It's that time of year again (or should that be four years?) As the weather starts to get hotter, and we head towards the summer, we're in for another summer of football, where the nation gets their hopes raised, and people pull sickies off work, only to come crashing down thanks to a Rooney red card, or a penalty shootout. Yes, we're only a few weeks away from the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil - and that can only mean one thing. An official tie-in game!
The catchily named EA Sports 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil is essentially a yearly FIFA game dressed up in world cup clothing, and one that aims to be your companion for the big matches. With 203 national teams to choose from, 7,469 players, 19 licensed managers, all 12 world cup stadiums and one officially licensed Sepp Blatter, it certainly ticks all the authenticity boxes - but as is always the way, what really matters is how well the game plays.
And whether 2014 FIFA World Cup is a game up your street will likely depend on whether you've bought the last four or five FIFA games every year running. If you can't get enough FIFA, then you'll be pleased to know that for 2014 FIFA World Cup, there's very little difference between this and FIFA 14. Letting you and up to three friends squeeze onto a sofa to play together on Xbox 360, or six play on PS3 (sofa permitting), you can team together with a group of friends to lead a team of your choosing through from qualification through to the world cup itself. But if you're not a fan of FIFA games, or have rarely played them before, then 2014 FIFA World Cup has a few issues that may make jumping on board a bit trickier than it should be.
It's a bit of a weird one, really. On one hand, you have the inclusion of the much vaunted two button mode, which aims to distil FIFA's famously complex control scheme into just two, context-sensitive buttons, making the game that much easier to play. When you're on the ball, you can press X to pass or Circle to shoot (on PS3), while off the ball they'll perform a tackle or sliding tackle respectively. Depending on how long you hold the button for, and the situation on the pitch, the game will automatically choose the best kind of pass (and shot) for you, whether it's slotting a through ball just in front of your attacker, or chipping the keeper.
And this is great. For the most part, it works fine, and you'll be pulling off moves you didn't even know were possible, all by just pressing one button or the other. But like most automatic things, it doesn't always work quite as you'd hope, and that can be frustrating. Sometimes, the game thinks you were obviously looking to pass to a large empty space rather than to the player that was standing a few feet away, sometimes it'll decide you actually wanted to hoof the ball into the air rather than pass it across the box to your friend so he could slot the ball into the net, and sometimes it'll decide that, despite holding the button for several seconds to power up the shot, you obviously wanted to simply knock the ball with the very tip of your boot - not send it into the net with the force of a thousand boxing day shoppers trampling the security at Next.
Two button mode aside, there are other issues with the FIFA (and World Cup 2014) experience that still don't seem to have been fixed. More annoyingly, they're all things the FIFA games on the Wii used to get so right - but with its never-ending march towards realism, the series seems to have somewhat lost sight of accessibility. The markers telling you which player you are still aren't very obvious; there's nothing to tell new players which way they're meant to be shooting (you'd be surprised at how useful this can be); there's nothing to warn you when a fellow player's offside (a feature which came in rather handy on the old Wii editions); and there's still an odd lag between you pressing a button, and your player actually taking the shot, which can lead to one too many collisions with the keeper. None of these are particularly game destroying faults, but they're still annoying issues - especially for a game that will presumably appeal beyond the hardcore FIFA crowd.
Still, minor gameplay bugs aside, there's plenty of fun to be had here. This being a World Cup game, there's a range of modes beyond the standard FIFA pack, that have been designed to make the most out of the anticipation surrounding the big competition. One of the coolest is known as "Story of Qualifying", a mode which challenges you to recreate - or rewrite history. Whether you're dropped into a game playing as England, who find themselves 5-0 up against San Marino and have to score another five in the last thirty minutes of the game, or you're asked to take control of Ireland during their qualifier against Kazakhstan, where they found themselves 1-0 down and gained a penalty in the 90th minute, it's up to you to achieve a number of objectives in each match, that may or may not be historically accurate.
While most of the challenges let you play along with a friend, there's more than a few that use FIFA's "Be a Pro" mode, which locks you to control of a single player. Apparently an incredibly popular FIFA mode, it's never been one we've really gelled with, as you're left relying on your AI controlled team to not massively cock everything up - and there's only so much one man can do to correct it. Thankfully, these challenges are few and far between this time around - and the other big mistake from the last World Cup game has been rectified here too, in that you can now choose which difficulty you play on. In the last World Cup game, the game's challenges were locked to a specific difficulty level (usually at the higher end of the FIFA six-level difficulty barometer, which ranges from Amateur to Legend), effectively locking out anyone who sucked at FIFA, but still fancied having a go. This time round, you can choose for yourself - but annoyingly, it only starts at Semi-Pro, which is the game's equivalent of "normal". While it's certainly better than last time (as we can at least hold our own on Semi-Pro), if you aren't good enough to play at Semi-Pro, then you're still effectively locked out of part of the game - at least, until you get better...
However, Story of Qualifying is a mode that still has yet to really hit its stride. When the finals take place, a new mode, called Story of the Finals will unlock, with challenges being added on a daily basis as the tournament proceeds based on matches that have taken place. Whether you'll be recreating England's amazing win, or (possibly more likely) avenging their defeat on penalties, this is a great way to be involved with the tournament as it goes on - and, most importantly, all the challenges that get added will all be free! All you need is an internet connection, and the game will automatically update.
Beyond the innovative Story of... modes, there's the usual range of modes and features here, each with a World Cup flavour. There's Captain your Country, which locks you to a single player in Be a Pro mode style, as you vie for a place on the national team, and aim to eventually work your way up the captaincy, alongside the more traditional World Cup and Road to the FIFA World Cup modes - the former dropping you in at the finals, while the other lets you go through the trials and turmoil of qualifying - although you'll likely manage more than a 1 all draw against Montenegro.
Despite having gameplay that differs only slightly from the standard FIFA experience, the matches themselves have been tweaked to capture the festive World Cup feel. While we've yet to hear a Vuvuzela in the crowd, you'll regularly be given shots of fans decked out in their national colours, both in the stadium, and beyond. Occasionally cutting to a shot of what it claims to be Trafalgar Square [other landmarks in other countries are available], where thousands have gathered to watch the match on the big screen (including a chap in a rather fetching St. George's Cross stovepipe hat), it helps add to the presentation of the big matches - although there is a somewhat less than solid frame rate that makes both these sections, and the game's menus feel rather juddery.
Still, with World Cup fever only set to get more intense, EA have once again put together a decent enough companion piece. It's nothing revolutionary, and it isn't as easy to get into as we'd like (not like the old Wii games were, anyway - you can't tell we miss those, can you?), but this is the perfect pre-match fodder for you and a group of friends. Backed up by some clever modes, this is a game that'll keep you coming back throughout the tournament, no matter how long England last for. Fingers crossed then, for the team - and even if they do go crashing out, at least we can go and fire up the Story of the Finals mode, and get revenge on the official game.