The first thing you notice when you fire up a game of FIFA 15, the latest in EA’s venerable pro soccer series, is the noise. Not bad noise. Glorious, loud, rich noise, spilling out of the speakers. It washes over you if you turn it up loud enough. Having been to a few soccer games in my day, including an Arsenal game this summer, the realness of the noise is enough to make my heart pound harder.
It’s dedication to a craft: recreating the fan experience of watching big time pro soccer, particularly the television viewing experience. EA’s gone above and beyond in this regard. In three decades of playing sports games, I don’t know that I’ve witnessed a game nail that aspect so hard. This is repeating the known, however; it’s vitally important to read Keith Stuart’s interview with EA and his accompanying look at FIFA 15’s attempt to recreate the sensation of watching soccer live.
Because that’s what this is about, in FIFA 15, especially, but in almost all sports videogames. It’s not about playing soccer but viewing it. We don’t hit X to pass a ball or charge up a shot by holding down O. We kick and elbow and run and fall. It’s a very strange thing, if you think about it: sports games aren’t really simulations of the sport but of the presentation. This flies in the face of what we claim to want in our games. We want accurate depictions of something in our games, even if that something is in Middle-earth or an alien planet. On the hardcore end, you can find elaborate simulations of farming, truck driving, and even multi-button processes for raising a rifle to your shoulder for a shot.
This is a bit of a digression, but it bears mentioning that FIFA 15 doesn’t feel like soccer, just as Madden doesn’t feel like football and NBA 2K doesn’t feel like basketball. Moreover, I don’t know how to make FIFA 15 feel like playing actual soccer short of working a ball into QWOP’s gameplay. That doesn’t seem terribly fun or satisfying, but it’s strange that it’s so hard to imagine a game which simulates the actual playing of the sport in a realistic way while it’s so easy to imagine a game which satisfactorily simulates being a ninja. FIFA 15 feels like a sports videogame, with all of the pitfalls and joys that entails.
But, oh, is it a gorgeous simulacrum of watching the game. There simply aren’t enough superlatives for the sound design. All of the English Premier League’s twenty stadiums this year have been modeled. Blades of grass are distinct on the pitch, swaying back and forth on a close up. Replays are worked seamlessly into the pause menu and the players will even jostle one another after a foul.
Likewise, the game plays very well. The ball physics, long the thing that makes and breaks individual entries in the series, behave well, particularly during rainy day games, where it skips across the pitch in sometimes unpredictable fashion. The ball’s behavior has also made it a bit tougher to dispossess computer players; in last year’s edition, it was extremely easy to simply bump lightly into a dribbler and come away with the ball. Combined with some clearly improved on the ball AI, the game both feels and plays better without ramping up too much in difficulty.
This makes the action feel satisfying. It opens up fun goals but makes defending take a little more work, leading to a bit more satisfaction when you shut down a run or open shot. I’ve historically fallen into a strange chasm with EA’s sports games, one where the semi-pro difficulty is way too easy but one level up is just a tad too hard. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember, until this year with FIFA 15. The difficulty is finally exactly what I want it to be and it’s mostly down to the combo tweaks to ball physics and close control.
Not that the game is without its flaws. Small graphical issues pop up on the PC version, which is the one I’m playing. With all of the settings maxed, it runs fine on my medium grade rig, but I’m left with slightly jagged lines on my players skin surfaces when the camera zooms in and the metallic surfaces of trophies have a rainbow sheen to them.
There’s also a curious bug which limits my ability to search for players by name. In my Arsenal career game, I wanted to put a bid in for Marco Reus, Dortmund’s electric attacker. Except there was no Reus. Putting in “Marco Reus” shunted me to a random player with M as the first letter of his first name. I could only find Reus by searching by team and league, then scrolling through all of the Dortmund players.
This is fine with a brand new game, but as players are sold to other teams all over the globe, it becomes potentially impossible to find a player you want. Combined with the changes to the scouting system (first introduced last year), which made scouting far more opaque and scattershot, it makes for an approach that is, at best, annoying and, at worst, actively lessens your enjoyment of the management aspect of the game. Hopefully this gets fixed.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention my lingering complaint with FIFA: its subpar stat tracking. You get limited stats (goals, assists, clean sheets, cards) for your own team and the leagues it’s currently playing it. But that’s it. You can’t check stats from other leagues or look at individual players’ year on year contributions. It’s a persistent knock on the series for me, one that is made more curious by the fact that things like key passes and pass percentage are tracked after each individual season game. Those stats simply disappear into the ether after each game.
But those are both fixable or, in the case of my issue with stat tracking, minor. After all, Football Manager, my big videogame obsession, provides all of those delicious numbers and tactical nuance. I may want some more depth to those aspects in FIFA 15 but I certainly don’t need them. FIFA is on my hard drive for crowd roars, mazy runs, and screaming shots.
And that’s precisely what it delivers. It’s a good entry into the series, maybe my favorite of this decade. The proof is in the pudding of my playtime, and it’s easily leading in that category in the week that it’s been out, beating out the absolutely incredible Endless Legend and my renewed wanderings in LOTRO. FIFA is good, loud fun this year and that’s more than good enough.
Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.