How FIFA, with good reason, changed over the years to become something completely apathetic to me, my issues with it and…Coldplay?
Have you ever felt like you’re left behind by the progression and the natural evolution of something you hold dear for the complete opposite reasons everyone else likes it? It’s frustrating, not the least because you understand where the other side comes from (you may actually agree with many of their points) but also because your passion, your reasons for loving something feel less important. That’s how I feel about FIFA; a title whose popularity came from its excellent co-op gameplay, thus the natural progression towards online multiplayer was signaled very clearly throughout the years and-rightfully so- ended up in, pleasing almost everyone in the process; but its diminished focus and care on different aspects of the experience left me entirely indifferent and completely frustrated with each returning release.
But first of all: A bit of backstory on my history with the FIFA franchise and its long history in video games. I have a shitty memory, meaning I can’t remember a lot about my childhood; two of my most vivid memories before the age of seven are: banging my head across the sharp edge of a table and requiring stitches; the intro to FIFA 1998: Road to the World Cup with Blur’s Song 2 (if you haven’t seen it, treat yourself to some insane and incoherent football things). I’ve played FIFA religiously since then and I have not missed one since; I still remember the “fights” between people who liked PES more and those who liked FIFA more, I remember when FIFA was losing that battle, in the public discourse and when it gained that ground back returning as the king of football games. So what changed recently, why have I had enough of FIFA?
The answer to that requires a bit of knowledge on the football sim scene in video games. FIFA is 1/3 of the major annual releases in football games; the others being PES and Football Manager. From those 3, exclude Football Manager (FM) because it’s a beast of its own where tactics, simulation, gameplay and realism are handled “differently” than the other two releases; to make a video game analogy, FIFA and PES are the annual FPS releases while, Football Manager is a military RTS. They are similar but only superficially. Add to the limited amount of options a buyer has, the fact that FIFA is what all my friends are playing, I am used to the way it handles and has all the licenses and you can see why switching FIFA for PES isn’t as simple as it sounds; it’s like asking someone who plays only Street Fighter to switch to Tekken. However, if all that’s required is time then why don’t I just dedicate the time to learn PES? Besides my friends playing FIFA each year, it’s the licenses and the type of experience I want to have with a game like FIFA: wish fulfillment. In a game like FM, the balance that needs to be struck is making the game as realistic as possible with it still being a game. With PES the experience they are after is making the game as fun as possible since they don’t have the licenses nor the technology to make it seem realistic. FIFA tries to strike a balance between realism and fun, sort of like a tactical shooter, but usually doesn’t commit in either, so that the game isn’t bogged down by an unnecessary fixation on realism or is too arcadey to put off football fans who only want to play as their favorite team.
FIFA-besides the latest 2 entries- had a balance of fun gameplay and realism; it was a good analogy of the intricacies of football that immersed the player in the experience with a mix of “state of the art” graphics and official licenses to create the illusion of realism, but never forgot to be fun, with responsive controls that prioritized player input over real-life restrictions or place too much emphasis on statistics. They were not perfect at it; for a long time FIFA was an unbalanced mess that favored speed over physical strength or technical prowess. However, in my mind, those mistakes were made with the intention of making the game as fun and as exhilarating to play as possible, which should not forgive the execution but if a talented and well-supported group of developers-like the team behind FIFA- have the right intend, then the execution would arrive shortly; which it did, but in a worst game.
So what changed in FIFA 17&18 that screwed up the series for me? On the surface, FIFA 17 changed everything. The games utilized the frostbite engine (mainly used for EA’s online shooters) introduced new modes, and reinvigorated stagnated modes like Career mode with a brand-new look and loop as well as promising fan-demanded improvements on gameplay elements such as set-pieces. Going into FIFA 17 then, I was expecting an improved experience but what I got was a bug-filled, backwards stepping experience that illuminated the deep-rooted problems I’ve had with the series for a while; the changing and evolving focus of the series on online modes-coupled with the annual release and limited development time- meant that purely single-player modes were beginning to become less polished and stagnating. First of all, there were the gameplay related issues; with the brand-new engine, FIFA decided to showcase its impressive rendering capabilities to immerse the player in the stadiums and atmospheres football is known for, the stars of football that were faithfully recreated as facial expression, likeness, movements, celebrations and even tattoos that the series left the ‘uncanny valley’ territory and entered the visually impressive territory which is great when it works as intended; but it mostly doesn’t. In gameplay terms, this obsession with realism often left me frustrated as the engine had a lot of input lag; that means that either the animations corresponding to each input take far too long to complete or are not instantly executed.
