At E3 Fifa coins we got the first glimpse of what is in store for FIFA 15, including the regular series of announcements regarding gameplay improvements. There are few areas of FIFA that haven’t seen significant changes since FIFA 07 heralded an era of enormous success for the franchise, yet the way we control the game has remained static. It is as a result of this that we are increasingly out of control when playing FIFA, passengers to an experience which is ever more frustrating, and ever less satisfying.
I increasingly see FIFA as a game designed for football heretics – for those who either don’t understand football and for those who are happy to entirely ignore how football works while they seek out the all important win. I’m weary of playing opponents whose strategy is to blindly pass their ball into attack before unleashing insanely ambitious lobbed through balls that come off more often than not. I’m sick of seeing even matches decided by headed goals that neither I, or my opponent had any real say in. I’m tired of trying to defend competently while the AI that is supposed to support me either nonchalantly ignores threats, or flat out creates them.
I am surely in the minority, but I see FIFA as a game in need of radical change, and a lot of the changes I desire to see relate to the way we control the game. Though EA have added a fair few modifiers over the years, which few know about and fewer still actually use, it is only with Tactical Defending that there was a real upheaval (and sadly, the feature is inaptly named). For the most part, FIFA’s controls seem sacrosanct, meaning that in FIFA 15 we can look forward to the same core mechanics we saw in FIFA 07.
Attacking play is simply ruled by assistance to passes, shots, and crosses. While there is nothing whatsoever wrong with the concept of offering assistance, FIFA’s assistance is the antithesis of good game design. Year after year, assistance is at the core of the most significant imbalances in the game, with FIFA 14’s lobbed through ball serving as a recent example. To this day I cannot believe EA released a game (or two, when you consider the last and current gen versions) with such an enormous balance issue. The lobbed through ball is so effective that many cannot do without it, with some players looking to play one every time they go forward. They are rewarded for it consistently, with the passes coming off more often than not, regardless of how ambitious the pass might be. It is common to see deft, defence destroying passes unleashed blind, and more and more frequently I see people attempting the lobbed through ball directly from kick off.
The outrageous efficiency of the lobbed through ball comes down to two primary factors: poor defensive AI, which is still useless when it comes to defending against attacking runs, particularly from fast players, and the extraordinary consistency of the passes regardless of context. It is galling to see users rewarded again and again for merely sending a fast man on a run and pressing a pair of buttons, but that is the essence of what assistance does. It takes one of the most important parts of football – the aim of passes, shots, and crosses – and gives almost all of the control to the computer.
In one fell swoop, EA massively reduces the set of possible passes, crosses, and shots, restricting us to what the unimaginitive assistance algorithms allow for. The game’s variety suffers enormously for it, and the user’s potential for creativity does too. Perhaps worst of all, by giving the computer the control that should rightly be ours, EA remove one of the main areas in which users could differentiate themselves.
One of the main reasons I play games is to showcase my ability. Good games reward me for my skill, and drive me to improve. Nothing is more satisfying than nailing a lap on a racing game, nailing a 500m headshot in Battlefield, faultlessly completing an obstacle course on a Trials game, or executing the perfect plan in a strategy game. FIFA’s assistance prevents me from deriving similar satisfaction, because I know it’s not me. In FIFA, the perfect pass is performed by pressing Triangle and L1 with a modicum of timing. In FIFA, the perfect shot can be achieved by pointing vaguely at the goal and tapping circle.
Not only does assistance remove potential satisfaction, it also increases potential for frustration. Because the assistance algorithm implies I am entirely incapable of doing anything but vaguely choosing who I want to pass to, it very often misinterprets what I want to do. Missed opportunities, or flat out mistakes are frequent in situations when the pass needs to be precise, and nothing is more frustrating than failing because of an algorithm meant to aid me.
Though I’m not planning on talking about solutions in this article, I want to immediately disclaim that this is not a call for EA to make everyone play manual. I believe in assistance, conceptually, I just feel FIFA’s current assistance options need to be replaced root and branch.
It’s a pity that we have so little control with passes, crosses and shots, but we still have remarkably more control over them than we do over an aerial battle. To a disturbing extent aerial battles are decided as soon as the cross is played. The deciding factors? The position of players in the box, which is entirely out of your control, the player that gets selected, which is entirely out of your control, the trajectory of the cross, which is assisted, and the attributes of the battling players, again, out of your control. Ostensibly, you can jostle to give yourself a better chance to win a header, but most of the time the player seems to reject your control. All in all, aerial battles are largely random, yet often the difference between a win and a loss.
Despite the irritation caused by lobbed through ball abuse and over frequent headed goals, its arguably in defence that FIFA’s controls are furthest from adequate, and paired with the defensive AI which can only be relied on to fail you, FIFA’s defending is left in a dilapidated, unenjoyable, and unrealistic state. The AI takes an almost entirely passive role in defence – they’ll move around to satisfy their heuristics but you won’t often see them tightly marking, applying pressure, covering runs or stepping up to apply a trap. The only real solution to the AI’s weakness, and the one used by so many online, is to defend deep with numbers – it is only as a wall that FIFA’s passive AI are up to the task.
The active part of the defence is always focused on one player – the selected player – and it is the extraordinary abilities of the individual defender in FIFA that counteract the defensive AI’s frailty. Tackles are triggered automatically and practically never miss, and using the contain function, a defender will mirror an attacker all too perfectly. Perhaps most importantly, defenders move so much more easily than ball carriers, with higher acceleration, higher top speed, and faster turning. This exaggeration of defensive capabilities results in a number of problems. Sprinting straight at/through the ball carrier is an alarmingly effective tactic for tackling the ball away, when it should primarily lead to tiring the defender, causing needless fouls, and getting beaten cheaply. Dribbling in tight space becomes nearly impossible, because proximity seems to be the only major factor with tackling. The defensive movement bias ensures that teams with relatively slow attackers are near useless, as however well you find space, however well you might get a man through on goal, the defenders will catch you.
The sad truth is though, that the over emphasised attributes of individual defenders are a necessity while defending as a team is so difficult. There can be no doubt that FIFA’s defensive AI must improve, but I’d argue much improvement can be made if we are given greater control over our teammates when defending. We will never be able to control a whole team one man at a time, but we could surely be given more control over the non-selected players, much like with Secondary Contain, but further reaching.
I want, in time, to talk about solutions to the problems I’m talking about above, but this is what I’ll leave you with for now. If you have read to the end, I always appreciate comments and am particularly interested to know what the community feels about the way FIFA controls, be it a comment about assists, aerial battles, defence, or something unmentioned.