You might not know it, but FIFA 14 is a strategy game. Not just a game with strategy in it, but a real-time strategy game with units you command against an opponent. It's also a roleplaying game about levelling up, a management game about economies and trading, a fighting game about manual dexterity and timing moves, and a collectable card game with all the charm of Panini stickers or baseball cards.
It's a foot-to-ball game, but you don't need to know anything about the sport to love it. I mean, I got into foot-to-ball because of FIFA, not the other way around. I have played perhaps a thousand hours of it over the past three years. And now, with FIFA 14, I'm taking my first steps into FIFA Ultimate Team. Let me explain to you why GManhattan FC is now my favourite club in the world.
Ultimate Team is a game mode, added in FIFA 09, in which players create their own team and are randomly assigned a group of real players. You then play matches to earn in-game gold, and use that gold to buy individual players on a player-driven transfer market, or to buy packs of players for a random chance at someone good.
Despite hundreds of hours with previous iterations, I've never played the mode before. That's partly because I've resisted FIFA every step of the way these past three years. When I first started playing it again, I hadn't been interested in football in around ten years, and I hadn't played a foot-to-ball game since PES2006. I didn't want to go back.
I eventually tried it with FIFA 12, when the series reached parity across all platforms, and the PC version was no longer based on the old PlayStation 2 engine. I liked it. I liked it too much.
I create my first team, call them GManhattan FC, and begin to peruse my starting players. They're all bronze players - the worst, after silver and gold - but they're not terrible. The game starts you off with a mediocre bunch from which you can begin to climb the rankings.
Right away, I'm annoyed by the interface. It's clunky to cycle through your players, see all the information you need about their stats and fitness, and to swap them out if necessary. The only thing I like is the animation when you first open a new pack - golden pieces descending upon the pack, forming a ball, and spinning to reveal its contents. It's a tiny PopCap flourish I wish the game would display more of.
With the mediocrity of my team in mind, I decide to focus on playing offline tournaments against the computer. Advancing through and winning trophies will earn me the in-game currency I need to start improving my players.
Right. I've played lots of matches and won lots of tournaments, but I'm running into problems now.
When you open packs of Ultimate Team cards, you don't just get players. You also get consumables, such as contract extensions, fitness boosts and injury healing cards, and cosmetic items like new balls, stadiums, football strips and badges.
The contract system is the thing that most frustrates. Each player is only good for a certain number of matches, after which their contract needs renewed. Contract cards can only be found by buying packs.
It's an obvious mechanic to remove funds from the marketplace, to make sure good teams can't horde resources, play the best players forever, and never spend anything.
It also adds this unpleasant anxiety to my early matches in the game. I've become attached to certain players on my team - mostly Kone's weird affection for shooting with the outside of his foot, and looping the ball into the top corner - but that means I need to make enough in-game money to keep buying packs to keep getting cards to keep those favoured players on my team. It ends up feeling a little too much like an Energy mechanic in a Facebook or mobile game. A little nag you can avoid, but which edges you towards spending real money. I'm never going to spend real money.
I spent real money. I know, I know, I said I wouldn't! But I looked up the rates, and £6 would buy me a lot of gold packs, and I wanted some good players quickly.
My pathetic collapse isn't surprising. The last two years have been a steadly collapse into old foot-to-ball habits. I mean, I used to spend my lunchtimes charting careful economic progression in the vast robots wars of Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance, but after I started on FIFA 12 I couldn't stop. Soon I was playing every day. Soon I was watching Sky Sports on the weekends.
What's surprising about my spending real money is that I don't regret the decision. I pore through the cards I unlock in each pack and feel… excited. I feel like I did when I would pick through the packs of football stickers I'd buy as a kid. Intrigued to know what I had in my hands, excited that there might be a player of real value amongst my colletion.
In this light, even the interface begins to make sense. If opening a pack spread out the cards in such a way that you could see them all at a glance, then it would only take a few seconds to work out what you had, what you were keeping, and what you would place in the market. By obfuscating that information just a little, Ultimate Team drags the process out, making it about slowly and satisfyingly revealing the treasure in your hands.
