It was the 85th minute in the season opening tilt against Real Salt Lake, and the situation was looking bleak for my San Jose Earthquakes as RSL lined up for a potential go-ahead penalty kick. Barring a miracle, the Quakes would be going down to a 2-1 defeat.
But a miracle was just what they got. The ball went off the crossbar, and right midfielder Catfish Bailey suddenly found the ball at his feet. With a burst of speed he broke away on the counter and slammed the ball home, leaping into the arms of hometown hero Chris Wondolowski as the crowd went berserk for their 19-year-old wunderkind.
EA's FIFA series has a knack for producing such moments, which helps explain in part why it's currently the most popular sports game on the market today. It's a series that year after year is tremendously polished, almost effortlessly toeing the line between being realistic and also fun to play. And though FIFA 15 on the face of it does not bring a lot of new additions to the table, its exceptional qualities don't take long to become apparent.
Like sister sims Madden NFL 15 and NHL 15, this year's addition of FIFA is primarily focused on polishing up the graphics, the physics, and the AI. Player movement in particular is more fluid, granting a greater degree of control when dribbling the ball, as was apparent when my alter ego broke past two RSL defenders to get a shot at a game-winning goal. The stadiums are also noticeably livelier than before, featuring crowds that will actually make the screen shake after a particularly momentous goal, holding up their scarves and singing afterward.
The graphical leap isn't as substantial as the one in Madden, but that's mainly due to the fact that FIFA was a great looking game to begin with. Madden has yet to match the sort of physical battles found in FIFA as players jostle for the ball, bump each other out of the way on setpieces, and generally bully lesser opponents with their size and strength. The shooting is getting more nuanced, too. On that breakaway goal, Catfish was able to just barely slot the ball between the legs of the on-rushing goalkeeper—an impressively detailed bit of animation that made for an amazing looking goal.
And speaking of the goalkeepers, their A.I. is much better this year. Granted, they can occasionally look painfully awkward as a ball rushes past them on Professional difficulty, but they are much more apt to save those rocket shots from outside the box that used to be FIFA's bread and butter. As a result, I've found myself playing more tactically, working through balls and crosses for more realistic-looking goals. My new approach is further aided by a revamped team management screen that allows me to designate a Target Man, select which players I want to stay back in defense, and choose whether I want my team countering or playing pressure offense—a welcome bit of nuance in a complicated game like soccer.
As always, FIFA's greatest strength is its accessibility. Even if you don't know the first thing about soccer, it's remarkably easy to learn the basics thanks to the Skill Games that pop up during the loading screens and the tutorials. The Men in Blazers podcast likes to call FIFA the "secret hand behind soccer's growth in America" in the way that it can take a total newcomer and make them fall in love with the sport. I know that's been the case for me—I didn't know the first thing about soccer when I picked up FIFA 10, but now I have season ticket to the San Jose Earthquakes. FIFA is infectious like that.
That accessibility is matched by its depth. Top to bottom, FIFA continues to have the most complete career modes out of all the sports games, despite receiving minimal improvements. Manager mode is a masterpiece, a lighter version of Football Manager in which players have personalities, storylines emerge organically, and narratives are tracked throughout the season. There's nothing quite like the Transfer deadline when sweating out negotiations with FC Porto as the clock ticks nearer deadline, followed by the rush of adrenaline when you get the message that the deal is complete. The Pro mode, for its part, may not be as extensive as the version found in NBA 2K, but simple to use and elegant in its execution, with plenty of unlockable customization options and an appropriate amount of manager feedback.
I've said it again and again, but FIFA gets it in a way that is rare in a sports sim. It understands that many players come in as fans first, and so it deftly weaves in many opportunities to express your fandom, whether in putting your favorite club's badge next to your name or letting you play each match via the Match Day functionality, complete with accurate lineups and commentary. I'm consistently impressed with the depth of detail that goes into its design, the little additions like the ability to take a player out for a test drive in FIFA Ultimate Team before investing hard-earned coins in them, and just how fun it is on the pitch. Other sports sims may do certain things better, but FIFA 15 is easily the most complete sim around, boasting the best Manager mode, the best online mode, the best Ultimate Team mode, and on-field gameplay matched only by that of NBA 2K and maybe MLB: The Show.
Basically, I love this game, and I wish more sports sims would follow in its footsteps. If you're looking for criticism, I suppose I would say that it's time for FIFA to introduce the Women's World Cup, which would have really put this version over the time. An honest-to-goodness online career mode that I can play with my friends would be nice as well. The rest is mostly nitpicking balance issues, like the fact that speedy players are once again a little too powerful, which became apparent when Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie had a field day abusing Italy's slow-footed defense. It's not what I would call game-breaking by any means, but it does mean that it takes a little more skill to be successful with some teams than others.
As for whether it's a substantial enough improvement over FIFA 14 to warrant plunking down $60, I would say that FIFA 15 clears that bar with relative ease. The on-field play is noticeably better than last year, and all the little changes to the A.I. and the presentation rapidly add up. Paired with a bevy of already outstanding gameplay modes, I would say that FIFA 15 easily has a couple hundred hours in it even if you've already put time into previous versions. I certainly have every intention of continuing to play FIFA 15 into next year and beyond.
As for the future, it's really hard to say. Every year I wonder how EA Canada can make material improvements without breaking the game and cooking their golden goose, but every year they manage to surprise me, as they've done with FIFA 15. It's for that reason that FIFA remains secure in its position as the best all-around sports sim, and should remain at the top of the heap for the forseeable future.
FIFA is one of the best-looking sports sims around, boasting fluid animation, high-quality physics, and lively stadiums.
Martin Tyler and Alan Smith are a bit dry, but FIFA augments their commentary with nice bits of info about upcoming matches and player news. The stadiums are much louder and livelier than before.
FIFA's controls are simple and elegant, and the revamped Team Management screen is a nice touch. Menus are fluid and load quickly in comparison to other sports sims.
Between its peerless online play, high-quality career modes, and extremely enjoyable on-field play, FIFA 15 is easily worth a hundred hours or more of playtime.
FIFA 15's improvements don't jump out right away, but they rapidly manifest themselves in smarter teammates, livelier stadiums, and more tactical gameplay. Beyond that, FIFA 15 is still a remarkably polished and complete experience, boasting excellent career modes and a variety of touches like Seasons mode and Match Day Live that remain unmatched by other sports sims. NBA 2K may yet challenge it for supremacy, but for now, FIFA remains the best all-around sports sim on the market.