IT is unlikely the senior executives of EA Sports are familiar with Stuart Chase, a prominent 20th century economist and confidante of Franklin Roosevelt, but were they to read his work, they would encounter a kindred spirit.
“The first law in advertising,” he once wrote, “is to avoid the concrete promise and cultivate the delightfully vague.” It is a maxim which articulates the long-established strategy which has turned EA’s FIFA games into one of the industry’s most dependably lucrative franchises.
The series, now in its 20th year, is unrecognisable from the competent isometric portrayal of football which launched in 1993, an era when Dino Dini and Jon Hare set the benchmark high with Kick Off and Sensible Soccer. A generation-long evolution has yielded one of the foremost sports titles currently available, with advanced mechanics welded to lustrous presentation and numerous involving game modes. It is an endeavour which been a gradual process of augmentation, punctuated by the occasional great leap forward. In that time, EA have had consolidated their role not only as developers and publishers, but masters of promotion, tasked every autumn with the historic art of convincing people to spend money on something they don’t need. In the barren years when the game appears indistinct from the one that went before, it is an exercise in cynicism comparable to a silver-tongued Goodyear sales executive espousing how this year’s tyres are even rounder than their predecessors. The myriad endorsement deals and wall-to-wall adverts are smoke and mirrors, but we should not be seduced. The question is always: what is new of genuine substance?
In many ways, the slow series of improvements which characterise the franchise is deserving of sympathy. Football is a relatively uncomplicated affair which nonetheless becomes a phantom when those in the creative industries seek to capture its spirit and soul - consider the plethora of desultory big screen versions of the sport which present something so stilted and nebulous, it is like watching a well-meaning but naive alien race trying to interpret the game. Where directors can simply point a camera at a playing field and shoot, games developers are in a less enviable position. By virtue of the finite number of combinations afforded by buttons, triggers and thumbsticks at their disposal, any simulation is necessarily reductive. Should they have the talent and fortune to strike upon the basis of a functioning facsimile, it forms a core for any number of sequels, with progress measured by the addition of new features which aim to distil the basic ingredients, not replace them.
This has been the avowed approach of EA Canada for the past six years, and little wonder. Younger gamers raised on a sole diet of FIFA may balk at the prospect, but for years, the franchise was a stumbling imitation of the game which paled in comparison to the flowing action served up Konami, who arguably reached a pinnacle eight years ago with the release of Pro Evolution Soccer 5, to this day cherished by many as the most faithful re-enactment of the game ever produced. EA, by contrast, was complacent, seemingly content to invest in licensing arrangements which coated its games with the sheen of authenticity, directed at those players happy to wrestle with plodding play for the sake of a sprinkling of stardust. It was a modus operandi which could, perhaps, be traced back to the crisis of confidence which characterised the creation of the series, with the label’s senior executives expressing doubt over whether a football game could ever be a fitting stablemate for its Madden and NHL strands. As Marc Aubanel, the assistant producer of the first FIFA, explained in a recent interview: “They didn’t think we were going to sell a single copy of this. They thought it would be a complete disaster.”
With a bang, that all changed with the release of FIFA 08 and FIFA 09, titles which were privy to innumerable studious improvements – revamped player physics and nuanced controls to name but two – which brought about a cultured and studied metamorphosis, rejuvenating the ailing strand at an auspicious time, given Konami – having reversed roles with its competitor – seemed at ease with resting on its laurels. Having long drawn the ire of purists, FIFA increasingly became the game of choice. The latest variant is a sophisticated and faithful culmination of this work. FIFA 14 bestows players with a sinuous control system and a physics engine which ensures there are sufficient variables to every challenge or pass to dispel any feeling that the proceedings are governed by scripting language, yet not so many as to render the action an erratic stramash.
There are salient additions long called for by the community, such as the ability to play seasons co-operatively, as well as graduated alterations that have a manifestly positive impact. Standing tackles are no longer beyond the bounds of possibility, while the weight and stature of players – at least the stars of the top tiers of the European leagues – feels accurately represented. Charging towards goal with a player of Wayne Rooney’s burly gait is a rousing affair, much like holding onto a runaway shopping trolley full of blubber as it careers down an embankment. The best example, though, is the much trumpeted Pure Shot, which according to EA, helps “make every shot attempt feel real and, when players connect with the perfect strike, exhilarating.” Applied to a match, the influence behind this clumsily expressed innovation is clear; the angle of impact is crucial this time around, and if judged correctly, shots quiver, bend and soar like never before, giving the player a great sense of command and reward.
It is clear that a feel for football is in the marrow of EA Canada. It can rely upon an impassioned and experienced staff to devise minor tweaks which, at their best, soon become established hallmarks of the genre. The problem, however, is that a growing number of its advertised improvements are so trifling, they are fundamentally imperceptible. Too often, the promise of the theory cannot be discerned in practice, the trademarked buzzwords on the back of the box tantamount to hollow hyperbole. Take another of this year’s much mooted evolutions, known as Teammate Intelligence. As a result, say EA, “players will have better decision-making and teams will play smarter on both the attack and defence to bring the beauty of the game to life.” In reality, it is almost impossible to assess how this changes the game for better or worse. Either way, it suggests that that the AI players found in previous instalments were unresponsive, clod-footed cadavers with the finesse of a drunk performing brain surgery. Granted, for those of us who have endured the gruelling formative years of career mode languishing in the depths of League Two, there may be a kernel of truth in that. In reality, though, the phrase is inane, an example of EA’s worst tendency of relying upon the empty lexicon of marketing to weave the illusion of demonstrable evolution.
In any assessment of a new FIFA, the temptation is to disregard the game on its own merits and allow frustration at the studio’s ideology of glacial, incremental embellishment to prevail. To advocate change for change’s sake would be a churlish and disproportionate reaction to a title which serves up an artful interpretation of modern football. But if it is to improve, it is incumbent upon players to demand that a vast marketing budget is diverted into the hands of the developers, lest the retrogressive slide which plagued Konami prove contagious. As it enters its third decade, the FIFA series could well benefit from an early mid-life crisis, and to borrow Chase’s turn of phrase, more of the concrete, less of the vague.