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When FIFA 07 came out for what was then “next-gen” as the first real next-gen soccer game (FIFA 06 was merely a port on Xbox 360), it signaled a new era for the redheaded stepchild of the EA Sports family. Whereas Madden probably peaked the year before, and NCAA was about to peak in the eyes of many, FIFA had been chugging along, more revered for its soundtracks than its actual gameplay. And while the 07 edition was a rough entry into the series, it laid the groundwork for what was to come, as early as the next year.
That brings us to FIFA 15, the first real next-gen soccer game of the Xbox One/Playstation 4 generation. Despite a beautiful overhaul in presentation and some bold animation changes, it feels like an incomplete game that will most likely be looked back on fondly as the iteration that laid the base for the classics yet to come. It’s evident after playing it that the majority of the efforts were aimed at improving the look of FIFA 15, but not enough was aimed at the feel of the game.
But those looks, oh man are they pretty. Starting with face-scanning technology for most of the big clubs, moving on to the entire gameday presentation for the most popular league in the world (Barclays Premier League has all the bells and whistles of a Saturday afternoon broadcast, including faithfully-rendered stadiums for all 20 teams), and ending with a new set of animations that on the surface feel stunning, as players move with weight and collide in superficially realistic manners. Unfortunately, the level of play drops to unrealistic arcade levels once the ball is kicked off.
A big problem comes in the EA-endorsed “most popular game mode,” FIFA Ultimate Team. The card game simulator is back in full force this year, with the only feature addition being a Friendly Seasons mode that allows you to track progress against your best buds, similar to the Online Friendlies addition of FIFA 14. FUT is appropriately arcade-y again, as players run faster than humanly possible, shake off defenders as if they were Loki to the attackers’ Hulk army, and perhaps worst of all, make 40-yard passes with Andrea Pirlo-like precision.
This is likely an overcorrection from the general fan outcry at the power of defense in last year’s game, where the most likely method of scoring involved bombing down the wing and crossing for mostly-broken header goals. That method has been fixed this year, and really, FIFA 15 feels most like a step back to FIFA 13, where pace ruled over all other attritibutes. Anyone familiar with that game will be displeased to see the return of Emmanuel Emenike into their lives, as the Nigerian striker is blessed with a brutal combination of speed and strength that lords over the weakling center backs of the world.
Offline, the gameplay doesn’t fare much better. The computer AI still hasn’t found a sweet spot between challenging and downright cheating. In addition to forcing the player into a very distinct playstyle (quick passes and air through balls for days), the AI will still decide that it wants to win at times and there’s not much the player can do about it. I was playing a game as Liverpool that was completely in my control before the computer decided that it would score two straight 25+ yard screamers from outside the box and then, in the 90th minute, get a phantom penalty call in their favor. This is a common occurrence that has plagued the series for so long that the community documents the “EA Scripting” every year.
The bright spots in FIFA 15 come in the menus, for once, as the Career Mode has been given a slight overhaul that won’t really register on most fans’ radars but that serves as a blessing for the wannabe football managers. The widely-hated potential and progression system has been redone, so players that hit the tender age of 30 don’t see their ratings fall off a cliff within a year. The scouting network will now smartly address your team’s needs by suggesting youngsters that they feel could become the next Messi or Tim Howard. And the aforementioned BPL presentation package makes picking one of England’s top clubs almost a necessity. Otherwise, prepare for a lot of games inside the generic “O Dromo” stadium.
Match Day Live is a nice touch, similar to 2K Sports’ approach to the NBA 2K series. In this new hub, you can find all of your up-to-date stats from real leagues around the world, and it appears that EA will be updating the form of teams for online and kick-off modes more frequently. Not exactly a game-changer that the series needed, but another step in the right direction.
And, really, that’s what FIFA 15 can be boiled down to in a nutshell: a good base for a series that had stagnated a bit. Though the presentation is a beautiful rendition of soccer as seen around the world, the gameplay inside the pitch needs work. That’s not to say that the game is unplayable or that the additions were all negative; the new goalkeeper AI was highly touted by EA and, some hiccups aside, the men between the sticks perform better than ever.
The biggest problem this year is that the FIFA series is headed for greatness at a slower pace than the one-year cycle can allow. Not to worry, though; FIFA 07 turned into FIFA 08, a highly-praised edition of the series, and with the groundwork that’s been laid, FIFA 16 should be quite the game. In the meantime, FIFA 15 will coast by on looking like Messi’s dribbling, but playing like Fernando Torres’ finishing.
Luis Paez-Pumar is a News Writer at Complex. He tweets here.