Those expecting major evolution will be disappointed; Fifa 14's changes are hardly radical – and sometimes unwelcome – but its range of game options is unrivalled. With Career mode, online (including a new 2v2 co-op Seasons mode) and the wonderful Ultimate Team, it remains the most feature-rich football game on the market.
FIFA 14: FeaturesIn terms of features FIFA 14 sees a maturation of the same line-up as FIFA 13. There hasn't been an influx of new game modes, so all the old guard are here: Ultimate Team is back, as is Career mode, multiplayer and the standard quick play.
Love it or hate it, Ultimate Team is more or less the same. EA says the mode has been a hit, but we found it hard to connect emotionally with your randomly assembled team. For the uninitiated, the aim of Ultimate Team is to pick your team based on chemistry, creating a playing unit based on more than raw ability and stats.
However, the process of creating chemistry is more about matching nationalities with the adjacent players within your line-up, rather than in-depth abilities or skills. It feels a little empty, and we much preferred the Career Mode, which benefits from several improvements that makes management easy.
Previous versions of FIFA has made scouting for players a chore, but the updated interface makes sending out your scouts much easier, with more time for playing and less tweaking impenetrable menus.
You can now play co-op seasons with other pairs over multiplayer now, but most of the changes are in the gameplay themselves. Realism is the name of the game, and added physics and AI in nearly every department, from passing, player movement and the movement of computer controlled players has been given a boost. But more on that later.
That's if you get your shot off. This year defenders have several tricks up their sleeves, including second-chance tackles (recover quickly from mistimed challenges) and heavier jostles. At one point, as Spurs' speedy winger Aaron Lennon, we were practically accosted by Man U's burly Vidic, who pulled our shirt and grabbed our arm. With a greater gulf in player skill (the fast are faster, the strong stronger), matches play more like irregular contests and less like Subbuteo. Speed counters strength, for example, but only if you make the space.
FIFA's physicality is its edge. Players aren't clothed by invisible shields like PES's boxy men - they feel like they're interacting, fighting for headers and barging for balls like in some highly paid competitive contact sport or something.
It's the little touches, too. While we'll have to wait on the next-gen versions before we see true TV-style presentation (FIFA could learn a lesson from PES here), where nervous managers chomp gum and a random guy in the crowd stands and raises both arms above his head for no reason whatsoever, details impress.
Questionable fouls result in your man adopting the universal 'I'm innocent!' pose, and in injury time players will rush to take throw-ins with greater urgency. At one point during a Premier League fixture, another broadcaster chimed in with live score updates. Our commentator, Clive Tyldesley, talked over him when we scored, then later apologised for the interruption.
That's on the pitch, but what about off it? The addictive Ultimate Team returns with an Xbox-exclusive hook in which the likes of Lineker, Bergkamp, Maldini and Pelé can be bought and traded. New skill games allow you to navigate gauntlets of plastic yellow men, race motorised cut-outs like a dog chasing a rabbit, slalom poles, and knock down towers of evil cardboard boxes.
Then there's the career, in which you can take on roles of both player and manager. As a real world man or created Pro, you'll skip the managerial gubbins, simply building skills in matches and responding to emails from your agent between them.
Management is more in depth, with potential Mourinhos juggling contracts, nurturing youth academy talent, and striving for league targets set by the board. Both sides of the career let you play as the entire team, but only player mode gives you the option to control one player.
The Global Scouting Network is career mode's biggest improvement. You'll hire up to six scouts, each given star ratings for experience and judgement, then set parameters, and finally unleash them. Want a pacey left-footed Bulgarian teenager? You got it.
They help in transfers, too; put a scout on someone who's caught your eye and they'll tell you how much he's worth, and how likely he is to join you (in Messi's case, us managing Watford, the answer was several lols and a troll face).
Online is much the same story. Seasons mode is best for those who simply crave ranked exhibitions, with the chance to rise from league ten to one. There's also 11v11 Pro Clubs (players create their own teams and invite friends); co-op seasons; 2V2 matches; unranked head-to-heads, and friendlies featuring variable rules.
Additionally, you can splurge points earned online on classic kits, new balls, Pro gear, skill boosts and ridiculous celebrations (favourites include the prancing bird, hulk out, and chicken dance).
FIFA 14 returns as the same ludicrously comprehensive sports game it's ever been, where any one mode could easily see you through to next season and beyond. Those small and clumsy steps it takes backwards, courtesy of Precision Movement, do little to spoil the party. It may be slightly slower and a little worn out in the legs, but FIFA 14 is still king.