The game based on the grandest event for the world's biggest sport is back! EA Sports lines up an kicks off this spring with the latest World Cup game to offer a really fun and surprisingly deep simulation to the summer's premier event.
The keystone to FIFA games, and the reason it has been in the running for sports game of the year for the better part of the past decade is the immersing and addictive gameplay. For fans of the yearly soccer release, much of this will feel the same. Open space dribbling, passing, tackling, and shooting takes a slight precedent over intricate strategy and tactics. Some hardcore "football" fans point to this as the stifling edge to EA's brand of the sport, claiming the appeal to fans of "lesser knowledge" is what holds back this game for true greatness. To an extent, I get it. I, for one, would not consider myself a die hard soccer fan, and only really watch intently when the World Cup comes around. Having said that, I don't feel like I have to be an avid accessory to enjoy this game. But even in markets where soccer is king (a la Europe), FIFA still kills sales and smashes the "other football game" in terms of adoption. What I'm getting at is EA has a formula. A formula that keeps folks like me engaged and having a blast, as well as those that eat/sleep/breathe their favorite club. I think the main engine behind this effect is the difficulty setting. With six in total, each of them are able to set the CPU right above or below someone's skill set to either set you gently in the groove or stretch your skills to make room for growth and improvement. A very underrated design of FIFA that is perhaps its key to getting and staying on top of sports game sales, worldwide.
World Cup Brazil (WCB) actually boasts a few improvements to core FIFA gameplay. The first being Explosive Movement. When adjusting from a "straight line" dribble to turning direction is quicker and much more "sudden." It sort of reminds me of the rebuffed running system in last year's NCAA. You can get past "out-of-position" defenders with a deliberate flick of the left stick to one side or the other (left/right or up/down depending on the camera orientation). This is great for when the field really narrows down in the box and finding space to rip a shot at the onion bag becomes a test of patience and foresight. While this was good, I wasn't sold on the adaptation of the "Brazilian-inspired" skill moves incorporated in WCB. A couple of years ago, I reviewed the latest entry in the FIFA Street series. The emphasis of doing "tricks" on your way to the net was valid because of trick point distribution when beating a defender with a jester or nutmeg. Here, it seems a bit wedged in. They are fun to try when the game is put away and you're just "acting a fool," but trying fancy stuff leaves you susceptible to a tackle, which could lead to a breakaway for the opposing side.
Pinpoint Passing is another win for this title. The retooling adds emphasis on body positioning and dominant vs. non-dominant footwork when it comes to assisting. It's not good enough any more to either barely tap A to "leave" the ball for an oncoming striker or hold it down to force the ball in a small window. Being mindful of how the currently controlled player is standing in relation to the defender(s) and who should receive the next pass is the point of the innovation. For example, say you have the ball at midfield with your back turned to the defender in a "back to the basket" sort of stance. If you see a forward coming to either side of you that seems clear, you'll have to understand their speed and factor that in to how hard you press A while gesturing the thumbstick in a way that it pushes the ball in perfect reception space and keeps the engaged defender from "shading" to the streaking forward. This is just one of many scenarios that regular FIFA players will adapt to relatively quickly. But it does add another wrinkle that is meant to separate WCB from its yearly counterpart.
A cool little addition is Over-the-Back headers. In FIFA games past, the crescendo-ing jump in accordance with a corner kick resulted in the box occupants all jumping up to either influence the ball towards or away from the goal. Now, anxious attackers can couple that with hoisting themselves along the back of a defender (or vice versa) to gain a smidgen of clearance that could mean the difference between winning and losing. Penalty Kicks also get a bit of a face lift. The basic conventions stay the same, but 2014 adds "Goalkeeper antics" like "wobbly-knees" to go along with the kicker's stop-and-start psych outs. The one gameplay element that I seemed to stumble upon in a few games was the tendency for a suspicious amount of "late minute magic." Many times I would be up in games by either a goal or two or several. As soon as the 81st minute rolled around, the CPU team's ability to get behind my defense appeared to sky rocket, and they would put in a goal or two in quick succession. If what I've been doing for the first three quarters of the game has completely shut the other team down, an unwarranted change shouldn't come about for the sake of drama.
