Tag Archives: football

A Word On… FIFA Ultimate Team

I’m not sure there’s a single game in existence that can make me as angry as FIFA can. Football is random enough as it is when tiny dirigibles can become key tactical elements, but FIFA takes it to another level on the uncontrollable bullshit spectrum; players will do things you didn’t tell them to, decide to tackle the air beside the ball they’re dribbling with instead of taking a shot, or be suddenly incapable of hitting the ball with their foot in a straight line, something which is ostensibly their profession. On several occasions I’ve found my defenders hanging out next to the other teams corner flag, presumably for a cup of tea and a chinwag. The FIFA subreddit is basically a support group for abuse victims at this point, summed up by a recent post which said bluntly, and fantastically, that ‘FIFA is shit’. He’s a happy bunny, that one.

james-gameplay

This probably ends in a ball boy scoring an own goal or something equally daft.

So if FIFA is shit, as was so eloquently put, why is it so popular? Well there’s the obvious reason that it’s football, one of if not the most popular sport in the world where teenagers who can’t spell the word ‘offside’ suddenly get access to the hottest of cars and the fastest of women for approximately six months before their lives spiral into a terrifying storm drain of money, tattoos, and shit punditry. Every child aspires to be Phil Neville, I can assure you.

The other reason is it’s by EA, and they have the official FIFA license so you don’t have to play as Blatan Dimbrasandwiches for Redchester Unite-reds, unless someone happens to take cocaine. It’s basically popular by default at this point, and every September the new FIFA cycle judders into view, proudly displaying its new set of over-hyped non-features like a peacock with used cars for a tail. This year’s instalment had a story mode called ‘The Journey’ where Definitely-Not Marcus Rashford gets to play a year of football while his dickhole friend acts like a dickhole and Harry Kane mumbles some verbal pies into your ear. It’s a glorified tutorial mode, and for some reason exists alongside the previous Be A Pro mode, which is functionally identical if you ignore the crucial fact that the latter has more features and customisation. The Journey does have the vocal wizardry of Kane though, so there’s that.

hunter-rashford

B…brother?

The final and most important reason for its current popularity, though, is Ultimate Team, a morbidly evil combination of football, casinos, stock markets, and the promise of building the titular ‘ultimate team’. That last part is what draws players in, being a natural extension of typical manager modes where you build a team from nothing to win the top prize. The other parts are where EA makes their money – you can buy packs with either real money or an earned in-game currency, which when opened gives you a random selection of players and other items based on how much dosh you threw at them. The standard pay-to-win format is in here, where you don’t earn enough in-game money for it to ever be worth spending on hopeless crapshoots, so you just buy points and get endless amounts of players instead. Somewhere in the swarm, you’ll find Messi. This is clearly the best way to play the game, because why would you ever want to experience steady personal gains when you can just buy your neighbours fucking yacht instead.

But then what are you going to do with these millions of human beings, who are for some reason inexplicably attached to trading cards, panicking, screaming eternally from inside their virtual cardboard hell prisons? Well, Frank, you sell them on the virtual trading market. Obviously. It’s not slavery, it’s business.

This is where human players can make loads of in-game currency through normal stock market ideas of buying low and selling high, amongst other sneaky tactics such as the bizarrely named ‘sniping’ method of buying something for cheap as soon as it’s put on the market. This phrase has probably spawned from children playing CoD, since I don’t think American Sniper was a film about the trauma of excellent fiscal investment choices.

walkout

“I think this business card presentation might be a bit overkill, Mr Reus”

Each games platform has a different market with different organically shifting prices, meaning that the oft forgotten PC version (the one I’m bloody playing on) has prices that can easily be double what you’d get on a console. Handily, match earnings are exactly the same. This means that not only does the PC have a massively smaller player base, leaving online play feeling a bit like a ghost town with a couple of randomly jabbering Austrians in the corner, it’s a lot more difficult to actually make your ‘ultimate team’. I’m fairly sure I’ll never get my glorious Gareth Bale card, simply because the game will have died before I’ve even had the chance.

