CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than any EA Sports franchise this console generation, the "FIFA" brand has remained the publisher's most consistent. Whether by adding revolutionary new features like the Player Impact Engine or changing the way players approach online gaming with FIFA Ultimate Team, the "FIFA" series has remained at the top of its game throughout the lifespan of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
It should come as no surprise, then, that as we prepare to bid farewell to current hardware and look forward to the next generation of gaming that "FIFA 14" is ending this console cycle where it began -- as the best sports gaming franchise around.
With a solid foundation already in place, "FIFA 14" introduces game play tweaks and additions that are subtle yet highly effective for creating a realistic take on the world's most popular sport. With the Precision Movement animation system, players now interact with each other and the ball in a much more believable fashion, adding a real sense of physicality to the game. For example, runs in space that, in previous years would have resulted in a player taking a through ball and depositing a goal in the back of the net, now are much more difficult because of how easy it is to get knocked off-balance by a defender. That physical play combines with the new First Touch Control to lend an air of unpredictability to "FIFA 14" that I haven't experienced before in the series.
Another change on the pitch includes the ability to shield the ball from defenders, which can be chained together with a timely change of direction to allow you to spin away from challenges. I found this to be especially helpful against aggressive defensive teams, which is practically every team thanks to the game's improved AI.
Indeed, while I've never considered myself a great "FIFA" player, I had not struggled to simply score goals as I had in my early going with "FIFA 14." Of course, the new shooting system in place undoubtedly had something to do with this, too.
Players can experience the improved game play in a variety of modes, from exhibition games and a deep career mode to co-op seasons, a weekly selection of games pulled from the world's top professional leagues and, yes, the returning Ultimate Team. Combine all those modes with the robust official licenses -- more than 30 leagues, 600 clubs and 16,000 players -- and you've got a game that offers plenty of bang for your buck.
"FIFA 14" earns high marks for its presentation, too, with slick introductory video packages prior to each game, great commentary and unrivaled crowd atmosphere. The visuals haven't made any great leaps forward, but the animations remain smooth and highly detailed.