When is a game not a game? Because 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, when judged against your average triple-A release, has some pretty major shortcomings. Firstly: its value to you will grow and grow and then suddenly nosedive the day after the World Cup final. If you buy on release day, that's around 88 days of Rio-related fun and then it may as well self-destruct in your disc-drive. Online opponents will become harder and harder to find, the tie-in online content will suddenly become unavailable. And that's overlooking the fact that English readers will be pining for their club teams after a few hours spent in the company of Roy Hodgson's England.
40 quid for almost three months of playtime may be a happy enough transaction for your average fan, but then there's the matter of the game itself. EA Sports 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil is not a sequel to FIFA 14 - not in any sense that it attempts to correct problems with its predecessor's match engine, at any rate. EA's made it no secret that it focuses more on novice gamers for these souvenir releases, and so the main innovations are to be found around hand-holding 'Dad'-mode tutorials and the mounds of atmosphere-building content. This is not FIFA 15. It's barely FIFA 14.5, and it's not even coming out on PS4 or Xbox One.
We shouldn't be too critical of these consumerist concessions; playing a footy game during a footy tournament is about as broadly appealing as console experiences get, and it's fun to play against friends and relatives who've barely ever picked up controllers before. And the presentation, as has become expected from EA, really is top-notch, from an opening ceremony complete with CG samba dancers to in-game radio stations that allow you to choose between Blokesport's Andy Goldstein and the slightly nervous-sounding football hipsters Men in Blazers - all broadcasting as if the tournament had already started, something that borders on the surreal as you sit shivering in British April. Throw in live, in-game injury updates and bespoke match-day challenges and it feels like everything's been thought of to get you into a World Cup frenzy.
This is what EA is good at. This is what they do. The trouble is that all this fanfare, all this garnish, surrounds a central gameplay experience which still feels lacking.
The first thing I did when I was asked to do this review was fire up FIFA's 2010 World Cup game. I'd remembered it as one of the best match engines of the last five years and was curious to see how it had aged.
Would I say I preferred it? No. While the crisp passing and faster transitions were more in keeping with the classic PES days of yore, the evolution of ball physics and dribbling controls over the last four years really has taken the game forward. It's easy to get romantic about FIFAs past, but striding through one-on-one as Emile Heskey from a cheap, chipped-through ball and curling the ball effortlessly into the top corner using the right bumper is, thankfully, something we've all now left behind.
Not that EA Sports Budweiser 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil won't have its cheap exploits, of course. Pace is still perhaps a little too effective a weapon and I still feel that tipping the game's balance towards player skills and away from patient passing moves can result in increasingly predictable games, especially as you progress up the difficulty curve. Learning the rhythms of pressing and tackling is vital, and until you do, even Costa Rican strikers will be waltzing through your defence with comparative ease.
More than anything, it all just feels a bit slow compared to its great-great-great-great-grandfather, as illogical as that sounds. Every time EA trumpets new animations and dribbling controls (this year they've called it World Class Control, for what it's worth) it tends to result in a noticeable drop-off in turning speeds, midfield congestion and ultimately less expansive games. Saying all this, if you're happy enough with FIFA 14 you probably already know what you're letting yourself in for.
Other additions to the engine include set-piece tactics, giving you the option of crowding the keeper at a corner, for example; over-the-back headers, supposedly balancing out the problem of mismatched aerial duels, though I found them a little unpredictable; and tweaks to penalty kicks, dumbing them down but also allowing the keeper to try and put off the opponent with various animations (which strangely reminded me of taunts in WWE games). As you can probably imagine, none of these have a huge impact on the game but they've diverting enough if and when you notice them.
Of course, as mentioned previously, this game offers nothing like the longevity of the annual release (Ultimate Team, for example, is excluded, though for understandable reasons). But this has at least been compensated for with a wide variety of gameplay modes. Captain Your Country offers a pretty challenging Career Mode experience, while Story of Qualifying brings a footballing Spec-Ops equivalent, taking over teams mid-match in real-life qualifying scenarios - a great way to familiarise yourself with other squads and a much-needed injection of variety in terms of the single-player experience. As a man who has already ordered his World Cup wall chart, the more ways I can immerse myself in tournament-related activites and fuel anticipation before the big kick-off, the better. How much you're willing to spend on that extra enthusiasm is, I suppose, the key question.
In an ideal world, EA Sports FIFA Coca-Cola Budweiser World Cup 2014 Brazil would be an add-on for FIFA 14, released free through sponsorship and made by a maverick team of producers who understood the nuances of international football and, in turn, how those nuances could be translated into a uniquely enjoyable and challenging expression of the beautiful game, delighting both gaming newbies and obsessives alike. As it is, Sepp Blatter's EA Sports FIFA Coca-Cola Budweiser World Cup 2014 Brazil is partly a game many of its audience will already own, and partly a very, very well made promotional souvenir - one that will aid your enjoyment of this summer's festivities hugely, but that doesn't quite justify its price tag.
7 / 10