EA Sports’ FIFA 15 Finds Its Feet on Next-Gen Consoles

I’ve reviewed so many versions of EA Sports’ FIFA soccer games over the years that I’m fresh out of superlatives.

“Best,” “boldest” and “slickest” have pretty much lost their meaning, with FIFA having vanquished many foes since the series kicked off in 1993. Last year’s game — the first for next-gen consoles — showed promise, but some rough edges.

This year, the flagship EA franchise, which comes out Tuesday for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and multiple other consoles for $59.99, is essentially competing against itself. Rival Konami released only a limited demo of its Pro Evolution Soccer 15 game, with the full version due out in November. In previous years, the two games hit the shelves on the same day, making for late nights of testing and head-to-head comparisons.

Stripping out hyperbolic “-ests,” FIFA 15 is a fun, realistic soccer simulation with deep online and community elements. It’s a game that feels at home on next-gen consoles. The graphics of the Xbox One version I tested were crisp and detailed — down to the wet footprints left by players dribbling on a rainy pitch. Gameplay was smooth, not even coming close to testing my eighth-generation console’s processing power. No helicopter noises from my console, at least.

Because I was playing the retail version pre-release, there were no online games for me to play. I tried single and multiplayer with my 16-year-old son, who also regularly fiddles with the EA Ultimate Team web app, buying, selling, trading and trying to build up a concept team.

We found only one glitch we hope will be fixed in a first-day patch: Our game froze just after a goal, with players standing around and waving their arms at midfield. It cost my son some coins and a match bonus, as he was poised to win the game.

As in years past, you can play using teams from different leagues around the world or select licensed national teams. EA has brought back tournaments galore in FIFA 15. There are over 50 different national tournaments from multiple countries and leagues. If that’s not enough, you can craft your own custom tournaments, such as a 32-team World Cup.

Controls haven’t significantly changed, that I could see, but if you’re feeling uncertain about how to play, there are skill games that will both help you get used to the controller buttons, sticks and triggers and play sharper on the field.

A nice touch was the automatic adjustment of skill level for your first FIFA 15 game. After that, the game suggests a skill level for you — one you can accept or change.

Part of EA’s messaging about FIFA 15 is the unrivaled intelligence of what it’s calling the “next-gen goalkeeper,” and I see the vast advances made in making goalies smarter and move more fluidly and responsively, like their real-world counterparts — including “Secretary of Defense” Tim Howard. It would be a pleasant change from the annual tug-of-war between advances in offense and defense features in the game.

But my experience thus far is that the offense-defense tussle is still alive and well — and overshadows the advances in goalkeeping. Pace is vital in this game, and if your attackers are faster than your defenders, you’ll almost always win, no matter how good the keeper’s stats, reactions and animations are.

I don’t mean to slag off FIFA 15’s artificial intelligence. It’s very good, and some of it isn’t immediately obvious.

EA says there’s a lot going on under the hood in terms of AI. If you believe what the developers say — and I have no reason to doubt them — player avatars are guided by an emotional intelligence feature. That means they not only display situation-appropriate simulated emotions, but they also have attitudes about or feelings toward each and every other player on the field. And those develop, positively and negatively, over time based on the game’s flow. You’ll see them displayed via circa 600 new animations.

Multiple collisions or fouls might result in pushing, shoving and confrontation. If a player does well, teammates are encouraging. Suck up the joint, and they’ll display frustration every time you just miss the post or sky one over the top of the net.

Not that I care much, but the dynamic match presentation feature brings the simulated emotions into the stands. Fans cheer, chant and behave differently in different venues.

AI partially rescues the booth dronings of Martin Tyler and Alan Smith is a tie-in between those precious fan moments — a cheer, a singing of an anthem — and commentary about them. Otherwise, you get the same tired patter as in years before.

Now, the downside of a smart AI. As I mentioned above, EA has spent a lot of time and resources positioning this game as centered around valiant goalkeepers. And at high skill settings, keepers move like cats and make some amazing saves. But what happens when you play at “amateur” level? Keepers’ moves — like diving for a ball — appear over-exaggerated, and the smart AI looks, well, just stupid.

I couldn’t believe one keeper’s reaction to a two-on-one attack. He crouched, spread his arms and legs wide and pulled a Robert Green, just standing still as the ball zoomed through his legs and into the back of the net. Another time, my keeper was in perfect position to catch a straight-on shot. Instead, he never moved his widespread arms and let the ball just bang off his chest.

The absolute best thing about FIFA 15 is its collision physics. They’re just crazy, maybe even a bit over the top. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving, jockeying for position. Little guys get decked by big guys. Players who are off-balance get dumped. And I’d swear I saw some flopping in the game.

EA also hit a sweet spot with upgraded Ultimate Team this year, accessible on your consoles, on the Web and via smartphone or tablet apps. For newbies, UT lets you build and play your own teams and leagues. You acquire packs of 12 items, including players, club items, like patches and kits and consumables, such as fitness boosts that last for a game.

You can acquire packs with coins you win by playing games, but if you’re really impatient — as many people are — you’ll start using real money to speed up the team-building process, and that is a good thing for EA’s bottom line. Hardcore UT players don’t mind spending, because it makes their online competition even more killer.

EA knit its UT community even tighter this year, bringing a “concept team” feature into the game. Last year, you had to use a third-party site to plot out your “all-Bundesliga-players” or “over-six-footers” teams, hopping in and out of UT mode to check on what players you needed to buy. That was a smart move by EA, because it, of course, increases the chances that you’ll start spending your coins to turn those concept teams into reality in UT.

If you’re a FIFA nerd, you’ll tip your cap to some of the game’s nice touches. This year, when you score a goal, the net lifts up on goals, and the screen shakes. Celebrations are easy because there’s a whole menu, complete with button and stick commands for you to learn. And for the first time that I can remember in a FIFA game, you actually have a chance to beat the goalie with a header, while he’s trying to catch a ball in front of the goal.

Unless an update of a game franchise is really revolutionary, I’m usually hesitant to suggest anyone but the biggest fanboys go out and spend 60 bucks for the new title. Though there’s nothing really revolutionary about FIFA 15, I’m breaking with that this year.

FIFA 15 has dozens of advances and new things — too many to mention here. It is a strong evolutionary successor to FIFA 14. It plays better and more smoothly and takes full advantage of physics, graphics and game-engine developments made in other EA titles. The developers seem more at home programming for the Xbox One this year. For the first time in a long time, I felt this was a sports simulation that’s almost 100% complete, and I haven’t even really dug that deeply into the game yet.

With its tournaments, online play and Ultimate Team, FIFA 15 is a game I expect to play regularly throughout the year.

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