In modern football, it is the playmakers we idolise; the magicians who can orchestrate attacks as well as score. Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Andrea Pirlo, Lionel Messi … mostly, they are deep-lying forwards or creative midfielders; they don't get in on the end of long, lofted passes, they sculpt goals. This is where Fifa 14 wants to go.
Every year, when the latest Fifa is shipped, the team gets together, sifts through feedback, from within the studio and from customers, and works out where to go next. This time there was a rather weighty conclusion: Fifa is too fast. There is something about the system, the physics, the controls, whatever that leads toward end-to-end gameplay. All the action is happening around the 18-yard area. Everything is compressed.
"That's not as realistic as we'd like," says series producer Nick Channon as he introduces a roomful of journalists to the latest instalment. "When you look at the modern game, it's much more about building up through the midfield. The best teams move the ball around, switch sides, attack on the wings, they attack from everywhere – that's something we want to bring into Fifa. The exhilaration of scoring great goals isn't just about the shot, it's about how you get there."
So for Fifa 14, the big emphasis is on build-up play, on anticipation and on off-the-ball movement; it's about driving through the midfield, rather than lofting balls over it. For a start, the team has completely re-worked how dribbling at speed works. It turns out that in most football simulations, when the gamer hits the sprint button, the onscreen player is limited to a turning circle of just 22.5 degrees – which means you get these long, wide turning arcs. Fifa 14 has done away with that; you'll now be able to turn at any angle while sprinting, leading defenders up the pitch before darting back, or winding through opponents.
To ensure this isn't over-powered, however, the movement physics is getting a new addition: momentum. Now, if your player quickly changes direction, or turns completely, you'll get a brief pause as they transfer weight from one foot to the other. Channon runs through early footage of a sharp about turn on screen, and the effect looks immediately more authentic. Beyond that, we didn't get any hands-on time so I've no idea how losing this historic 22.5-degree turning circle is going to affect things, but it should make for much less predictability in the midfield. Which is the whole point, of course.
On that note, Fifa 14 is also set to build on last year's first-touch control system, which varies how effectively a player receives the ball depending on his skill, position and the speed and angle of delivery. This time, EA Sports is introducing variable dribble touches, so sprinting players will push the ball forward at differing distances, again based on their skills; a stylish midfielder will keep the ball close to them, but a hulking defender may well push it out further, giving opposing players the chance to steal possession. Whatever, the days of having the ball stick to the runner's feet are over. "It will transform how you think about spiriting," says Channon.
What we're getting so far is a shift in balance toward defenders, and that continues into the demo. The next big change is in marking, which Channon feels tended to be loose enough in Fifa 13 for players to turn defenders reasonably easily. Now it's being tightened up, thanks to a change to the AI. Apparently, in previous iterations of the game, computer-controlled players would make their defensive decisions in a single frame of animation, often breaking away from attackers if another forward player was spotted in a threatening position. Now they assess situations over multiple frames which means they're less likely to act on split-second decisions, instead staying focused to track the player on the ball.
But these was all shown through demo videos – there is no hands-on code right now. The team is still tweaking the parameters and the animation. Channon did show us a video that one of the QA testers sent him on his mobile phone – it shows the replay of a beautiful goal scored from way outside the box, caught perfectly on the volley, the ball barely rising above ground level, wavering in the air and tucking in beyond a flailing keeper and the near post. Channon can barely disguise his delight.