It’s finally fixed. After years of moaning at EA – via podcasts, (p)reviews, even slowly spinning around in an office chair in front of the producer - it has finally binned FIFA’s sluggish player locomotion mechanics. No longer do they turn like cows, no longer could you hand-deliver a freighter’s worth of Very Heavy Shit to Outer Mongolia in the time it took Iniesta to change direction. Players can now turn as quickly as they should always have been able to, and the impact this has on the game is massive.
In recent years, FIFA has suffered from either being too direct or too focused on ping-ponging balls around the midfield. Both are far harder to accomplish now, and as a result the game forces you to play as a team, rather than a collection of individuals. ‘Passing to Messi and running, a lot’ is still a viable tactic, but it’s getting the ball to him in the first place that’s the difficult part. Rushed or misplaced passes will take longer to control, even for the big boys, and moves can break down as easily as they can be started with the new, refined, cleaving through-ball.
The hands-on demo only had a few teams to play with, but each seemed to be chosen to show off the new systems in action. Barcelona’s play is based upon short, quick passes, and yet - for a team that features one of the best passing midfields in history - it was difficult to get the ball down and play it for the first few games.
Part of this was down to being set in my (FIFA 13) ways, but it was also because knocking it around takes more thought. It’s not laborious, more just that blind, weaker-foot passes played behind your players - as well as other similarly poor attempts - will take longer to control, and even nicely weighted passes need to be controlled rather than merely collected.
So, essentially, you’ve got to pick your passes. Which is good - Pro Evolution Soccer has been refining its passing mechanics for years, and PES 13 was miles ahead of FIFA 13 in this regard. The gap is narrower than ever now.
But it’s the change to player movement - how they turn, how quickly they do so, and just how their weight is distributed - that combines with the passing to make this the most exciting FIFA in years. Now, you can finally step past your man using momentum rather than the right stick. it’s something that, again, PES has been doing correctly for decades, and it opens up a far more diverse range of attacking possibilities.
As an example, when playing as Barca, I passed to Fabregas. With two central midfielders closing, I was able to turn away from them, shielding the ball before flicking it between them both and bursting past. In older FIFA’s, that would have required some serious stick action (obligatory oo-er). Here, it was as natural as you’d imagine it would be for him in reality.
It’s not just about looking cool when skinning the opposition however. Suddenly, with a deft touch - and a bit of luck - I’d opened up the play in front of me by dragging two players out of their positions. Those congested midfields of FIFAs past were gone: instead of dicking about with the right stick, trying in vain to move your player at a sharp angle at a pace above ‘glacial’, now I’d cut out the midfield. With Cesc on the front foot and the defenders turning, I could quickly skip away (pressing sprint now knocks the ball ahead a little more than it used to, for just these sorts of moments) and could slide the ball into the striker’s path with ease.
Not that I scored, instead ballooning the ball into the stand before mumbling something about 'getting used to the shooting'. In fairness, it is different. The new shooting mechanics have been talked about for some time now, but in-play the shots feel like they have more weight behind them, and the ball physics are also now far more satisfying. Headers actually go on target, for a start.
Dipping shots are now more pronounced, and it was possible to drive the ball – and get it out of your feet - quicker than before. Combined with the ease of slipping past defenders, there’s the capacity for some amazing team and solo goals here. Playing as Atletico Madrid, I managed to use Falcao’s ridiculous skills to keep the opposition guessing, and Lewandowski’s eye for goal meant I was shooting from everywhere. Similarly, defending is now a different proposition: combating Milan’s pacey wing play could be a nightmare if allowed to double up, and closing out Barca’s midfield was an equally difficult – if completely different – proposition now given the new player movement and passing.
As ever, there are questions as to how the final product will hold up. Producer Sebastian Enrique told me that the amount of times your first touch will fail (or a ball won’t be nicely controlled) is probably a little on the high side at the moment, and given EA’s legendary reputation for changing things (even between review and retail) things will be different. But, as it stands, this is an excellent football game: both quicker and slower than before, given the way you can adjust your player’s movement in both fine and explosive fashions.
In fact, I’d go so far so to say that, as it stands, it's the best FIFA in a generation, and given the firm’s track record for releasing terrible FIFA games on new hardware, it might well be the best FIFA to be found anywhere this year.