Last year's FIFA 13 preview event convinced me that EA had created one of its best ever football titles. This year couldn't be more different. Now, I'm genuinely concerned that the Canadian development team has got it spectacularly wrong. It's a remarkable turnaround, and it's all to do with three new additions: the more deliberate pacing, the changes to the sprinting and the new first touch mechanic.
Matches in FIFA 14 feel much slower than last year. You now have to consider every single touch on the ball. In theory, this is a good thing, as FIFA 13 made it too easy to exploit the speed of your fastest squad members (usually on the flanks) to quickly transition from defence to attack. The way it's been implemented, however, is unfortunately to the detriment of the players on the pitch.
Rather than cause build-up play to slow down through better AI positioning, congesting the midfield and causing you to play backwards as well as forwards, the first touch mechanic has changed to the point where the best players in the world are unable to perform basic football techniques.
To use a real world example: Andres Iniesta, possibly the most intelligent central midfielder in football, uses his first touch not only to bring the ball under control, but also take the ball in the direction he plans on moving - a fundamental skill all good players have.
In FIFA 14, there were many instances where players would control the ball, then inexplicably take steps away from it, making it both easy for defenders to steal possession in dangerous positions and drastically slow down the speed of your attacks. There were other instances where a through ball behind the last line of defence left my forward in on goal, but the inability to take the ball in the player’s stride gave the defenders an unfair chance to get goal-side and negate the opportunity.
The calls for a more steady approach to football are merited, but it should not be done by making the best players in the world less competent than their real-world counterparts. More importantly, it shouldn’t make the game less fun.
The drastic change to sprinting has also had a negative impact, particularly when attacking. As the ball carrier, you now have two choices regarding pace control: touch the ball very gently forwards, or knock it 15 yards ahead of you straight to an opponent.
There is no middle ground. If you manage to skilfully pass a defender on the wing, gaining space to exploit, one sprint-touch forward and a centre-back will be able to come all the way across and steal possession.
On the defensive side of the equation, there is greater balance between sprinting and jockeying. If you're a defender in full sprint and the ball carrier performs a sharp turn, expect to pay the penalty of losing several yards of space to your opponent. This is good, but it goes too far. When a defender is running with momentum, it takes too long for your player to shift his body weight and change path. The turning circles of sprinting players are laughable, more representative of a bus than a human being.
There are of course frequent moments in football where players take poor touches and lose possession, but in FIFA 14 it feels like there is no other option. Messi doesn’t feel like Messi. I feel I have to compensate for his in-game shortcomings by restricting certain plays.
It's hugely frustrating, as so much of what’s been added to this year’s game improves on FIFA 13. The new ball physics add vibrancy and diversity to shots. There are new control mechanics that enable a player to let the ball run across his body without taking a touch, which is great in congested midfield areas.
Player shielding is also perfect for wing play, especially if you lack players in the box, granting your men time to get forward and provide options to pass.
But EA's approach to creating a slower game of football has done a disservice to the excellence of the real world athletes. You should not lessen a player’s ability in order to bring balance to a game. Last year, playing FIFA 13 made FIFA 12 feel redundant. Playing FIFA 14 has made me miss the speed and excitement of what we’re playing today.
Steve loved FIFA 14 last time around, so what's different now?