As the football season starts to enter its final furlong across the major European leagues, I've found myself once again sucked into the FIFA tidal wave that tends to dominate my free time at the expense of all other games around this time of year. My gaming to do list is now so lengthy that I'm refusing to buy BioShock Infinite until I can finish off at least a few of the following: Persona 4: Golden, Far Cry 3, Tomb Raider, Sleeping Dogs, Metal Gear Rising, The Walking Dead, NFS Most Wanted, WipEout 2048 and Gravity Rush. Yet, whenever I do get some time to play I find myself reaching for the FIFA 13 case almost exclusively.
There's a certain inevitability about it all in that I'm a huge football fan and FIFA is one hell of an addictive game. The thing that perhaps surprises me more is that it's not the most obviously addictive game modes, i.e. the online ones, that have got me hooked. Unlike last year when I'd pretty much given up on Career Mode by now and had moved on to trying to reach Seasons glory, I'm now going back to the same player career save that I talked about at such length a few months back.
That speaks volume for the good work that EA Sports put into this year's Career Mode, particularly on the player career side of things. The mode has definitely seen a lot of refinement since EA rebuilt the code from the ground up a few years back (on the console version at least; don't get me started again on the PS Vita version), but as with any game this iterative there's always room to improve, and that's what I've been musing on while playing it recently. So, to draw this lengthy introduction to a close, here's part one of how I'd like to see Career Mode improved for FIFA 14, focusing on what I believe to be its biggest downfall; the AI.
FIFA's artificial intelligence has been its undoing for a number of years, and while progress has been steady with FIFA 13's Attacking AI focus being a definite step in the right direction, there are many areas that still need addressing. So many, in fact, that I'm going to split them into two; opponent AI and own team/manager AI.
There are many issues with the opponent AI that bubble up to the surface the longer you play the game for. The one that becomes more obvious as time goes by is the rigid, nigh on unbeatable defensive instincts the other team's defenders seem to have. In a one on one situation on the higher difficulties your opponents seem to know what you're going to do before even you do, so trying to take them on often seems futile. Yes, it's true that passing it around them is possible and I’m not trying to say that I want the game to be so easy that you can just skip past people effortlessly, but the game would certainly be a lot more exciting if it allowed the flair players to shine more in single player modes. I'd just like to see the opposition AI capable of making as many mistakes as a relatively skilled human player would. During online games it's the other player's mistakes that open up the play and allow you space to go past people, and thus it's probably the main reason why the offline gameplay struggles to match its online counterpart in terms of sheer fun gameplay.
The second thing that really grates with me is the lack of aggression the AI shows. I don't know if it's just to do with the way I play perhaps, but despite being well into my 6th season in career mode I'm still waiting for the opposition to make a mistimed tackle so bad that it earns them a red card. The worst that will happen is the occasional yellow, but even those occur too rarely for it to feel consistent with real life. You can usually expect to encounter a red card situation for or against your team at least two or three times a season, and until FIFA gets a bit dirtier it won’t be accurately reflecting that statistic (that I’ve done absolutely no research to quantify).
I can understand the difficulty of the task for EA Sports. It's hard enough to program characters to behave in accordance with the rules of the game in a realistic way; to have to do that and yet make them occasionally fallible as well must be really tough. Then consider that they also need to have 22 players all capable of doing this and reacting to each other's actions all at the same time. It's a complex balancing act to find the sweet spot between too many and too few mistakes, but at the moment in my opinion they're tipping too heavily towards the latter, and it makes for hardly any mistakes at all. It's a mammoth task to get this right I'm sure, but if they want to make FIFA 14 the Holy Grail of football simulation then this should be a key area of focus for them.
TEAM MANAGER AI
Almost as detrimental to the Player Career Mode specifically is the AI of your own manager. When I wrote about my player career mode a few months back I commended the developers for removing your ability to control team selection once you'd made captain of the team because it seemed like a move in the right direction in terms of improving the realism of this mode. However, having played Player Career Mode for a bit longer I'm going to have to retract that slightly. While I still don't like the idea of a squad member being allowed to tinker with the team, the AI simply isn't sophisticated enough to handle the task of managing a team convincingly. Team selections seem utterly random at times, with your manager seeming to take a tombola approach to selecting which players will play in which game. The problem isn't that the AI will constantly select the same team, but actually that they will hardly ever stick with the best one even if the situation warrants it. Granted, player fatigue seems to play some part as week to week selections get more consistent if there's a bigger gap between games, but there's no real sense of cohesion.
In just my last game (playing for Chelsea) Petr Cech was dropped in favour of the young and inexperienced Ross Turnbull for a crucial league game, Cech having kept goal against much weaker League Cup opposition a few days earlier. If this had occurred the other way around it would have made sense and being true to life in many ways (as managers often favour playing a reserve goalkeeper in the cup competitions), but to see it play out like this served to highlight the limitations of the manager AI and its inability to forward plan. An improvement in this aspect for next year’s game would be a welcome one.
The manager AI also struggles to move realistically within the transfer market. For some reason, no matter which team you're playing for, there seems to be a reluctance to make any moves of any consequence once your new club has secured your signature. In many cases that would make sense, but when you move to Chelsea and find them being cautious in the transfer market while others are busy splashing the cash then you know something has gone awry. I'm not saying I'd like a situation where players are constantly coming and going on a revolving door because that would be just as unsatisfying an experience, but if the Football Manager series remains the benchmark for an authentic simulation of the football economy then FIFA still has a little way to go before it can boast true realism.
The last bone of contention I have where the AI is concerned is with the manager's decision making before and during games, or more specifically, the general lack of it. It's not necessarily an AI issue per se, but more to do with the fact that the game gives you no briefing or feedback about any gameplan your coach might want to implement or the changes he wants to make. For example, if you're losing a must win game it would make sense for a riskier approach, like the switch to Ultra-Attacking that you can make with the D-pad in other game modes, but it's never clear whether this actually goes on or not. There are numerous other situations where this feedback could come in handy too, for example if you're in the lead against a stronger opponent, or if you've gone down to 10 men (which actually never happens – see above), or if results in other games are going against you and you need to get a better result. Substitutions are better than in previous games in that there is some occasional variation, but your team formation never changes, so it always feels like the AI just seeks the best like for like replacement for each player without assessing how greater structural changes to the makeup of your side might swing the game in your favour. Basically, It'd just be nice if the game was able to convey the sense that it is capable of responding to the various different factors that dictate how your team should be playing at certain stages during a match, as well as what your role within that team is and any specific jobs you should be looking to do.
That just about rounds up the first part of this FIFA Career Mode improvements spectacular. Next time I'll be focusing more on the visuals and the tiny details that could be improved to further polish the world's best football game. I’d also just like to point out that if this post seems a bit too critical then it’s because I’m intentionally only focusing on the frustrating aspects. FIFA on the whole is a brilliant game, and like anything that you hold dear you only want the best for it. Fingers crossed Career Mode will see continued progress in next year’s game and I can come up with a whole new bunch of criticisms!