"We've gone back to basics."
It's that time of year again, folks. Winter is loosening its cruel grip on the land. The sun has been sighted behind the clouds, and optimistic trees are starting to blossom. The football season is screwing itself tighter and tighter, or at least it would be, were it not for the lack of excitement in most of Europe's title races. But away from the actual football, this is also a time for the virtual game, as EA Sports starts to talk about the the latest edition in its universe-devouring FIFA series.
"This is the part where, for us, it gets really exciting," says Liturgy Plantpot, FIFA 14's blue-sky thinker. "This is the time where we get to present our new ideas for the game to the world, to excite gamers with our vision. And while I know we say this every year, I genuinely feel that this next FIFA game will be the finest we've ever made."
Your correspondent has been lucky enough to spend two hours with the new version of the game, and while we've only been able to play an early build, the changes are remarkable in their scope. Whereas recent versions of FIFA have felt, at times, like over-priced squad updates with hasty, poorly-thought-through 'innovations' tacked on, there is every chance that this new iteration will represent a genuine step forward.
Let's start with the cosmetic side of the experience. The first thing that gamers will notice is that menus have been stripped down to the barest of bones, and those bones have then been thrown out of the window. That baffling labyrinth of options, modes, preferences, tweaks, and counter-tweaks, which saw sub-menu sprout from lurid sub-menu like a cross between a Mandelbrot set and a migraine, has gone. No more Career Mode, no more Seasons, no more Ultimate Team: either you play a game of football, or you go and do something else.
Absent, too, is the music, that focus-grouped confection of terrible dance, terrible indie, and incongruous dollops of 'world' that virtually amounted to a new genre all its own. 'FIFAcore', the new sound of the suburbs, is no more, and Kasabian will have to try and sell their records on their own merits now. The very best of British with that, lads. Commentary has also been junked, replaced by EA Sports' new user-generated self-determined oral content system FaceNOISE(TM), which you may know better as The Shrill And Hectoring Sound Of Your Own Damn Voice.
Moving to the in-game experience, the presentation is all but unrecognisable. Where recent versions of the game have proudly boasted accurate stadium models, in-game match officials, simulated pitch conditions, scoreboards, streakers, and so on, here everything is stripped down to the absolute minimum. There's a pitch, two goals, and a ball. Only one choice of ball, too, which may frustrate those curious souls that like to devote hours to choosing their Nike advertising vehicle of choice (though personal modification may be possible). As for the pitch, EA have introduced a new Pulp and Press (or PaPre) modelling system for the playing surface, though some tearing was apparent in the early version.
Perhaps more controversially, EA have also removed the ability to choose your team, or even to distinguish between specific players. Generic graphical representations provide the basic outline, and Plantpot hopes that gamers will do the rest. "There were two reasons for this decision. One, we decided that, paradoxically, the more we attempted to provide options, the less freedom gamers actually had. In the last edition you were limited to only the teams we provided, though we provided a lot; here, by contrast, you are limited only by your imagination. We wanted to recapture some of the joy of dice cricket, and see not just Manchester United against Juventus but Mars against Venus, or Bald against Bearded, or Looney Tunes characters against an invitational XI of hopeless schoolday crushes. The possibilities are endless.
"And the second reason, of course, is that it will stop twelve-year-olds playing as flaming Barcelona every time."
But enough of all that, I hear you cry. How does it play? Well, stop crying, and I'll tell you. In essence, FIFA games have moved from one kind of irreality to another. The players used to glide over the surface of the pitch, unbothered by such trifling concerns as the rules of physics; nowadays they slog, hard, as though the move from an arcade experience to one with pretensions toward simulation had sunk the footballers up to the knees in custard. Initially, says Plantpot, EA Sports were focused on yet making yet another tiny step towards authenticity.
"But then we realised that authenticity, in the way we'd been imagining it, was complete nonsense. Most of the time, football's rubbish. Stoke are authentic. So we decided to make something that would be thoroughly unauthentic but hopefully fun. Which is why you move the ball around using cards."
Yes, everything is done with cards, right down to the success (or otherwise) of corners and the tactical advantages of a quick free-kick. Spread the play, counter-attack, waste time by your opponents corner-flag. This is obviously a radical departure from previous editions of FIFA, which have required some kind of gaming platform, but Plantpot is confident that they've regained the spirit of the series.
"Our second problem with authenticity was the sheer weirdness of the idea. If our gamers wanted the authentic football experience, they'd get up and go outside and run about. But they don't What they want, deep down, is the experience of existing as a kind of controlling entity within a footballing world, defined by them, that runs according to their wishes. They want, essentially, to be a meddlesome god.
"So once we realised that, we figured that we could just spend a few bob on buying the rights to this old sixties card game, let their imaginations do most of the work, and siphon the rest of the massive budget off into a series of untraceable offshore bank accounts. Between that, the plastic surgery, and the identity documents, you'll never hear from me again."