Thus, in gameplay terms, FIFA 17 took a huge leap backwards, making the game feel laggy and unresponsive. Other “improvements” had similar results; set-piece taking was altered into a confusing mess with the throw-ins as a “high” point of baffling decision-making where the change of the taker can only be done automatically if you wait and don’t touch the controller with no manual choice available. In spite of this I still would have enjoyed FIFA 17, had I not hit the breaking point which the seriously messed up state the Career mode shipped in. There are too many bugs to list them all but here are a few that happened to me in no particular order: Having a player make his debut in every match he participated in, players getting sold without my consent and without warning, have players sold but never leaving or receiving any funds for them which in turn makes them unsellable unless I terminate their contract; these are but a few instances of bugs in a single career save. Furthermore, the longer the session was the more unstable the game would get; after 3 matches back to back I would start encountering teams that played all-out attack from the very first minute or the referee giving out cards like free leaflets in a mall. But even if I was willing to disregard these issues as a “one-off” by-product of switching to an engine that was created mainly for online shooters or simply “bad luck”, the content layered beneath these bugs is what made me give up on FIFA altogether.
Because that content, is FIFA 18’s Career Mode: No bugs, no performance issues, just… disappointing. When the new take on Career mode was shown back in E3 2016 I was pretty excited; the new take on the mode was to feature a dynamic objective system, more realistic transfers, and a new scouting system. Had those elements worked, all that would be left needing improvements would be the youth system and then Career mode would be as close to perfect as it ever was. However, it was what they promised it was not: a re-skin. Career modes of previous years were criticized for simplifying a manager’s job to ‘finish as high as possible’ and that is exactly what the newest iteration of career mode requires of you, without fixing any of the transfer related issues or the youth system or basically any aspect of the mode. For example, the Career mode of FIFA 18 showcased a new, interactive transfer negotiation mechanic, new UI improvements and advanced AI in regards to making transfers feel more realistic.
This is what the transfer negotiation cut-scene looks like in FIFA 18.
Each one of those attempts fails spectacularly in achieving their goal; the new mechanic is basically a skipable cutscene that adds nothing besides awkward pauses and is weirdly unrealistic (I managed to complete 5 signings in under a day) for a series that is chasing realism like a stray dog chasing cars. The new UI changes things for change’s sake making everything more confusing (I spent 10 minutes looking for the contracts of my players) and the AI is incredibly unrealistic right off the bat (an example that popped into my head was Walcott leaving Everton-who just joined them in the January transfer window- on a free transfer within the first week of my career). The only positive new feature added is when I see those lovingly created models of real-life managers rage quit due to my generic and dull character model’s insatiable greed, which makes me laugh every, single time.
This is a generic manager model, but just imagine Jungen Klopp’s model in its place. Also, yes my manager name is Gluten Klopp.
These new attempts to inject life into a stagnating mode have been doomed to fail, because they do not have vision for what the mode can be and what is needed to get there; for example, the new transfer interactions allow you to conclude a deal in the final moments of the transfer deadline, which was an issue in previous iterations. However, they also allow you to conclude all of your business within a day, so I concluded 5 transfer signings in a single day towards the end of June, which is insane for any team in the world. Plus the persistent problems the mode has such as the impressively, bad youth and training systems that are both unrealistic and annoying to interact with and it ended up feeling like I was playing a game that took a couple of steps forward and dozens back towards an ever closing cliff. Career modes in FIFA used to be about one thing: wish fulfillment. The series did a great job allowing the player to manage any licensed team, conjure a plan on how to use the resources and players provided to elevate the team beyond their current ability and execute it. It is incredibly rewarding to take control of a real-life team-that you either support or like- and achieve all that you wished they could achieve in real life; if you want your team to give more chances to youngsters for example, you can do that in Career Mode.
