Next-Generation Sports Games: NBA 2K14, FIFA 14, Madden 25

Madden_Dolphins
The PS4 is officially available as of today, and the Xbox One has been out for a week. They’ve got reasonable numbers of games on offer, but many of them are sports games. Are they, as the clich√© goes, giving 110%?
Image: EA
If you look at the launch lineup for the Xbox One, it’s got (by my count) 22 games, which is quite a reasonable amount for a brand new console. The PS4 count comes in (I think) at 26 games.
The thing is, an awful lot of them are sports games that are already available on other platforms. Of the 22 Xbox One games, I count 6 sports games — FIFA 14, Forza Motorsport 5, Madden NFL 25, NBA 2K14, NBA Live 14 and Powerstar Golf. That’s 27 per cent of the entire launch catalog, and only two of those titles (Forza Motorsport 5 and Powerstar Golf) are “exclusive” Xbox One titles.
The PS4 fares a little better statistically speaking because as I count it there are slightly more launch titles — not that it’s purely a numbers game — but the same kind of early console launch exclusivity drought applies there too.
This got me thinking; there are plenty of people who obsess over single sports games titles for a whole year, only to repeat the same thing the next year with the “new” version. They’re the folks who spot the tiny differences in how Ronaldinho moves his left foot from year to year, or why a particular year’s Madden title is more defence or offence-based.
I can’t exactly count myself amongst their numbers; I like sports games to an extent, but I’m nowhere near obsessive enough. Sports games are by their nature competitive titles best played against other people, so I roped in close friend of Fat Duck Tech (and sports game expert) Vaughan Olliffe to help me assess the games.
This is a totally unscientific thing, by the way; we’ve spent a day sitting in front of sports games for our own edification — and hopefully yours, too.
I’ve known Vaughan for more than two decades now, and in that time, he’s constantly and consistently beaten me in just about every type of sports game there is. I do sneak out intermittent victories here and there, but he’s by far the better sports game player, especially for NBA games, which are a particular passion. So for that reason, we start on NBA 2K14 for the Xbox One.

NBA 2K14

Or at least we try to. The one thing with next-gen games (not just sports ones) is the spectre of mandatory install, at least on the Xbox One side. NBA2K14 tries to get around this with partial play available after only a little bit of waiting, but it’s limited — first to a single player only without warning, then to both of us, at which point my customary whipping can commence.
Which it does, although I’d like to claim a moral victory as the Miami Heat go down to the San Antonio Spurs by only ten points. By the scale I usually lose these things, that’s practically a victory.
http://youtu.be/x3DsndKT-78
Once it finally, painfully finishes installing, the commentary kicks in. It’s talking my game to be a LOT better than it actually is, which is highly amusing when it transpires that the button I’m best with is the “fake charge” button that sees many of my players inexplicably resting or rolling around on the court. It’s probably a good thing that I’m not sent off or fined for such inexplicable behaviour.
That doesn’t tell you much about the game, though, and it is a tighter and better game. Vaughan makes particular note of the quality of the fabric on the player’s shorts — not that these things impact gameplay, but it is impressively crisp. That’s the kind of detail you’d want in a next-gen game, but at the same time it’s also largely what you’d expect.
Overall, though, it’s the visual flair that “sells” NBA2K14. That you’d expect, and we’ve both got to admit that if it was in front of us on a regular basis — which is to say if you already had an Xbox One — it’d be a perfectly good buy, but then the Xbox 360/PS3 version should be as well.
It takes a certain amount of effort to drag Vaughan away from managing a team full-time, often laughing at the ludicrous trade offers the AI brings up, but from there, we move on to

FIFA 14

Actually, we don’t; bitten by the must-install issue, we play a bit of Powerstar Golf while FIFA runs its install routine. That over and done with, FIFA 14 loads, does its usual EA-login-malarkey and we get down to kicking the leather around.
When I casually note that I’ve been playing a bit of Pro Evolution 2014 of late, Vaughan casually covers himself here, noting that “Soccer isn’t a real sport”, which suggests that it might be one of those rare instances where I might actually win, or he might get beaten to death by angry Association Football fans. I’m not going to sell him out just yet, though, because after a gripping game, I do indeed sneak out a victory 1-0.

The Xbox One version of FIFA does feature slightly different virtual cards for Ultimate Team mode, but I can’t say that I care about them. I never have, though, and it’s highly unlikely that I ever will, because it so very much feels like the kind of IAP that I railed against in Forza — and again I’m aware that EA’s been doing this kind of thing very successfully for a number of years now.
Once again, though, the same thing is true; FIFA 14 looks a little sharper, as you might expect, but a lot of that effect is rather lost, because the sensible way to play FIFA is from a pulled-out viewpoint. As such, many of the fine details aren’t as apparent until you go to a replay.

Madden NFL 25

As with FIFA, it’s been a while since I’ve played a Madden game, although around 95 per cent of the games of Madden I’ve ever played have indeed been against Vaughan. He’s won about 90 per cent of them, and my expectations going in are that when I take this year’s Miami Dolphins — depleted, scandal-ridden, somewhat broken — roster updated to fresh-this-week status up against his favourite San Francisco 49ers, my hopes aren’t high.
I’m slightly irked that EA hasn’t brought John Madden back for commentary for the quarter-century edition, although the use of classic era loading screens is a nice touch. I’m still of a mind that they should have brought back the ambulance, too.

Kids, this is what Madden looked like back when I first played it.
It doesn’t look like that any more; the Xbox One version has lots of detail both in the players (where you need it) and the crowds, where you don’t exactly need it, but it adds nice ambiance.

Virtual John Madden, who coaches the Madden 25 All-Star team though, definitely sits in that uncanny valley area where we’re not sure if he’s managing a team or waiting to eat our souls. It’s in the eyes — or the lack of soul behind them — that gives us this sneaking suspicion.
Perhaps if we sacrifice a Turducken to him, we’ll be safe.
After a day’s worth of play with roughly equal time across those titles — I couldn’t get hold of a copy of NBA Live 14 in time — we come to the same conclusion every time. It’s great that there are available titles for these platforms, because the lack of backwards compatibility does sting early in the console’s lifespan. They’re decent looking offerings that play well, and that’s what you want out of a sports title whether you’re a fanatic or merely a passing fan, but they’re not in and of themselves reasons to buy a next generation console.
One final surprise. In a truly epic struggle between the Dolphins and the 49ers, I come out on top. Not only that — it has happened a few times in our 20 year, on and off Madden rivalry — but it’s the very first (and I’m sure, very last) time in 20 years that I’ve ever managed a shutout victory, 17-0 against him.
If there’s a hidden button that spreads an extra layer of warm hog fat onto the 49ers receiver’s gloves, I was clearly pressing it a lot.

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