Anyway, once you’ve sniped your way through the marketplace (not like that) and come away with a hatful of virtual coins, what do you do with them? Well common sense would dictate that you then use that money in the virtual market to buy the players you want to play with. Unfortunately, YouTube claims otherwise.

It turns out there’s a staggeringly massive market for FIFA YouTubers, with most not even bothering to play the actual football game they’ve bought. Instead, they spend their days reacting hilariously to random chance that’s happening in front of them by screaming at the top of their lungs at pack openings, jumping around the room, dressing up, making stupid faces, screaming again, and generally being normal functioning adults. Hopefully they blow out their vocal chords at some point when they pull a spikey horned satanic version of Ashley Williams or whatever the hell EA are doing this month.

twats

Four perfectly normal, natural, sensible, reserved, adult reactions. This image was saved as ‘twats.jpg’ by the way.

Some more sober channels feature variously aged children giving mildly obvious tips about how to make money in the marketplace, which can be helpful at times; I’ve seen a few give hints about players that are cheap now but may be worth a lot in the future. Fairly standard investment stuff, but still useful.

What aren’t useful, however, are the grotesquely misleading titles and thumbnails these things tend to have. One guy (who for some reason appears to want you to know he has a carrot, despite never appearing on screen with one) claims to be able to ‘double your coins!!!’ with a thumbnail of a Photoshopped picture of a large number doubling. I watched this video, and the doubling of coins is done by spending 500 to make 1000. The fake thumbnail has the number 50,000 doubling to 100,000. You will need to do this method 100 times without the market changing against you in order to do that. Good fucking luck with that.

Other bullshit includes telling you how to ‘100% make coins!’, which is an embarrassingly easy thing to do when those words are in that order, or being able to make ‘1k coins in 1 minute!!!’ in ‘the best trading method in FIFA 17!!!!’. This was done by buying a player then selling him for 1k profit within 60 seconds. Note that he does this once, and so has accurately made 1k coins in 1 minute. The implication, however, is that you can now do this for every minute, thereby making 60k an hour, or 1.44m a day. This is clearly absurd, but don’t let reality get in the way of manipulating kiddywinks for YouTube likes.

youtube-channel

I don’t know what’s worse, the dubious advertising or the glaringly obnoxious colour scheme.

So now you’ve got a hundred quadrazillion coins sitting in a fake virtual bank account that you can’t do anything with. You’ve bought 14 Ronaldos to use just in case three get injured all at the same time in a flexing competition. Your team is literally the best it will ever be. You now have nothing else to do but play the game.

Unfortunately, this brings me back to the start, where all of my hypocritically childish bitching began. FIFA attempts to be a solid competitive game, but it just isn’t. It can never be one. You can learn how to get better at a fighting game, for example, since it’s all very tightly controlled and doing the same thing twice will end with the same results. Scientifically speaking, it is repeatable.

No such luck in FIFA, as it’s a game based on chance and statistical probabilities. This is fine in something relatively simple like poker, but in FIFA there are 22 players on a pitch at once, each with about 50 individual statistics that have to be used to determine what happens. Then there’s positioning, how long you held down the power bar, which direction you’re facing, and so many more subtle complexities that makes it basically impossible to know exactly what’s going to happen when you press a button.

This isn’t helped by FIFA’s AI problems. Conspiracies abound about ‘scripting’, which is where the game basically decides who’s going to win the match by goalkeepers suddenly becoming octopuses or strikers developing severe allergies to running forwards. A less strict version of this is ‘momentum’, where teams supposedly swing back and forth in ability to make games more interesting. This would be fine in a spectator sport, but FIFA is a videogame. Randomly changing the numbers behind what you’re actually seeing so you don’t know if your team is prepared to play football or if they’ve rocked up for water polo instead would be immensely frustrating. Watching your monstrous defender with his 82 inch pythons muscled off the ball by what can be accurately described as a bearded baby is something that just shouldn’t happen, and, while it’s unlikely any of this maniacal overload scripting rubbish exists, when all the glitchy nonsense starts to pile on you often feel like you’re fighting against the game rather than controlling it.

smalling

Case in point, there is no ‘applause’ button.

