FIFA 15: is the world’s biggest football game a title winner this year?

Fever pitch

For the first time in quite a few years, EA Sports’ annual behemoth has a fight on its hands. Sure, FIFA is likely to be streets ahead of its nearest rival in sales terms, but it must sting a little that PES 2015 pipped it to the Best Sports Game title at GamesCom in August. That says more for Konami raising its game than for EA Sports taking its eye off the ball, mind you, as some time with FIFA suggests it’s an improvement on last year’s edition – certainly on new generation hardware.

This year it’s all about emotions, we’re told. From emotional reactions of fans to goals and near misses to the emotional intelligence of players, who’ll respond appropriately in any given situation. In practice, what this equates to is more animations, and an increased focus on said animations within the game’s TV-style coverage. You’ll see more close-ups than ever – some would ungenerously add that you’ll see more hold-ups than ever – as fluffed chances and bad tackles prompt equally agonised winces. These interstitial moments can all be skipped, of course, but there are plenty of players who won’t, revelling in a presentation style that’s closer than ever to a Sky Sports broadcast.

Authenticity has long been a FIFA watchword, and it’s reached new levels this year, with every single Premier League ground recreated in detail and more accurate player likenesses than ever. FIFA’s long been a series that favours the big clubs, so no doubt fans of mid- to lower-table sides will be delighted with this particular change. They’ll likely hear at least some of their favourite chants, too, though sadly there’s no M-rated version – Man City fans will sing that one about Sheikh Mansour going to Spain in a Lamborghini, but you won’t be hearing how Pablo Zabaleta “is the f**king man”, for example.

Elsewhere, though crowds are still some way behind the best in class (that honour goes to the astonishing NBA 2K14, although in fairness 2K has fewer spectators to render) they’re significantly improved in visual terms, but you’ll notice them more for the atmosphere they generate. They’ll chant noisily and regularly when you’re winning, ooh and aah when you strike a post or the ball whistles just over the bar and boo decisions they don’t agree with and players they’re not keen on.

Highlights are improved, making it more likely you’ll take the time to watch the slo-mo snippets at half-time and full-time. You’ll even hear short commentary soundbites over goal replays.

The commentary has been improved too, Martin Tyler and Alan Smith moving from soundbite to soundbite with greater fluidity, even if Tyler seems faintly obsessed with how players performed during “the World Cup in 2014”. It’s impossible to deny that this stuff adds to the sense of occasion, and while few players will want to hear Tyler read out the team sheets before every game, it’s nice to have that option for the matches that really mean something.

On the pitch, you’ll notice players are now a little lighter on their feet than last year, where response times were on the sluggish side and some defenders had the turning circle of a JCB. Players take shorter steps and more precise turns when moving slowly, and you’ll still be able to retain a certain degree of close control while sprinting. It all feels slightly quicker and more responsive than FIFA 14, though attackers who break past the last man will still find themselves being caught from time to time by lumbering defenders, even when clamping down the right trigger.

“You’ll notice a starker difference between faster and slower players - the likes of Raheem Stirling will outpace just about any full-back.”

In the main, however, and after a bit of practice, you’ll notice a starker difference between faster and slower players. It’s about momentum – not too many players are quick off the blocks, giving defenders a chance to get back, but once you’ve built up a few strides, the likes of Raheem Stirling will outpace just about any full-back. The same applies for the likes of Yaya Toure, whose lolloping stride eats up the turf once he’s got plenty of pitch in front of him.

And then there are the goalkeepers. Completely rewritten for eighth-generation hardware, with the ability to react to deflections, and 50 new save animations, they’re a vast improvement on what’s gone before. You’ll find yourself needing to use the finesse shot much more often, and when a strike takes a nick off a defender’s knee, you’ll see them twist in mid-air or stick out an arm or leg in desperation. They won’t always get there, but nor should they. As a general rule you’ll have to play smarter to beat them.

Highlights are improved, making it more likely you’ll take the time to watch the slo-mo snippets at half-time and full-time. You’ll even hear short commentary soundbites over goal replays.

They’re not the only ones, either. Though there’s still that invisible bubble surrounding players when you’re defending, you’ll see AI team-mates and opponents alike react more realistically to unpredictable situations: ricochets, rebounds, even a bit of showboating. Players will stretch to intercept passes, seize upon loose balls – and they’ll make mistakes, too. Put defenders under pressure and they’ll sometimes thump a clearance into the stands, while tricks don’t always come off – harry a flair player long enough and their final drag-back might just take them out of play.

It gets so much right – particularly in terms of its presentation – that it’s all the more jarring when things go awry. While it’s nice to see tactical options like Park The Bus and In The Mixer, the latter in particular leads to kamikaze formations that can see you pick teams off too easily on the break. A strange quirk of the character models means some players – notably Ricky Lambert and the normally slight David Silva – are blessed with shoulders like professional bodybuilders. And though collisions are more physically convincing than ever, you may occasionally witness the unnerving sight of Simon Mignolet diving through his near post to palm away a shot.

Ultimate Team welcomes the addition of loan players – allowing you to temporarily add a couple of galacticos to your side by spending in-game cash

Elsewhere, it’s a case of sensible refinements rather than wholesale changes. Ultimate Team welcomes the addition of loan players – allowing you to temporarily add a couple of galacticos to your side by spending in-game cash – and friendly seasons, too. Player stats, of course, have been tweaked to reflect real-world form (Messi’s still the best player, but his ranking is down from 94 to 93) while 15 brand new Legend players are exclusive to Xbox versions of the game – including the likes of Peter Schmeichel, Alan Shearer, Bobby Moore and the most overrated free-kick-taker of all-time, Roberto Carlos.

All of which will undoubtedly be enough for FIFA to comfortably remain commercial top dog for another year. But can it also win the on-pitch battle against a resurgent Konami? Either way, it’s shaping up to be one of the most competitive – and thus exciting – seasons for video game football in years.