By now, Ultimate Team's evolution from a cool add-on into the most popular mode in the whole FIFA series is well documented. EA Sports' fantasy football-inspired game lets you build a squad of players from around the world, tinkering with formations and player chemistry, before taking on other players or AI teams in actual games of FIFA. Playing matches earns you coins, which you spend on the transfer market as you seek to strengthen. It's a potent concoction that keeps many players going all year round.
But even in its current form as the bedrock of FIFA 14, it is still far from perfect. Perhaps the most fundamental issue is that it has always felt like a free-to-play game tacked on to what is already a premium purchase. Although it is possible to play Ultimate Team without spending any money, the emphasis is very much on buying packs that contain players to ease your progress, and it takes a long time to earn the in-game coins to do this, compared to a very short time to buy FIFA Points to pay for them instead.
FIFA World, which recently entered worldwide open beta, suggests EA Sports sees a future beyond this flawed but successful model. It's a free-to-play FIFA game that is, for now at least, available on PC only, and it consists of an Ultimate Team mode that is extremely similar to the one in the most recent FIFA games and a League Teams mode similar to the main series' Online Seasons. The gameplay engine is a little behind its big brother, but not as far as you might imagine, while the monetisation is always in your face but not as coercive as you might fear. In fact, my experience was often to the contrary.
The lack of aggressive monetisation may just be because this is an open beta and EA wants to ease people in, but if it were to remain this gentle then it might just wash away the bitter taste of the Dungeon Keeper fiasco. FIFA World's Ultimate Team still encourages you to buy packs, and flashes the famously elusive Team of the Week players in menus to entice players further, but without that initial outlay on the main game, spending a little money on FIFA World now and then feels more acceptable. Or at least it would, but I've played 50 matches so far and haven't felt it necessary to spend anything.
This is partly because I already know Ultimate Team well, so I'm able to avoid difficulties that might push new players towards the store (such as running out of player contracts or suspensions impacting a threadbare squad), but another part of it is that FIFA World is more generous with its rewards. As well as earning a decent wedge of coins for every game, which is standard for Ultimate Team, a set of 'Accomplishments' lavish you with bonuses and packs for doing things like levelling up, scoring with players from specific teams or winning a certain number of matches.
Otherwise Ultimate Team in FIFA World is recognisably Ultimate Team from FIFA, although FIFA World's genesis before the release of FIFA 14 means that it feels like a bit of a hybrid of old and new. Item design and interface are straight out of FIFA 14, but the underlying systems are older. FIFA 14 got rid of favoured formations as a way of improving player chemistry, which made it awkward and expensive for users to experiment with different formations, but FIFA World still relies on this, while chemistry styles - the cards that permanently increase a player's stats in certain areas - are absent. It's also not possible to search the transfer market by player name or compare the prices for items you have in your inventory. These things all made FIFA 14 superior to its predecessors, so it would be nice to see them in FIFA World.
Elsewhere, the monetisation in League Teams mode is also quite generous. In League Teams you pick any real-world team or country (FIFA World has a similarly vast dragnet of licences to the main series) and earn points for wins or draws, aiming for targets that save you from relegation or get you promoted to a higher skill bracket. Playing a match spends a "match credit" and you have five of these to start with. In theory, when they run out you either have to wait a few hours to unlock another one for free or you need to spend money.
But you can also pay for match credits using the in-game coins you earn playing in Ultimate Team, something the game is always in a hurry to remind you. Not only that, but the lower divisions set very gentle points targets, and meeting any of them restores your five credits. Maintaining that low-cost balance between credits, coins and progress gets more difficult as you reach higher brackets, but for the time being I find it harder to run out of match credits than anything else.
FIFA World also plays a respectable game out on the pitch, although it does lag behind the most recent versions of FIFA in several key respects. Matches last around eight minutes and it's still a fast-paced game of zippy, inch-perfect passes that seesaws from end to end, taking in crunching tackles and an overabundance of simple one-two through-balls on the way, but it lacks FIFA 14's enhanced physicality and refinements to the controls. It isn't quite FIFA 13 either. I went back to that game on PlayStation 3 and was reminded of its huge emphasis on player pace, whereas FIFA World's crop of players feel a little more sluggish and lose the ball cheaply. Visually, too, it falls some way short of modern FIFA; perfectly acceptable to look at it but lacking any bells and whistles.
Curious about the origins of FIFA World, I asked EA Sports and was told that the game "harvested technology and features, including the Player Impact Engine, from across the FIFA franchise to create an optimal experience. It utilises HD console gameplay, designed specifically for FIFA World, with controls and gameplay that are unique to this game."
Perhaps the biggest difference is that goals feel less thrilling in FIFA World. It's possible to find the net from range, but spectacular efforts are harder to conjure up than they have become in the main series, while close-range goals often feel rather soft, coming from low, scuffed drives or by passing the ball round the keeper to another striker. With that in mind, I'm not sure it's "an optimal experience" yet, although it has enough of the FIFA DNA to keep you going across dozens of matches, during which you'll still encounter various spectacular moments. (The unique controls EA mentioned, incidentally, are keyboard-only and keyboard-and-mouse affairs, although I found both to be much less efficient and flexible than plugging in a trusty old Xbox 360 gamepad.)
Long term, the real question for me is how FIFA World will cope with the other fundamental problem with FIFA's most prosperous game mode: the annual transition. Currently each new FIFA game means a blank slate in FUT - you don't take your in-game coins or players forward from the existing game - and while this is irritating for users it works well for EA, because the business people don't have to worry about users retaining their best squads and running out of reasons to buy packs.
In its current form, FIFA World has no answer to this, and it will need one if it's intended to run for a number of years. FIFA World also has to worry about its gameplay engine becoming out of date over time, and handling the transition to something shinier and more recent may be similarly tricky. FIFA World is only in beta, of course, so we can expect changes over time, perhaps even dramatic ones, as EA Sports wrestles with the brave new world it's entering. Hopefully some of its early tussles will be with lingering bugs, like the way the game sometimes hangs at the end of a match, and the addition of other tournament setups beyond the basic offerings available today.
In the meantime, FIFA World is an impressively solid entry into the world of PC free-to-play, and not at all the sort of game that brings to mind EA's recent fumbles with SimCity or the disastrously monetised Dungeon Keeper. The game itself takes some of the best parts of the main FIFA series and repackages them in a way that even hardcore fans can appreciate, although they will find the standard of opposition is generally lower, while the monetisation in its current form is far from the gouging monstrosity some may have anticipated.
FIFA World may not be the final representation of Ultimate Team as a free-to-play game, then, and it's not quite ready to replace FIFA 14 Ultimate Team as the FIFA fan's preferred vintage due to its slightly ageing gameplay, but it is an entertaining proof-of-concept and a hint of the series' future beyond annual discs.
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