You would think that as last year's FIFA 13 was such a massive leap forward for the perennially favourite franchise that there would be nowhere to go for FIFA 14. You'd be wrong as, thanks to a good couple of hours of playtime with the latest addition to the series, it feels almost like an all-new game.
As part of an extensive hands-on session with the Xbox 360 version of the game - the first time EA allowed it into the hands of journalists - the software house also revealed a new feature which, when combined with a couple previously announced, puts this latest in the series in a different ball park. Almost literally.
The new feature is Precision Movement, a system that alters exactly how players move and react to changes in direction and other environmental factors. It may be animation based, rather than physics, but seasoned players may well find themselves learning all new strategies.
The main improvements in player movement revolve around a two year project to introduce step-based locomotion technology. Rather than show a whole blended animation for each passage of movement in a player, the animations are now altered for each step they take. This allows the developer to add nuances that were never possible before.
For example, running in a straight line and suddenly turning to run the opposite direction was fairly straight forward in FIFA 13. Like many videogames it was tuned to be as responsive as possible for the player. Now, depending on the statistics of an individual star, you might find that their stopping distance is far greater thanks to their momentum. The quicker they run, therefore, the harder it is to turn on a sixpence. And some will be sharper and quicker to do so.
The biggest area in which this is obvious is in defence. Defenders, on the whole, are not as fleet of foot as wingers or attackers. Therefore, if you let a striker get round you, it may be too late for you to readjust your position before they zoom off towards goal. In short, it is much more realistic, and the first strategy that we found ourselves abandoning because of Precision Movement was diving into the tackle. More often than not, when defending, we stood off of the attacker, marking space rather than them. It took a little while, but just felt so much more natural.
However, a side effect of giving more space to an opponent is that it gives them more opportunity to get in a long-range shot, and thanks to the previously announced new features, Pure Shot and Real Ball Physics, that can be exploited to stunning effect.
To give you an idea of how Pure Shot - which forces an attacker to set their body position before hitting the ball, changing both the look of the shot and the speed at which they can let fly - and Real Ball Physics - true-to-life movement in air - can combine so sweetly, we managed to hit a 40 to 45-yard screamer using Luis Suarez that looped over a flailing goalkeeper that just looked totally real. It may have been a bit of a fluke, and come when we were already 4-2 down with a minute left on the clock, but the match score became insignificant to us, our opponents and spectators in the room. Everybody's jaw dropped.
This sort of goal, that was stunningly extravagant yet somehow totally believable, has never been possible in a FIFA game before. It's a game changer.
We managed to play around seven or eight matches on the FIFA 14 Xbox 360 build that was available, one that we were told was about 60 per cent complete. Several teams were available to play with, including English teams Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham, and while they had 2012/13 season kits on, the squads were current and up to date.
In play, another minute but important change is that tricks can now be performed with just the right thumbstick, rather than needing a button press too. We've never been that enthusiastic with the small tricks players can perform before as it required too much gaming dexterity often at a time when you just don't have the space. Now it's intuitive and we found ourselves flicking the ball and doing step-overs far more than before.
Another change is that pushing the ball forward when dribbling, which used to be on the stick, is now automatically done with the left stick when running. Again, it helps the game flow and look more realistic without requiring hardcore gaming skills.
Those are just a few examples of how the game has improved, but it is hard to put into words what it feels like to play FIFA 14. Just from the preview build, the game comes across as a far more emotive experience. We, on Pocket-lint, have previously sung from the rooftops about the realism and the closer to an actual football match the series has become with each iteration. On this evidence we can only wonder where EA can even go from here. And we've barely even mentioned other features, like improved ball protection and the like.
We'll leave those for when we review the full version in the coming months. We cannot wait.
FIFA 14 will be out on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on 27 September. Versions for Xbox One and PS4 will also be available, although an exact date is yet to be announced.