The ball drops deep into the Liverpool half.
There’s a brief scramble, a moment of panic, and then a defender belts it toward the touchline; it hits the shoulder of Manchester City’s Samir Nasri and spins out of play. Later in the match, the ball goes out again after a tackle between Lovren and Kolarov – the City player thinks that the throw is about to be given to Liverpool and wheels around the complain to the ref – but the decision goes his way, and he immediately backs off.
These are small moments of drama, the sorts of things we’re going to see every weekend of the forthcoming season. But for the Fifa series, they represent brand new elements of the simulation. Every year, the team at EA Sports in Vancouver tells us about major overhauls, and every year we have to squint to see them.
However, in the several matches I played at Gamescom, some of the big boasts are clear: the ball physics has been reworked (again!) and the depiction of emotion in player models has been accentuated. Modern football is as much a theatrical performance as it is a sport. The Fifa team knows this. And it’s pretty compulsive stuff.
The feel of football
But forget the drama for a moment, and feel the sim. Fifa 15 is pretty delightful to play: zippy passing, tight handling without the regimented “close control” feature-set of Fifa 14, and a much greater sense that you can freely disperse the ball around the pitch at any angle. The action feels faster, looser, more expressive. The ball rebounds, spins and curls off at convincing angles.
“There are three things that have changed the feel of the game,” says producer Nick Channon as we kick off our Manchester City versus Liverpool match. “We’ve completely re-written dribbling so you’ve got more control, more fidelity of movement. There are a lot of contextual tricks, but we want everyone to feel capable, that they’re doing cool things just using the left stick.
“Last year we put in step-based locomotion which was a big change, it made everything look nice, but at times people felt it was a little bit sluggish, a little unresponsive, so we’ve done a lot of work around quicker more agile turns. Defenders will now stick with the attacking player more naturally whereas before you’d have to press A to contain - we don’t particularly want that all the time.
“The final thing is, we’ve reworked all the ball physics on the ground, so every single touch is different. It sounds small, but it’s had a profound effect: previously if you touched the ball as it came in, we’d zero the spin, whereas now you’re imparting spin on it – so however you kick it, wherever you touch, it becomes part of the calculations. It sounds geeky, but it’s much more realistic and in passing it creates a better feeling of fluidity. We had fans in relatively early to test the system and they were saying it feels much more responsive. It’s changed the game.”
The physical nature of the action has also evolved. Fifas 13 and 14 were experimenting with the jostle between players, now Fifa 15 lets you hold down B to use your body instead of tackling. At first, you’ll bump against your rival, but if that’s unsuccessful, it will gradually evolve to shirt tugging. Maybe that’s the deal with Fifa 15 – everything is much more seamless and fluid; you don’t get those staccato changes in tempo that come with rigidly defined controls.
There are other nice additions. The team formation screen has been updated, allowing you to quickly assign specific tactics to each position. You can click on the photo image of your left-sided attacker, for example, and order him to make support runs, keep wide, stay central get in behind his fellow forward or drop short and defend. “You can set up your team to be a lot more tactical, to get them to play a specific style for you,” says Channon. And within the match, the d-pad can be used to plan set-pieces (a feature taken from the World Cup game) as well as to change player mentality on the fly.
Other changes sound just like the stuff we’ve been told in previous iterations. “Teams are now analysing situations in more depth,” says Channon. “If we’re playing and you’re 1-0 up with ten minutes to go, the AI will start to recognise the situation. My players will go into all-out attack; they’ll push more men forward - you’ll start to see more variety in play, it won’t feel as repetitive. We want the AI to feel like playing a human – they’re even time waste now, they’ll take the ball to the corner. We’ve got more intelligence in the wide areas too, players will more actively try to beat you to the ball.”
And while all this is going on, the game’s player and crowd animations track the narrative of the match too. “We’ve done a lot of work on the context of the matches, on players and teams knowing what’s at stake,” says Channon. “City v Liverpool is a big game, one of the biggest in the season, so that atmosphere will feel different, much more intense – the intelligent crowd know that. If it’s not going to well, they react.”
And it’s not going well for Liverpool. I start the scoring with a beautiful chipped goal from the 18-yard line, courtesy of Toure. Immediately he’s besieged by blue shirts, thanks to the new ten-man goal celebrations. The home crowd is deathly silent. I go on to claim a penalty and two more quick goals. I think Channon is distracted, or letting me win.
Whatever, its easy to get caught up in the atmosphere. The Fifa team recorded ambient sound at 20 Premier League matches last season, using multiple microphones, picking up on chants and jeers. And sure enough, from the far end, the sound of Blue Moon can be heard echoing through Anfield.
Fifa 15 is released on 23 September in North America and 25-26 September throughout Europe on most current platforms. Keith Stuart attended GamesCom on a press trip with accommodation and travel paid for by Electronic Arts. For information on paid-for trips, please see the Guardian editorial code or this article on transparency and trust.
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