FIFA 14 Preview
The development history of FIFA is largely one of refined evolution, rather than outright revolution. Each annual edition introduces new technological tweaks to accomodate greater realism, whether that's slicker animations, livelier stadiums or more finessed player control. One year the focus turns to more intuitive defending, in another it's all about fleet footwork, but overall there's a gradual weaving together of every lesson learned as EA attempts to capture the magic of the pitch, off the pitch.
In the world of mobile gaming at large, however, there's a more immediate revolution taking place, and FIFA isn't immune to its impact. In increasing numbers, developers are recognising the folly of simply transposing console contol buttons onto touchscreens, and instead are learning to make a virtue of the fluidity afforded by the technology.
In FIFA 14, virtual buttons and directional sticks are, by default, gone - tucked away in the settings menu for those who find the change just a little too much to adjust to. Instead, the interplay between players is now entirely touch-based. Tap a teammate, and whoever has possession will make a pass, while everyone else adapts to the change in play structure. Shots are created using fluid, arcing finger swipes, while you can hold down on a particular player to move them around the screen manually. Simple though this sounds, EA assures us that individual flair, from dummying to trickshots, can still be enjoyed on the pitch by building upon these basic touch mechanics. For the newcomer in particular, it's an enormously intuitive system.
This very competent control system is the result of many years of experimentation - time the team felt was necessary before committing to such a radical change. Impressive though these new controls are, even more remarkable is the additional pitch perspective they afford to the player. It's far easier now to read the flow of the match as a bigger picture, instead of being laser-focused on the actions of one player after another. It serves to add a tactical perspective that feels unique to the platform - a separate but legitimate FIFA experience in its own right.
The default control system isn't the only thing that's changed with FIFA 14. All aspects of the game's interface, from the accessing of stats to flicking seamlessly between game modes, now resembles something more akin to a polished metro-style website, one where crisply cool segments and elegant swipes reveal the content nestled within. Like the dramatic overhaul of the control system, it suggests a recognition on EA's part that the days of a make-do mobile port are over, and that each experience must be tailored to each platform from the ground up.
EA's claiming a billion FIFA play sessions across iOS devices, a total that's comprised of an average 5-6 play sessions per day, per player. Impressive numbers, but more interesting is the revelation that player activity spikes dramatically over the weekend, suggesting that mobile gaming is no longer the preserve of bored commuters with five minutes to kill, but rather a legitimate, primary platform of choice for a certain segment of the FIFA audience.
FIFA 14 is unquestionably solid as a game, and what isn't broken makes a welcome return - EA is well aware of Ultimate Team's popularity, for example, and an enhanced version of that mode will appear in the new game. But instead of simply offering more of the same with another coat of polish, the controls of this new FIFA represent genuine risk and innovation. It's also some of the most fun we've had with a mobile FIFA game in some time.
But it's the recognition that touchscreens are a virtue to be exploited, rather than an obstacle to be overcome, that may have the biggest influence on mobile gaming beyond the release of this particular title. Put simply, we'd bet good money that those virtual buttons are gone for good by the time FIFA 15 rolls around.