Men have gone mad attempting to pin down differences between successive sports games. Sure, you can tout back-of-the-box features, but how does it actually feel? Robust? Floaty? Thankfully, FIFA 14 makes it easy: It's worse.
But only slightly. With new advances in movement come matches dominated by boggy midfield battles. Step-based locomotion results in players forcibly pushing off from their back feet when pivoting and adjusting weight to shoot, but although a (apologies in advance) stride towards TV realism, it's a slight step backwards gameplay wise.
All your favourite footballers have apparently been taking lessons from the heavier Ronaldo, bloated blunderers prone to clumsy unforced errors. They overrun balls, stop and start like battered cars, and swivel like a dodgy shopping trolley. Famous videogame villains have nothing on FIFA 14's evil spectre - momentum.
Players are more error prone, too. Despite sussing out opponents by learning animation lengths or the flights of balls, or even marking potential targets, there's no guarantee foresight or wiliness will pay off. Such unpredictability isn't true to what is in essence a cerebral game. It's realtime checkers on luminous turf, players positioning pieces then executing plans.
There are protocols and contingencies. Ever wonder why you get hammered online? Your opponent is five moves ahead of you. You can certainly improve, but to the uninitiated it just feels awkward. You've noticeably less control this season.
"The unpredictability is good news for long-distance specialists such as Bale and Gerrard"
Shooting's another story. The same unpredictability that makes dribbling a hassle is good news for long-distance specialists such as Bale and Gerrard, who'll unleash red-hot balls able to dip and swerve with newfound lethality. New animations are welcome (during our recent lunchtime session, a standing, outside-of-the-boot effort into the top corner by Man City's Negredo brought a collective 'oooooh!' from onlookers).
There's no higher chance for that shot to find netting, so don't expect basketball scores, but when it does - oh man. Essentially, Pure Shot adds a fresh array of outcomes to goal efforts, and it's FIFA 14's best bit.
That's if you get your shot off. This year defenders have several tricks up their sleeves, including second-chance tackles (recover quickly from mistimed challenges) and heavier jostles. At one point, as Spurs' speedy winger Aaron Lennon, we were practically accosted by Man U's burly Vidic, who pulled our shirt and grabbed our arm. With a greater gulf in player skill (the fast are faster, the strong stronger), matches play more like irregular contests and less like Subbuteo. Speed counters strength, for example, but only if you make the space.
FIFA's physicality is its edge. Players aren't clothed by invisible shields like PES's boxy men - they feel like they're interacting, fighting for headers and barging for balls like in some highly paid competitive contact sport or something.
It's the little touches, too. While we'll have to wait on the next-gen versions before we see true TV-style presentation (FIFA could learn a lesson from PES here), where nervous managers chomp gum and a random guy in the crowd stands and raises both arms above his head for no reason whatsoever, details impress.
Questionable fouls result in your man adopting the universal 'I'm innocent!' pose, and in injury time players will rush to take throw-ins with greater urgency. At one point during a Premier League fixture, another broadcaster chimed in with live score updates. Our commentator, Clive Tyldesley, talked over him when we scored, then later apologised for the interruption.
That's on the pitch, but what about off it? The addictive Ultimate Team returns with an Xbox-exclusive hook in which the likes of Lineker, Bergkamp, Maldini and Pelé can be bought and traded. New skill games allow you to navigate gauntlets of plastic yellow men, race motorised cut-outs like a dog chasing a rabbit, slalom poles, and knock down towers of evil cardboard boxes.
Then there's the career, in which you can take on roles of both player and manager. As a real world man or created Pro, you'll skip the managerial gubbins, simply building skills in matches and responding to emails from your agent between them.
Management is more in depth, with potential Mourinhos juggling contracts, nurturing youth academy talent, and striving for league targets set by the board. Both sides of the career let you play as the entire team, but only player mode gives you the option to control one player.
The Global Scouting Network is career mode's biggest improvement. You'll hire up to six scouts, each given star ratings for experience and judgement, then set parameters, and finally unleash them. Want a pacey left-footed Bulgarian teenager? You got it.
They help in transfers, too; put a scout on someone who's caught your eye and they'll tell you how much he's worth, and how likely he is to join you (in Messi's case, us managing Watford, the answer was several lols and a troll face).
Online is much the same story. Seasons mode is best for those who simply crave ranked exhibitions, with the chance to rise from league ten to one. There's also 11v11 Pro Clubs (players create their own teams and invite friends); co-op seasons; 2V2 matches; unranked head-to-heads, and friendlies featuring variable rules.
Additionally, you can splurge points earned online on classic kits, new balls, Pro gear, skill boosts and ridiculous celebrations (favourites include the prancing bird, hulk out, and chicken dance).
FIFA 14 returns as the same ludicrously comprehensive sports game it's ever been, where any one mode could easily see you through to next season and beyond. Those small and clumsy steps it takes backwards, courtesy of Precision Movement, do little to spoil the party. It may be slightly slower and a little worn out in the legs, but FIFA 14 is still king.
Clumsier players only slightly dent what's still the greatest, most comprehensive footy game ever made.
- Shooting feels new again
- A more convincing sense of physicality
- A ridiculous number of modes, both online and off
- Movement is slightly slower and clumsier
- Players are more error-prone