Monday, August 11, 2014

FIFA 14 by EA SPORTS - Review

Like last season's Manchester United team, FIFA 13 took the iOS footy title through efficient play and a lack of serious competition.

A shortage of new contenders means that EA could have coasted home with FIFA 14. However, following the old football adage that you need to move forward in order to maintain your position, the company has made some fairly notable changes.

Those changes could be equated to restructuring the club's finances and making a risky new signing with a slightly dodgy touch rather than improving its skills.

Route one

What hasn't really changed is the simplified game at FIFA iOS's core. This is still a stripped-back, streamlined, and - yes - dumbed down version of the console series that spawned it.

And necessarily so. As has been well documented, a lack of physical control inputs poses a bigger problem to virtual footy than pretty much any other genre.

So you get the same sedate game of footy with the same functional virtual joystick and buttons. Once again, these controls handle passing, shooting, and sprinting when you have the ball, with a second virtual stick-of-sorts representing the console version's 'trick stick.'

Again, you can initiate advanced techniques through various touch-and-swipes. A touch and upward swipe of the 'shoot' button initiates a lofted through-ball, for example.

These combinations work well at lower difficulty levels, but once the pressure's on in tougher modes or online they can prove to be a little inconsistent to pull off.

Possibly the most glaring issue we found in general play was a sluggish and somewhat unreliable player-switch feature, which enables mobile forwards to burst between centre-back and full-back a little too easily.

Heavy touch

It's a shame EA hasn't really tightened up or rethought these virtual controls to any significant degree. We're also surprised that it's stuck with some of the half-baked touchscreen elements that we criticised in the previous version.

There's still the impractical option to send players on runs by touching and dragging them, and the flick-to-kick free kick system remains a write-off.

EA has introduced a major new element to the controls, but it's not a successful one. You can now play the game without virtual controls - a noble gesture, but the execution is unsatisfactory.

Here you can pass to players simply by tapping on them, and sprint with the ball by pressing and holding the screen - which proves to be joylessly precise and frustratingly vague respectively.

It is possible to take direct control of your player, but only by holding on them and then dragging them lethargically around the screen, like a parent pulling an uncooperative child around a shopping centre.

Well-run club

FIFA 14's core action hasn't really moved forward sufficiently from FIFA 13, then, but that still means that it's a more-than-competent kick-about.

EA has ploughed more of its attention into the structure of the game, with pleasing results. You've no doubt heard that this is the year that FIFA iOS goes freemium, which probably made you as apprehensive as it made us.

There's absolutely no need to worry. You'll find a surprisingly generous amount of content available for free here, including quick online matches and Game of the Week, which provides a constantly updating selection of scenario matches that mirror real fixtures.

You also get access to Ultimate Team mode, which lets you assemble a team of nobodies and trade, win, and purchase new superstars, Top Trumps-style.

Unless you want to invest heavily in that mode, the only IAP you'll need to make is £2.99 / $4.99 to unlock the traditional tournament and matchplay modes. This is the same cost as previous versions of the game, so EA has essentially laid on a very generous demo here. Well-played.

Breakdown in communication

FIFA 14's online element was disappointing during our test period. Playing several games against PG's biggest football fanatic, Rich Brown, we both noted that performance was sluggish (he was on an iPhone 4S, I was on an iPad 3) and that, somewhat oddly, it degraded after half-time.

We also experienced a few total crashes when trying to set up online games.

Hopefully EA will sort out these issues before too long, as online play was one of our favourite features of FIFA 13.

The heat of online competition also highlighted a couple of AI deficiencies, including one or two occasions where our defensive line from an attacking corner was so high that it left a counter-attacking player with literally the whole attacking half to himself.

Then there's the performance of the ref, who made a number of suspect decisions. In particular, he doesn't seem able to judge that there are players covering when a defender brings down a breaking attacker, defaulting to an instant red card.

Creative player needed

All of these niggles in control, AI, and online play have been there in some form in all of the iOS FIFAs to date. FIFA 14 isn't any worse in these respects. In fact, it's undoubtedly the best mobile FIFA yet.

It's just that EA hasn't made enough progress in these areas - the areas that really matter - for our liking. Its attempts to make the game more accessible are laudable, if only partially successful.

But the fact remains that we're still yet to see a truly great, free-flowing approximation of footy on iOS. Maybe that's not possible on touchscreen devices. Maybe it is.

All we know is that FIFA 14 retains the iOS footy title for another year almost by default. It's a slightly hollow victory, but a victory nonetheless.

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