Fifa is the worst yearly franchise in gaming. As an iterative series – one that should pioneer refinement over revolution – it is a near total failure. That’s not to say the games are bad, they’re usually decent, but they are so much worse than they should be after two decades in the business. Looking at the failures of the franchise, I’ll take each aspect of the most recent game in turn and discuss how EA’s series has managed to be completely stagnant but ever-changing.
You might complain that that opening statement is hyperbole, that games like COD, NFL, Battlefield and Assassin’s Creed (an interesting point of comparison with EA’s franchise) are guilty of worse sins. The difference between those games (NFL aside, since it’s usually just shit) and Fifa is that, whilst they’re just milking their success for a while, Fifa is a game that pretty much by design has to come out year after year. Those are games that are afraid to change things because they might damage sales; yet, Fifa is a game that doesn’t really need to change things drastically, but does so year after year without success.
I’ll of course be comparing the franchise with its competitor, Pro Evolution Soccer, and how the two have diverged during the course of the last generation. More tellingly, I’ll be comparing Fifa to the franchise Pro Evo was a decade ago and how it matches up to games that should be objectively worse, but actually aren’t.
When discussing the failures of a sports game, it makes sense to start with the actual gameplay and how terrible it is at recreating sports.
As mentioned earlier, Fifa is a franchise that should be designed to refine rather than drastically change. Compared to the Fifa of old, the recent history of the series suggests that it has overcome an obsession with big features that get ditched the next year in favour of a steady addition of better mechanics. This is true. Well done EA.
This isn’t particularly relevant, but it is very broken
But the problem isn’t there. The problem goes deeper than adding precision dribbling and tactical defending and proper people physics – the problem is the core of the game. Fine tuning the way the game actually plays should be the easy bit, the subtle changes that make all the difference; but, instead, each new release feels radically different to the last. Play Fifa 14 long enough and Fifa 13 becomes unplayable. The entire rulebook is rewritten with each new game, and it flies in the face of the whole design philosophy of iterative franchises.
Each year Fifa is released, and each year there are a host of new exploits to cheapen the game. For many years that has been speed. Everyone knows that the key to football games is to pick the fastest (and, without being racist or generalising, usually the blackest) players and let them wreak havoc. Technique and strength are rendered obsolete in the face of a jet-powered Emmanuel Mayuka streaking down the flanks to sweat it to lightning-legged Seydou Doumbia.
But there’s always something to go along with pure speed. In one game low crosses are unstoppable, in another one-touch passing takes you straight through the defence. In Fifa 14, it’s heading, butter-finger keepers and lobbed through balls. Speed is now irrelevant as dribbling is all but useless with the sticky, tank-like movement and wildly inconsistent control; turning and shooting has been nerfed, and now generations pass before a player gets a shot off; and, in its place, finesse shooting reigns king, and rebounds from spilled saves are the bread and butter of most goals.
All of the above exploits break the game to the extent that they may as well be considered bugs, ones that remove the game from reality by making a choice few methods ludicrously effective. The beautiful game becomes a systematic one, lacking in experimentation and variety, as cross after cross comes in and defender after defender stands statuesque in response. These changes all reflect the problem of Fifa’s design: that the reason these things work is because they’re all the things that didn’t work in the previous game.
Fifa’s balancing process from year to year is one of addressing the problems of the last. What things didn’t work? What things were too good? What needs fixing? It’s an admirable approach, and, in theory, the right one. Don’t change everything, just fix what needs fixed, right? Unfortunately that’s not how it works. Rather than simply, say, making headers and strength more effective, they instead make the current exploit useless and make the failing unstoppable. Rather than simply making one option more viable and keeping the other as an equally viable choice, they reduce it to one. Rather than just making more ways to score, they make more ways to score and make defending harder. It creates a cycle of brokenness that year in, year out leads to glitchy, frustrating experiences. It’s not refinement, and it’s certainly not subtle.
In a point of comparison I’ll be returning to throughout, Pro Evolution 6 (released way back in 2006) represents the pinnacle of this balancing act that Fifa fails so dramatically at. Pro Evolution games of the previous generation were always well balanced . They were broken, there’s no doubt about that, but they were broken in a fair way. Stupid things happened, but they happened to everyone who played, even the AI, and they only happened some of the time. They were like those random moments in real football when something crazy happens, like a keeper palming the ball into their own net or a player scoring an bicycle kick from 40 yards. They didn’t make much sense, but they were fairly distributed madness.
More importantly, the bits of the game that did work combined to create a varied, life-like experience that played to individual players strengths rather than emphasising one. Target men, provided they’re good enough, can batter their way through a defence; speedsters can race through on the break; all-round demi-gods like Ronaldo(the Brazilian one) can single-handedly tear teams apart with their technique. Every kind of goal is possible, and every kind of goal can be scored. Sure, defending was a nightmare without a tackle button, but in a way that was part of the fun. It was realistic, but not too realistic. It was a refinement of the previous game, but not a 180 change.
Credit to Fifa, they usually aren’t as bad for functionality as they have been over the last two years. But, it can’t be denied that they fail in some key ways. Especially when compared to those Pro Evo’s of old again.