I get some great players out of the batch, including Vorm, a shiny, golden goalkeeper with an 81 rating, and Contract cards to keep my best players on the pitch for dozens of games to come.
By this point, my team is pretty good: all gold players, four-and-a-half stars overall, and I'm winning most of my matches because I'm great. Naturally, I feel a little disappointed.
I've played a lifetime of FIFA matches, in friendlies and tournaments and online thingers. I had hoped that Ultimate Team would raise the skillcap, and provide a whole new meta-layer as context for individual matches in such a way that I could just keep grinding away forever.
Already it seems like my team is as good as it needs to be, and I'm earning enough in-game money from won matches that I can regularly buy good, individual players from the marketplace. They tend to cost about 4000-10,0000 fakebucks.
Idly, I wonder how much Lionel Messi costs. He's arguably the best player in the world, he's always been absurdly good in FIFA games, and he's on the front of the box. I look him up on the transfer market.
His Buy Now price averages around 2,100,000. 2.1 million. 210 times more than the next best player I've looked at.
I look around, and there are other players who are on the similarly high levels: forty to fifty foot-to-ballers who aren't just good, but who are superstars, and who act as Ultimate Team's endgame.
I'm not even close to being able to afford any of those expensive players, and I can barely fathom how I'll ever get there. If I win a match and do so in style, I get around 750 gold. If I sell a player, I normally get a couple of thousand gold. If I'm ever going to buy a Messi, it looks like I'll need to grind for a lifetime.
I start looking around the internet for guides. There's a lot out there, but not a lot that's clear. What I learn is that to make money, I need to stop being attached to my players, and I need to spend less time playing matches and more time playing the markets.
Each week, EA pick eleven players for the Team of the Week. Those are the players who, in the real world, are currently in the best form. Those players, naturally, become more expensive for that period of time, and their prices crash as soon as a new team of players are selected.
That means that if you're smart, and buy at the right times, you can predict and manipulate those spikes and drops. There are other factors, like how prices peak during peak hours when everyone is playing and trading, and crash late at night. I'm unlikely ever to stay up till 3am solely to buy cheaper football stickers, but I like that it's an option.
FIFA is my comfort game. Do you have one? I always have at least one game that I'm playing constantly, daily, in the background, in between, as a break, before and after whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing. Right now, it's Spelunky and FIFA. Right now, it's mostly FIFA.
I'm no longer ashamed of it. I'm a zealot. I think everyone should play FIFA, whether they like football or not. It is all of the games.
I've settled into a pretty good rhythm with Ultimate Team now. I'm not sure if I'm ever going to reach the heady heights of managing Lionel Messi, but I've got a team I like, with players I'm weirdly bonded to, and I play a few matches every night.
I win a lot and that helps, but mainly I'm enjoying the community. There's no voice or text chat with strangers in FIFA - or at least, if there is, it's off by default. Instead, you get a feel for your opponents through the matches themselves.
Who have they got on their team? Are all their players Brazillian, to maximise the Chemistry bonus? What formation do they play? Do they skip the replays or force you to re-watch their goals? What celebration do they perform every time they score?
I've had matches where I've gone 3-0 up and my opponent has started scoring own goals. I've had matches where a losing opponent has very obviously put the controller down in the middle of a match and walked away from the computer, without quitting. I've had matches where a losing opponent has started messing around, doing keepie-uppies in his own half, or a winning opponent has started showing off with the skill stick.
Despite the reputation of foot-to-ball fans, it never feels mean-spirited. It feels like a nice community who isn't taking things too seriously. It's relaxing to play with them, and so I'm playing with them every night.
Here is my team. Click to make it bigger.
I haven't much bothered with maximising chemistry, and they're all knackered constantly because I play so much. Also, Forlan is great up front, because he hits the bar and the post a lot. He's the best at missing and, weirdly, missing is sometimes more fun than scoring.
I'm hooked on Ultimate Team now. I just spent another £6 on players. I'm never coming back. Don't look for me.