That doesn’t mean that the previous iterations got close to nailing this experience, it means that they tried or, at the very least, made changes that intended to drive the mode towards that goal. When the training system was changed from a staff system (you had coaches on different aspects of training, e.g. defense, with different ability levels) which was a good analogy of reality-where richer teams could afford more able staff members-to a ‘slots’ system (you place players with different ability/potential levels to focus on, while everyone else improves/declines depending on their age, their playing time etc.) you could see the merits of that system over the previous one in making a better experience with more tactical considerations and greater freedom; for example, you can now train a youngster without giving him playtime until he is ready for it. But when FIFA 18 introduced an “interactive” transfer system it added very little and subtracted a lot; for example, in previous iterations you chose from a pool of generic faces when creating a new manager but because you never saw that face again, you could pretend that you were yourself or your favorite manager. In FIFA 18, you choose from a pool of generic faces and you see them constantly up against the impressive recreation of real managers, thus besides the drawbacks of the new system it also breaks immersion.
The big difference in FIFAs of yester year and current ones is that when older FIFA titles introduced or changed something it was because there was a genuine intent to improve and deliver a vision of the mode, while the modern FIFAs introduce something because they had the assets made from working on the ‘Journey’ mode and change things superficially so the illusion of improvement is maintained, and they can solely focus on the incredibly popular and-due to the micro-transactions- unbelievably profitable online modes.
Before I conclude this article I’d like to briefly expand on the other single player mode: The Journey. Long story short, I don’t like this mode; it’s a safe, cliché riddled story that does nothing interesting with the concept, while gameplay wise it’s the same as the base game and in some occasions worst-for example the training system that requires the player to complete generic and not fun mini-games (they are only fun when played in co-op or waiting for the match to load) to improve their stats every day before the weekend where you actually get to play a match. However, I do think there is potential in this mode should the developers decide to take risks. For example, I think it would be a really nice narrative and gameplay twist if instead of playing as a young rising star working towards improving your overall rating and your position in the squad, if you were placed in the shoes of an aging star returning to his boyhood club at the twilight of an illustrious career to see out what little playing time he has left; instead of working towards improving your overall rating you would be striving to keep it from free-falling and instead of playing with the best, you would be playing with the rotation players on cup ties trying to prove you still have what it takes. That is a risky, bold and interesting premise I would happily try at the very least.
To sum up this overtly long and unnecessary article, I would like to give the analogy I give to my friends when they ask me why I don’t like this game: “It’s become Coldplay”. For me Coldplay was a band that mixed pop with alternative rock in such a way that made them one of the few bands my friends and I could listen to without boring each other. We all have different tastes in entertainment and especially in music, but Coldplay were the ones nobody complained when we heard them, so whenever I was in charge of music I put on Coldplay so everyone was happy. However, after “Mylo Xyloto” Coldplay started making the sensible transition to a mostly pop band which from any standpoint was the logical and correct evolution of the band; their existing fans enjoyed the transition while they attracted more mainstream attraction than the one they already had. But for me they went too far in that direction and have not heard them since. Similarly, FIFA was the perfect mix of couch co-op gameplay that everyone adores and single player wish fulfillment that kept me coming back for years; however it was pretty clear that the majority of players were there for the couch co-op experience. Thus, the logical, natural and correct evolution of the franchise would be online multiplayer and when that worked out brilliantly for them, they have kept focusing and pushing that aspect of the game harder with each passing year; with the couch co-op element being left in its near perfection state. However, the single player aspects took a back seat and are now, in my opinion, in a pretty dire state; which is why FIFA isn’t for me anymore. Sure I’ll keep going to a gaming café and play for an hour with friends and sure I’ll eventually buy it when it is dirt cheap after 8 months since its release, but I won’t care for it anymore, I won’t anticipate its release and it won’t influence my life like it used to. It will just be another game, just like Coldplay, after years of loving their stuff, became just another band.