring certainly delivers.
"EA deserve immense credit for their continued innovation of FIFA's fundamentals"
The way players take shots has changed too with proper foot placement and adjustment now at the heart of the new shooting physics. If a ball is stuck under your feet, the animation feedback will match that, just as it will when you're off balance, stretching to the ball or, when you have the time and space to deliver a perfect strike. Again it's quite subtle from the view of the gameplay camera but it's immersive impact remains strong even so.
It's also worth noting that the changes to ball physics in general have improved pretty much all pass types in FIFA 14, particularly crosses which now take a much flatter trajectory and feel more dangerous. It's quite alarming how big the jump in ball physics is between FIFA 13 and FIFA 14 and EA deserve immense credit for their continued innovation of FIFA's fundamentals.
First Touch Control / Dribbling
First Touch Control isn't new to FIFA 14 but due to changes elsewhere it's effect on the way the players control the ball has changed quite a lot too. Firstly I'd like to mention that control touches overall were way too heavy in this build, as they were in early FIFA 13 code last year. A lot of people have moaned about First Touch Control this last 6 months but I actually think the balance EA achieved with FIFA 13 was pretty good, the same again for FIFA 14 please.
"It's a really bold change and it makes dribbling feel a lot more dynamic and it also gives defenders a few more windows of opportunity to interrupt dribble touches"
The major change however is that players are now almost entirely disconnected from the ball when dribbling, especially when knocking the ball a few yards in front of them. When you sprint in FIFA 14 the ball gets knocked further ahead of you, the faster you sprint and player attributes play a part as well, Messi's dribble touches are tighter than Pique's for example. That's a fairly easy concept to grasp but what we didn't expect to see was the distinct disconnection between player and ball. In FIFA 13 if you knock the ball five yards ahead, all you need to do is hold sprint and the game will transport you to where you need to be. In FIFA 14 that's not the case and more than once we actually sprinted past the ball due to this new dribble freedom.
On the face of things that sounds annoying but it's not and because of the new 360 degree sprinting this freedom actual creates some really interesting dribble opportunities. When the ball is loose you can now ever so slightly change your run angle so that when you take your next touch, you can curve your run inside or outside. EA seem to have balanced it quite well actually and once you realise that the ball is no longer tethered to the dribbler you begin to adjust the analogue stick position naturally without even thinking about it. It's a really bold change and it makes dribbling feel a lot more dynamic and it also gives defenders a few more windows of opportunity to interrupt dribble touches without having to make a full blooded tackle.
EA brought Attacking Intelligence to the table last year, and this year (minus a catchy name) they promised improvements to defensive run-tracking and marking. I'm pleased to report then that both of these promises appear to have been kept with run-tracking especially appearing to be more intelligent due to the multiple frames of reference that FIFA's players now use to evaluate attacking runs. A reduction in marking distances generally means that when defenders do track a run, they do it much more closely which allows for some really nice off-the-ball jostling to take place as players battle for their position on the pitch. The Push Pull mechanic which always looked pretty in trailers but never really had a foothold in-game has finally found a natural place to shine.
"It's much better but I still think defensive marking has another AI leap to make before EA can tick it off their list"
Marking certainly feels tighter overall but that's also a problem as well. Whilst EA appear to of halved marking distances compared to FIFA 13 there still doesn't seem to be any intelligence governing how tight defenders need to mark in more dangerous situations. This kind of fits with my criticisms of Protect the Ball too because there aren't nearly enough times when defenders get touch-tight in and around the penalty area. In midfield you'd expect marking to be slightly looser than in the box but FIFA 14 seems to maintain a default marking distance all over the pitch. Don't get me wrong, it's a massive improvement over FIFA 13 but I still think defensive marking has another AI leap to make before EA can tick it off their list.
Another footnote to the defensive changes in FIFA 14 is that EA have finally toned down auto-tackle to a point where it's almost vanished. If an attacker is right on top of you, your defender will still poke out a leg automatically but apart from those really close encounters that happen faster than you could ever react, it's completely on you to time your tackles.
Precision Movement is probably the biggest and most sweeping change to FIFA's gameplay in the last ten years and the level of realism now applied to player movement has changed the FIFA landscape entirely for FIFA 14. A lot of the gameplay changes EA have implemented over the last few years are only felt when you're experiencing the specific situation they're designed for, but Precision Movement effects absolutely everything, all of the time and bar some balancing niggles I thought it was fantastic.
The problem with making such a huge change to gameplay is that EA have had to re-balance the entire engine around the Precision Movement system. This upheaval was certainly evident in this build as there were a number of features which felt a bit rough around the edges. First Touch Control felt too heavy, the Impact Engine wheeled out a few of it's old party tricks and I didn't feel Attacking Intelligence had moved on at all. So whilst the change to movement is a godsend, it isn't all a bed of roses either. EA have a lot of work to do now to refine the gameplay once again to smooth out these issues caused by Precision Movements implementation whilst also trying inject a little more individuality in to the way players feel to control.
What's important now is not the pre-alpha build we played, it's what EA do with the feedback on it over the final few months of development. They've made some very bold design decisions this year and I really hope that they stick to their guns, because they have the opportunity to deliver by far the best game the FIFA series has ever seen, and it's all been made possible by Precision Movement.