With all of this random bullshit, with all of this manipulative wankery, with the inevitability of a PC graveyard, you might be asking why I even play FIFA Ultimate Team. To be honest, and this might come as a surprise, most of the above is slightly exaggerated for comic effect. I know, who would have thought.

The game is, generally speaking, great. The above clip of Smalling crossing his wires and daydreaming a lovely performance of the Bach chorales is a one in a million instance that just happened to be caught on video and shared in the screaming echo chamber of Reddit, and while you’re well within your rights to hurl your TV out of the window when it happens to you, most of the time you’re going to lose because you’re in a bad mood and not concentrating. There’s a phenomenon in games called ’tilting’, where you start to perform badly and get annoyed, meaning you perform worse, which makes you more annoyed, and now you’re stuck in a suicidal one-more-go mentality where you won’t stop until you’ve finally won. This is not EA’s fault. Go for a walk, have a wank, do anything. Come back when you’re not being quite so shit.

It’s true that some matches do feel as if they’re fighting actively against you, but the little moments of satisfaction in a tight game you edge 1-0 make everything worthwhile. FIFA might kick you in the balls when Giovinco scores a backheel from the halfway line, but you’ll be back for the trading, you’ll be back for the atmosphere, and you’ll be back for the goals. As I alluded to when jabbering about Football Manager, it’s addictive not in spite of, but almost because it isn’t fair.

Now go pay for Messi, you bellend.

marco-scream

I don’t know why one of the promo pictures was Marco Reus shitting out an egg, but there you go.

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A Word On… Football Manager

 (Originally published in Issue #3 of Cobalt Magazine at Warwick University, released in March 2015. Read that version here, on pages 42-44.)

Menus. Hundreds upon hundreds of menus, spiralling out from each other like Russian Doll spreadsheets. Even the statistics you find when using the menus have menus. That’s all Football Manager is, menus, statistics and mildly confused frustration. This is football for stock brokers with a habit.

As someone who has never particularly enjoyed strategy or management games, going blind into an online Football Manager game was always going to be difficult, and as expected it was as daunting as organising a schizophrenic serial killers noticeboard. After skipping the tutorials that were so boring I felt myself visibly age after just one line of text, I inevitably found myself facing of a wall of information set out like Rain Mans receipt collection. This was more like HSBCs filing cabinet than it was football.

It didn’t really help that the options were irritatingly opaque; for example there’s no Settings menu. Instead there’s a menu bafflingly called Preferences that’s buried inside other menus with sub menus of its own. Either the developers were actively laughing at new players like they’re a blindfolded cat in a maze made of lino or they see the world purely through the medium of Microsoft Excel and don’t know what rational thought is anymore.

fm-menu2riveting

Our plan was to have each of us, four partially capable humans of various Football Manager experience, manage a different Championship team and see who could become the most successful before we all inevitably got bored and went to do something else. I blindly selected my team, which turned out to be a bad choice given the others had actually chosen theirs for solid reasons. I just knew Blackburn had a good striker and went from there, ignoring the defence whose best player is an angry sociopathic Scotsman. He got sent off three minutes into the first game I played. This soon became a theme.

Having made this incredibly well informed choice, I tried to find something to cling on to in this barely legible gibberish, presented in a language that would make sense to Alan Hansen and nobody else. At this point the only menu that made sense to my addled brain was Transfers, so I tried my luck with that. Unfortunately I found that the muppets running my club had given me tuppence and a stick of gum to spend on new players, whereas everyone else had roughly half the national income of Japan.

I made do with what I had, scrabbling for loan players like a hobo looking for milk bottle tops in the gutter, pleading with agents to let the fading pensioner join my team for a weekend just in case my other pensioners fell over too much and disintegrated like a breadstick in the washing machine.

email

If you have a desk job, then role-playing someone who reads a hundred million emails every week might not be your idea of a rest.