Getting used to these subtle, but important tweaks to the controls takes some practice. And a great way to get time in is with Skill Games. These are the tutorial-esque minigames based on the central aspects of the sport like dribbling, shooting, defense, et cetera. Every category has tree levels (bronze, silver, and gold) each with a score limit to reach to unlock the final "Challenge" stage, where point accumulation to tally up the highest score possible against insane difficulty in order to set a good benchmark is the goal. Whether it be dribbling through a slalom of poles in a set time, or working on precision passing to designated nets, or mastering the art of beating the keeper on lobbed passes, they are all practical and translate well to actual "on the pitch" skills in full games. These are incredibly fun and perhaps the best way to effectively become a better player. The other "quick" ways to get a game going are the exhibition style Kick Off (offline) and Online Friendlies. Choose from the 203 national teams available, as well as uniforms, venues, and game settings and play a solitary game. If progression is what you're looking for, WCB has some stellar selections.
Road to the FIFA World Cup is the biggest and deepest mode. Select one or more of your favorite squads and prepare to run through the full gamut of starting a brand new campaign towards qualifying and competing in Brazil during June/July. Friendlies are first up and provide measurements for your team(s) and what adjustments may need to be made in terms of set formations, position of players, and in-game tactics. The next step is to start competing in the organization your chosen squad(s) is/are apart of for World Cup qualifying. The U.S. is apart of the CONCACAF, so prepare for games against Canada, rival Mexico, and a litany of countries from Central America, the Caribbean, and a few from South America. In between games, you'll have the opportunity to evaluate and address player FORM. Based on past performances, players will keep a running "rating" of their attributes and skills. So if Michael Bradley struggled with dribbling a bit in the last game, you can queue up one of the aforementioned Skill Games associated with that particular aspect. He'll be "matched up" with three other players on the team that run through the same drill, and getting the most points will net the biggest improvement bonus for the controlled player. It will also incrementally increase the NPCs that "participated," which makes it easier to increase the talent level of the team as a whole with more "practice sessions." If all of this seems too overwhelming, you can shrink the time demand with 2014 FIFA World Cup mode. This fast forwards past qualifying and lands you straight into the big show! A cool feature is that the seedings aren't random; they follow the actual template that will be used IRL this summer. Picking 'Merica, for instance, will put you into this tournament's proverbial "pool of death" Group G along with Ghana, Portugal, and 2nd world ranked Germany. Make it out of the group, and it's on to the single elimination knockout stage, the final setting for a run to capture soccer's most heralded prize.
Captain Your Country returns in WCB for another run at the arm band. Fill the boots of a pre-existing player or create your own, then play your way from the secondary B-International team to the star of your nation's World Cup band. This follows a pattern similar to that of "Road to..." with the addition of roster cuts. Every several games, you will needs to keep your rank at or above the "cut off" line to avoid being shown the door. So keep track of your player ratings and be sure to fulfill your role on the team. Being routinely out of position is the best way to see the player rating number plummet. "Stay in your lane," as they say, and make the most of the opportunities afforded to you when they come around. Story of Qualifying is an enjoyable retreat from the "hustle and bustle" of the progression laden modes. This supplants you right into over 60 past scenarios from real 2014 qualifying games the world over. It'll be your job to replicate these classics in earnest. Such as last March's U.S. - Costa Rica game played during an intense snow storm that saw Clint Dempsey score the contest's only goal.
Online gets some serious support, as well. The flagship is Road to Rio de Janeiro. Twelve Brazilian stadiums will host Cup games this summer. All of them have been recreated in WCB; and in this mode, those will act as stepping stones to the mid-July final. You'll play ten games at each venue, with three points awarded for a win and one for a draw. You have to earn enough points to get into the "Safe Zone" of the next rung. Failure to do so sends you into dreaded relegation, where you'll go back to the previous city and try it again. Much like offline, the less enthused about that kind of dedication can go for Online FIFA World Cup and pick up play at group stage.
With great gameplay and deep modes, solid presentation necessarily follows. The actual player models and movements are great. WCB's best visuals come from the tens of footballers that populate the pitch as well as the immediate surrounding area like the side boards. The "broadcast" shots, whether it be fan celebration or the manager's reaction to an important match even, aren't as good. The animations that create these close ups shed an unflattering light on the design of said individuals. They just don't have the same "life" and detail as the players. And oddly enough, the replay cameras after a goal often show angles that are completely away from the action and sometimes focus on something as insignificant as, say, a corner of the goal that had no bearing in the situation. While not all the sights are pretty, the sounds are sweet from top to bottom. EA Sports Talk Radio (the pundit speak you hear between games in the big game modes) features "over 50 hours" of recorded stuff from Andy Goldstein & Ian Darke, or the Men in Blazers Michael Davies & Roger Bennett. Match commentary is handled by the tones of Clive Tyldesley along with color guy Andy Townsend. All six of these gentleman put in fantastic VO work. Every facet has pertinent and interesting input with just the right amount of liveliness and panache. The "talk" of WCB is undoubtedly the strongest presentation aspect.