First off, the current version; it is a nightmare. EA need to grab their interface designers and shake them till all the fancy graphic design shit comes out. We don’t need exploding footballs in the background; we don’t need complex animations with revolving, expanding, multiplying and subdividing blocks every time we go to a different screen; we don’t need an intro video because it’s bloody football and we know what it looks like; we don’t need a thousand images constantly shifting in the corner of the screen; we don’t need a news ticker; and we definitely don’t need slick blocks of white where the text lives slowing everything down. We need an interface that is fast and functional, but navigating Fifa 14 is like lapsing in and out of a coma. Attempting a career mode is like volunteering for Chinese Water Torture – oh, you’ll get to play a match, but first death by a thousand screens.
Pro Evolution games look like shit in this respect. Their menus are laughably cheap looking and very, very arcade-y. It doesn’t look like a professional attempt at a video game, it looks like an over-elaborate power point delivered by a twelve year old. They could make their game use comic sans as its default font and no one would be surprised. But, for all that, it works.
In the interest of fairness I should point out that Pro Evo 2014 is also a truly terribly presented game, one better than Fifa only because it gets out of the way faster.
But compare those old editions to Fifa, where you are returned to the entrance of the labyrinth if you feel like doing the exact same thing you did before, that football thing, but with a different team. Want to play a two-legged game (with actual aggregate scores and stuff)? Tough shit on Fifa – you can count for yourself with the commentators blissfully unaware that the first match even happened. On Pro Evo 6 it’s right there when you set up the match (and not tucked away behind other menus where you can forget that you left the game on Legendary with 15 minute halfs)
On Pro Evo everything is designed to facilitate the playing of more matches; in Fifa, it’s designed to look pretty but not do much.
No one really enjoys playing the computer (except maybe on Amateur when no one else can see and you can score ten thousand goals), but something unique to Fifa turns it into an experience quite unlike anything else in gaming. Many will tout the difficulty of games like Dark Souls, but there’s something truly soul-destroyingly cheap about sports AI, and particularly Fifa, once you ramp up the difficulty enough. I doubt there is anything else on this good green earth that infuriates me quite as much as seeing lower league sides become Barcelona when trying to play on Legendary.
This last one is a glitch that actually happened me in the last Fifa 14 match I played. I won 3-1 and felt immensely proud.
Fifa has been designed with certain play-styles in mind, and it has decided that Barcelona’s brand of possession football is the best. That means that, once you rack up the difficulty, it ditches variety amongst teams and lumps for what it deems the best way to play the game. It then compounds the already herculean task of trying to dispossess Scunthorpe by making them all Olympian decathletes capable of out-running, out-muscling and presumably out-javelining anyone you can throw at them.
The AI, much like their other attempts at introducing balance, forces the player to just go for the exploits in the game and score the cheapest, shittiest, most unsatisfying goals they can. You don’t really become better at the game, except maybe defending, but you do become better at cheating at it.
The rest of the game may be a bit of a wreck, but there’s no denying that Fifa steamrolls virtually every other sports game when it comes to online components. From the ease of getting a game, to the time vacuum that is online leagues and Ultimate Team, Fifa is a game that nails every aspect of online. And it’s also learned not to be so much of a dick about it. On previous versions you were expected to fork out to get features like live squad updates, but clearly being told they’re resoundingly awful people by the masses has gotten to EA.
Pro Evo, on the other hand, took roughly a thousand hours(rounded up from about 3) to download two updates. All for the Chilean league and some goddamn boots. And as for getting a game? Even the briefest foray into the mad world of forums will tell you that’s a lost cause.
The quality of its online suite is almost enough to redeem Fifa, since it is an area that has undoubtedly improved with each entry, and is often the tipping point for indecisive buyers; but, all the same, the core game that you’re playing remains fundamentally flawed.
It’s probably a moot point for many, but for others Fifa’s wealth of licensed teams is a crucial plus when compared to the pretty shabby selection Pro Evo offers. This isn’t even an area that’s been improved over the years, it’s just an eternal truth: Pro Evo has no licensed teams. The most recent edition, in spite of showing off its fancy Champions League rights, doesn’t even contain the finalists, Borussia Dortmund, in the game. No, really, they aren’t there. Among the biggest teams in Europe, home to the likes of Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski and Ilkay Gundogan, and not even in the game. It makes you sad.
And then there’s the commentary. This is pretty much a dead heat since they’re both awful. Fifa has more lines and sounds as if it’s better, but actually it’s probably the more frustrating listen of the two. I don’t quite know how, but they’ve managed to capture football commentary’s knack for condescension, waffle and completely awful insights. Pro Evo is just plain stupid and it always has been, but it’s stupid and silly in a weirdly endearing way. It is also, however, incredibly repetitious and prone to wildly exaggerating events. Fifa hasn’t gotten worse at commentary or anything, but every attempt to improve it by adding nine new anecdotes has utterly failed. Its ability to grate dovetails beautifully with the inevitable descent into rage that accompanies any extended playtime.
So there you have it, the things Fifa has been doing wrong since the beginning of time. Well done if you persisted all the way. Not sure how to end this.