Before I started a match, I was told by the constant Steam chat I should try and work out what was going on in the Tactics menu. Here you edit formation, lineups, substitutes and general instructions to give your team whenever they play. Obviously there are ridiculous levels of complexity to this as well, like contrasting instructions that would only confuse your players if you told them to try and play both wide and narrow at the same time, and multiple subtly different roles a player can have within the same position.

Again, the negatives of any of these options aren’t exactly explicit; when I set an instruction to Hassle Opponents, I assumed it would mean an appropriate defensive or midfield player would close down the opposition and prevent passes with a modicum of intelligence. What I discovered was that almost all of my players would charge at the guy with the ball like it was the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, leaving a gaping chasm for the other team to pass into, completely bypassing the cavalry of overpaid morons.

You have to experiment and find out what is actually useful rather than it being given to you, which sounds like good game design but it really isn’t. It’s the equivalent of being given a choice of seventeen identical looking sticks then getting a thwack on the head and a branch up the arse because you chose the wrong one. Good luck getting it right on your first attempt, and your arse might not appreciate you giving it another shot.

fm-match3

After making a couple of distinctly average signings and creating a new formation suitably dubbed The Penis (make up your own reasons), I suited up and went into battle. Which I lost, because my setup was crap. After waiting half an hour for the others to fiddle their menus some more, I tried again. And lost, because I scored a fluke own goal despite dominating in every statistic the game would throw at me.

This is where the addictive, social life threatening part of Football Manager comes in; nothing you do actually matters. Not in any tangible, definite way. Since you’re not actively controlling what happens on the pitch, all you’re doing is essentially making your own odds more favourable without determining anything – a random number generator where you can nudge the machine a few times if it’s fucked you over a cliff recently. No matter what you do nothing is ever certain, and so the game never becomes truly satisfying. Yes that’s football, but footballs not perfect anyway.

Since it’s essentially a strategy game with random elements there’s always this horrible one more go factor, where you want to try your formation again and hope your full back doesn’t headbutt himself and start humping the post when defending a corner. It’s a case of proving yourself against a bunch of sceptical numbers hidden behind shitty 3D visuals with physics from a particularly glitchy Asteroids clone. It’s like the Matrix if it was set in Upton Park.

Eventually, more and more of the ridiculous user interface began to make sense. I found out I could train individual players in an attempt to improve their stats. Match reports allowed me to prepare better for the next game, such as which areas of the pitch the opposition was weakest. Scouting allowed me to try and pick up promising young players on the cheap, although with my budget management being overseen by a sparrow on LSD this was essentially impossible. Almost anything you could want to do in football exists in Football Manager, unless you want to actually kick the fucking ball.

stats

LOOKIT ALL DEM STATISTICS HUERUEHGUHLHKHLREK

Slowly all of these options started to come together into something more cohesive; my team was well drilled and my defenders had stopped leaking goals like a colander in the Atlantic. I began to move up the league with a catastrophically unpredictable run of form for all concerned, culminating in a final day race for automatic promotion with only goal difference separating me from a fellow human. I won a close game against 7th place while he was dismantled by an already relegated 23rd. As usual, pissing off your friends is rather entertaining.

Football Manager is hard. Newcomers won’t get why so much of what they try doesn’t work, and an at least average knowledge of football is required to get to the meat of it (what the hell is the difference between an Enganche and a Trequartista). It’s similar to the Candy Crush mentality; an illusion of skill where success just boils down to luck of the draw, like being graded on Blackjack. It has an awful lot more layers of illusion between skill and luck than Candy Crush however, and doesn’t get you to pay to keep playing, so it’s at least not evil. Still, it’s football on a roulette wheel, an endless bag of cookies being guarded by Two-Face dressed as a linesman. It’s not exactly fair, but then neither is heroin.

[The version played was Football Manager 2014, but it doesn’t really matter since this wasn’t a review. If it helps I thought 2014 was great, played it for 800 hours, and thought 2015 was comparatively terrible. Those are the only Football Manager games I’ve ever played]

Read more of Cobalt magazine here, and check out their blog here.