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Hands-on: How 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil builds for the future

By Ben Wilson on Tuesday 4th Mar 2014 at 3:00 PM UTC

Let's get the heartbreak out of the way in one fell swoop: 1) Chris Smalling is definitely going to Brazil. 2) Ultimately that doesn't matter, because England will be back at Heathrow no later than the quarter finals. 3) Roy's boys have a better chance winning the trophy in the upcoming official FIFA game. 4) That's providing they still play last-gen consoles, because FIFA World Cup Brazil isn't coming out on Xbox One or PS4.

There. Now dry your eyes, because it's mostly good news from here.

The official reason why World Cup 2014 is exclusive to PS3 and Xbox 360 is because next-gen consoles aren't even officially available yet in host nation Brazil. "To have alienated the host nation wouldn't have been good!" explains line producer Matt Prior.

It'd be easy to labour the point throughout this preview that all of FIFA World Cup's achievements would have only been enhanced on next-gen consoles. While that's true, it's nonetheless to developer EA Canada's credit that the studio is still trying to innovate on a project that could so easily have been a cash-in.

Take defensive play. Long considered an afterthought of the entire FIFA series, our five-hour hands-on showcases some small but vital improvements in this area. In addition to your back four behaving as more of a compact unit - when in control of the bigger nations, anyway - centre backs can clamber over opposition forwards to win headers, full backs shepherd balls out of play when it makes sense to do so, and attackers' super-powerful heading abilities have been toned down, meaning a significant drop in the number of goals conceded from crosses.

That said, this still offers up a frenzied, attacking game of footy, even when playing as lesser nations (all 203 clubs who entered into the qualifying rounds for this summer's tournament feature here). Mixing co-op matches with head-to-heads against the AI and other journalists, we did't experience (or even see!) a single 0-0 draw. So casual players can rest assured that while defending has been improved, in goalscoring terms this is still more van Persie than van Wolfswinkel.

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Aiding that cause is the reconfigured penalty system. In short, it's similar, but you'll score many more than you used to. (Hoo-bloody-ray, right?) "There was a lot of feeling that it wasn't completely intuitive, and you had to practise the skill game to fully understand it," says Prior of the thinking behind this change. "Penalties should be an opportunity to score, and casuals were finding it very, very difficult."

Now, the coloured accuracy bar returns from previous FIFA instalments, but stopping it in the green area means, essentially, that you can't miss. So if you then hold the right stick towards the top corner for the entire run up, that's exactly where the ball will go (barring a wonder stop). Previously, the same endless pushing on the stick would have Waddled the synthetically revived pigsbladder into orbit.

The mechanic is more fun for keepers now, too. You can attempt to put the taker off by tapping the face buttons (e.g. on PS3, press x to mimic Bruce Grobbelaar's infamous jelly legs), and stoppers adjust their hands in the air in an attempt to get something on the ball, rather than simply keeping them limply outstretched like an old Subbuteo figure.

Those are the main changes on the pitch covered, although they are supplemented by some decent attempts to enhance the 'big show' feel. "We wanted to make this our most atmospheric game ever," enthuses Prior, "really capturing the essence of Brazil."

"EA is calling 2014 FIFA World Cup its most atmospheric game ever"

To that end, 19 real managers, such as Messrs Hodgson, Low and Del Bosque have their likenesses present and correct, and cutscenes between the action show fans partying in the each of the dozen Brazilian stadiums that'll be in operation come June 12. Even the Brandenburg Gate and Trafalgar Square feature, as the build up to each game shows supporters partying at a Fan Fest back in their home nation. Important, lifelike detail.

Those familiar with EA Canada's previous World Cup game, South Africa 2010, will have spotted some recycled content there - and sure enough, many of the modes on offer here share a connection with that previous effort. But in each instance, there are admirable efforts to freshen proceedings up.

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Take World Cup and Road To World Cup modes, which enable you to play through either the finals or entire qualifying campaign - mirroring the real thing, or with your own custom tweaks to the competing groups. So far, so four years ago - but both are given a new lease of life via EA Sports Talk Radio (in which Andy Goldstein and Ian Darke discuss upcoming matches with surprisingly little repetition), and the ability to train your players between games.

Fancy building the England squad around Tom Cleverley, Stuart Downing, and your uncle Dave? Sure, your friends may mock and even disown you, but that exact strategy is entirely feasible here. After each match you can place four squad members in a competitive mini-game of your choice, earning stats upgrades depending on how each performs. So if you select the short passing drill (aim the ball into nets dotted around the pitch) and Downing scores highest, he gets the biggest attribute boost.

The mechanic adds some novelty to that pair of modes - where previously there was little more to do than play match after match until your inglorious exit - but it really comes into its own in Captain Your Country. In this Be A Pro equivalent, you'll naturally want to outperform the other three players every time in order to inflate your stats as fast as possible; and B internationals are another neat new addition which further fleshes out this returning mode. See, we weren't joking about your uncle Dave being the next Steve Hodge.

Also back is Story Of Qualifying, in which you get to relive more than 60 events that occurred en route to South Africa - like taking control of Frank Lampard and equalising for the Three Lions against Ukraine in September 2012. Aside from the fresh scenarios, this mode appears to have changed the least in the four years between World Cup games, although it's still an intriguing side-project to dip in and out of.

We promised at the outset not to bang on about the lack of a next-gen version, but that really is World Cup 2014's biggest downside - if you've already moved on from PS3 or 360, it's unlikely you'll be tempted back in by this. Which is a shame, because rather than churn out a patched version of FIFA 14 with international teams and fresh kits (which would still have sold by the lorryload), EA Canada has put together a more forward-thinking footy game, elements of which will no doubt make it into FIFA 15.

"Nothing we do for World Cup is throwaway, it'll all roll into future iterations," confirms Prior. "The caveat being that we'll of course monitor feedback and may change things again accordingly."

That's great news for those with big hopes for EA's next Gen 4 footy offering when it hits later in the year, but in the meantime those who give its new PS3 and 360 effort a shot come April 17 are unlikely to come away disappointed. At least, no more so than they are by events in Manaus, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte two months later.