Version tested: PlayStation 4
There are two fundamental issues with FIFA 14 on current-generation consoles that seem to obscure all other discussion about it. The first is that aerial through-balls can be used to bypass the opposition's midfield with alarming frequency. The second is that the majority of matches feature at least one cheap headed goal. The rest of the game is good fun, if only marginally better than FIFA 13, but that's scant consolation when the other guy gets a free goal in the last minute and it knocks you out of the gold cup.
Aerial through-balls sometimes have a flatter trajectory on next-gen consoles - a result of new contextual animations that see players kicking and controlling the ball in a multitude of additional ways - but otherwise remain stupidly potent. If you're new to FIFA, here's a tip for free goals: hold down the left bumper at kick-off and pass the ball back to a midfielder, watch your striker sprint up the pitch, and then play a lofted through-ball towards him. It shouldn't take more than a handful of attempts before you're giving yourself a free goal-scoring opportunity every other time you start a match.
That's quite bad, then, but on the plus side EA has done something about the headers. The problem on current-gen - even after three patches - is that even tiny players can score towering headers from corners and crosses without the attacking player needing to worry much about positioning or timing. Defending players, meanwhile, often find themselves controlling the wrong player, caught under the flight of the ball or just unable to jump. On next-gen, this isn't what happens.
Part of this seems to be because more players jump into aerial challenges now, part of it seems to be that timing and positioning have become more important again, and part of it seems to be that the AI makes better choices for you when you hit the button to switch players. Whatever the ins and outs, the result is that cheap headed goals are now a rarity. You'll still concede the odd one, of course, but the majority of headed goals - when they do occur - feel like the logical result of the build-up that preceded them. Corners often result in goalmouth scrambles now rather than just goals.
It will be a few weeks before we can see whether the next-gen version is prone to other exploits, but in the meantime FIFA 14 is much more fun to play. The aerial through-balls are still annoying, but on balance I can live with those - the attacker still has to convert the opportunity, after all. It was the cheap headed goals that had me raging on Twitter every 15 minutes. Speaking as someone who plays a lot of FIFA online, I can't tell you how much this is going to improve my quality of life.
Beyond the exploits, FIFA 14 is fairly similar to last year's version in terms of the overall balance of play: a game where you alternate between heavy defensive pressing and fast-paced attacking. Think Borussia Dortmund or Southampton. When the opponent has the ball, you make sure you're always harassing him with the closest midfielder or defender, switching players as the ball moves around so you don't lose your shape. When you win the ball, you surge forward, hoping to take advantage of defensive gaps before opposing players can react to the loss of possession. The first ball out of defence is always critical.
Within that transition-heavy framework, FIFA 14 adds a range of new contextual shot animations, giving us the widest and most spectacular range of possible goals in the series' history, along with a muscular protect-the-ball button that increases the importance of each player's strength and agility. Players also shift their weight and accelerate differently. Individually these things take a little time to adapt to after a year sprinting around merrily in FIFA 13. Collectively, though, while they may mean you favour teams with stronger players rather than super-fast ones, they don't alter the overall balance that much.
FIFA 14 on next-gen doesn't make many alterations to this formula, but the one it does make has definitely improved the game. Dribbling in this year's current-gen instalment always felt a little jittery - as though you were constantly teetering on the edge of control - but dribbling on next-gen is much better. You can now move the ball around in tight spaces with greater confidence, even completing neat little one-twos in close quarters where you might previously have lost possession.
There's also a layer of graphical sheen to emphasise the generational upgrade. FIFA 14 on PS4 and Xbox One uses EA's new Ignite Engine, which increases the resolution to 1080p and allows the artists to show off a bit more after years making do with adjusting Wayne Rooney's hairline. Inevitably they have gone a little overboard in a few places, most notably with the kits. Shorts flap and jiggle ostentatiously at the slightest provocation, while shirts visibly crease and tense as players breathe or turn. Apart from a few glazed expressions, though, those players look and move far more authentically, collecting and moving the ball around in a lot of eye-catching ways that feel more dynamic.
There's a new default camera angle that frames the action more closely, too - all the better to savour the hyperactive attire. It's also there because EA has overhauled stadiums and transformed crowds from flapping cardboard cut-outs into heaving polygonal masses who now dance and jump in convincing celebration when things go their way. The already overblown match intros have been souped up again so you don't miss the crowds, while slow-motion clips at breaks in play often recycle earlier missed shots or close-ups of players sitting on the substitutes' bench, and there are plenty of new action replay angles.
You can skip most of this, of course, which also allows you to appreciate the responsiveness and fluidity of the presentation. Menus are quick to navigate, while throw-ins, corners and substitutions are much faster than they were on current-gen. One amusing side effect of this increase in speed is observing how many players get caught out by it. After a couple of months on current-gen, they now hammer the pass button to skip cut-scenes a second longer than necessary, often playing a short goal-kick to your attacker as a result.
It's not all good news on next-gen, though. The graphics may be richer and the exploits may be fewer (touch wood), but there have also been a few cuts to game modes. Career, Pro Clubs, Online Friendlies, Ultimate Team, Seasons, Co-op Seasons and Skill Games have all made it across intact - representing a huge amount of content, to be fair - but a whole page of modes from current-gen FIFA 14 have disappeared. Say goodbye, then, to Tournaments, FIFA Interactive World Cup, Be a Pro, Head to Head and the Creation Centre. Perhaps time was a factor, but the fact remains that EA is now selling FIFA 14 on next-gen with less content at a higher price.
If you can look past that and get over the through-balls, though, FIFA 14 on next-gen is the best version of the game. Modes like Career, Ultimate Team and Seasons are well thought out and will happily consume many hours of your time as you tinker and experiment, and while matches often follow a familiar pattern, it helps that that pattern is fast, exciting and frequently spectacular. It would be nice to see changes that allow for greater variation in build-up play next year, but in the meantime FIFA 14 with better dribbling and nerfed headers will do nicely.
8 / 10