Electronic Arts chose the Vicente Calderón Stadium, home of Atlético Madrid, for its first round of presentations of FIFA 15. Game producers Nick Channon and Sebastián Enrique took charge of showing the new graphics, controls and AI that feature in the newest version of the ultimate soccer simulator, and we had a chance to see the demo.
The best FIFA yet?
Attending journalists seemed to have only one question – is FIFA 15 really that much of an improvement on FIFA 14? By the time the presentation was through, there was only one possible answer – Yes. EA has surprised us again, just maybe not in the way expected. Basically, the changes aren’t that spectacular or jaw-dropping. Instead, FIFA 15’s improvement are more basic and structural, with the AI and soccer simulator combining to give us a game that’s better conceptually, rather than just physically.
Of course, graphics and visuals are better, as we’d expect from the 2nd year with the newest gen FIFA. If you scratch the surface, however, you’ll see the improvements you’re going to read about which, although might not be super newsworthy, are definitely very important.
Emotion and intensity
If there’s one message that’s been broadcast loud and clear, it’s that this year, FIFA is all about emotion. There’s a new layer of simulation called “Emotion and Intensity” that you’ll find underneath the other, tangible elements, like control, graphics and game modes. It’s invisible, a series of applied techniques that add just the extra degree of emotion that soccer always provokes.
The part that surprised me most was the new layer of AI that controls the emotions of all 22 players when they’re on the pitch. This “emotion engine” controls how the players interact with each other to such an extent that everything that happens effects their attitude. Take this example: a striker is marking a defensive player tightly and ends up kicking him. The defense will actually get mad and the aggression between the two will grow.
The same happens with good decisions and mistakes within a team. If the goalie has a bad day and ends up making mistakes, his teammates will criticize him and complain, even gesticulating at him or shouting.
Bear in mind, though, that this “emotion AI” only effects game visuals (cut scenes and animations between games). A bad – or good – attitude doesn’t affect player stats – they’ll just keep playing at their level.
Other aspects that bring even more emotion to games are the fans. The stands are filled with color and movement, songs and dances. In this aspect, FIFA 15 is the best sports game I’ve seen to date, and maybe even the best crowd ever – the stands seem entirely realistic.
For the last few years, we haven’t really seen major graphical improvements from one year to another, but they haven’t stood still either. This is FIFA’s second year on new gen consoles, and the graphics introduced last year already seem to be looking more like the graphics we were expecting.
Players already look more natural and human, so to speak. Animations have improved significantly, and there’s significantly more of them. EA explained that these transitional micro-animations have completely changed the game. There are more movements, for a start, and they’re much more realistic. This translates into very organic control with the gamepad.
If I had to pick just two things from what I saw in the presentation, the first would be the lighting system. It’s incredibly realistic, with a TV-like effect from the very first minute. Gone are the dim lights and dark shadows we saw in other years. What we see now is a brilliant, eye-catching game.
The second point would be the way the pitch dynamically deteriorates. Every step, every fall, tackle or shoot affects the pitch in one way or another. It happens in real time, calculated to exactly match the player’s actions. In other words, the pitch doesn’t get torn up more or less according to what the players do: it’s modified exactly as a real pitch would be affected by each and every move a player makes.
Besides these details, you can expect a much more next-gen visual experience. Weather is much more realistic, as are its effect on the pitch. Players will slide around in the mud, fog will interact with the lighting, and the ball physics are better. Ultimately, they are very small improvements, but there are a lot of them, and they all add up to make FIFA 15 one of the most spectacular sports games ever.
It’s very difficult to improve a game’s sim without also improving the AI. This year, the focus is on team intelligence. Players controlled by the AI don’t just play like individuals; now, they play like they have an understanding of the team vision and evolution of the game. If a team is winning comfortably and it’s near the end of the match, for example, they might autonomously see fit to add a catenaccio to the mix. If they’re losing, meanwhile, they’ll attack more energetically, even if that means leaving their defense at risk.
This is nothing new in itself, but the fluidity they do it with is much more innovative. The player thinks for himself, understands the concept of a game, sees advantages and disadvantages, and plays tactically, all like a human would. This makes solo games (against the machine) more interesting, and games with friends even more challenging.
Even though FIFA 15 contains lots of new animations that make you think that the game control is slower and heavier, you couldn’t be further from the truth. The games I saw at the presentation left no room for doubt – control was fast and accurate. The micro-animations make the players easier to move, and the ball control more realistic.
To take an example, a big change here is that each players’ dribbling style is personalized. Every player has his style in real life, and the player’s movements and interactions with the ball within the game will leave doubtless as to which player you are.
Finally, changes to ball physics allow it to move and turn in the air more realistically.
More coming in August
This was the first point of contact with one of the most eagerly-awaited games of the year. Electronic Arts has promised more details in August, but at the moment, they estimate that FIFA 15 is about 50% – 60% complete. That means there’s still plenty of work to do, and even more room for improvement. We still don’t know anything about game modes, licenses, or leagues, but we do know one thing: Ultimate Team mode is back, this time with 40 Golden Packs distributed over 40 weeks.