Heading into this console transition my opinion was that, of all the genres that could possibly sell a new Xbox or PlayStation, sports would come in last. Despite the richer visuals and refined experiences I've seen so far, that opinion still stands.
My PlayStation 4 arrived late Friday, and since then I've spent time with three sports video games—FIFA 14 and Madden NFL 25 from EA Sports, and 2K Sports' exceptional NBA 2K14. These are my impressions of what they offer, which they will also offer on the Xbox One when that console launches on Friday.
Generally speaking, sports gamers with strong online commitments on the current generation—the ability to transfer Ultimate Teams across generations in FIFA and Madden notwithstanding—would be trading deep investments in multiplayer leagues for modest upgrades in gameplay, though Madden does address some issues that should make one-off multiplayer a little more competitive.
Still, in none of these three games did I come away thinking "This is Madden/FIFA/NBA 2K as I've always wanted to play it." The improvements are there, but absent a large sample size of play they do not constitute a visceral breakthrough.
In visuals, I was looking to two things: Presentation, or the stuff you don't control that's supposed to look like a broadcast, and animations, which is the player behavior in gameplay. The basic graphical elements—textures, surfaces, skin tones, player expressions, etc.—are indeed better, but frankly, the game is moving too fast for you to appreciate it as you play.
As I've said, we're seeing a refinement of things already seen in high definition for years. So those who remember the last console transition in 2005—switching from blotchy, nearly cartoonishly-portrayed athletes to more photorealistic models—should not expect anywhere close to that kind of epiphany this go around.
Sports gamers who have already ordered a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One can either buy the titles outright or pay $10 and trade in the last-gen version, and reasonably expect a better, smoother and more lifelike game in all three. Now that I have the option of current-gen or next-gen Madden, or FIFA or NBA 2K14, no, there's no point in me going back to any of those games on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.
But it's my job to buy this stuff (and I did buy this hardware, with my own money.) For those wondering if Madden 25, FIFA 14 or NBA 2K14 by themselves, or even collectively, justify a new console purchase at $400, the answer is still no. Speaking purely as a sports gamer, I would have felt no compulsion to buy a new console, even after sampling these experiences on one.
One note, NBA Live 14 is not available at retail for the PlayStation 4 until Tuesday; I was given a copy by EA Sports on the condition I can't write about it before Tuesday (like the rest of the sports media). As such, I have nothing to say about it here. But I will later.
To those who think I'm an ugly American with a knee-jerk dislike of international football, I did play soccer in high school. The coach made me a headhunter fullback, a meathead who runs down others and kicks the ball into the stands. (We had a German exchange student who compared me to a player in the Bundesliga. I smiled until my teammate's brother visited and told me the player was a real tomato can.) For better or worse, this is how I play defense on my couch as a 40-year-old when I dabble in FIFA, and it will not work as well on the PS4, thanks to more intelligent players.
FIFA 14's improvements, such that I can perceive them, are much more subtle. Brutish pressure and spamming the slide tackle are not as effective because attackers are better able to avoid you, driving your focus more to spacing, proper marking, and seeing the entire pitch.
About two possessions into the Real Madrid—FC Barcelona match the game serves you right out of the box, I realized how starkly out of position I was when my tomato can fullback overran his mark and suddenly Ronaldo was one-on-one to the goal, barely five minutes gone from the clock. On offense, through passes to me seemed a lot crisper (this is another button I spam a lot) accompanied by a more dynamic animation, than on the previous generation. In the hands of a skilled player there's a greater opportunity for ball movement and tempo control.
It's hard to call this a transformative effort, though FIFA's solid foundation would make such an expectation almost unreasonable. Those who have sunk a ton of time into the PS3 edition can confidently upgrade for the $10 offer EA Sports is running with GameStop and savor a moderately richer experience. Some stadia will get a pre-match exterior shot similar to Madden, and the crowds are on the whole more responsive (and thrilling, when you score at a critical moment.) The commentary benefits from new camera angles and replays, where even if you're hearing old dialogue it appears to be more observant of a match in progress than in the past.
FIFA remains the gold standard of sports video gaming and it would be expecting a lot for the next-generation version to put its ancestor to shame right out of the box, considering how many modes of play are already offered on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. But I can't shake the feeling that those who could most appreciate the experience it offers made up their minds long ago whether they would adopt a new console on the first day or wait it out. For those who acquired a PS4 for other purposes and have wondered what the fuss is over this game, though, you won't be disappointed.
No sports title did more to distinguish itself from its previous console edition than NBA 2K14. MyCareer—the mode in which you control a single superstar—already was unique among sports titles on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It is even more distinct on the PlayStation 4, threading in friendships, rivalries and a classic rags-to-riches backstory through your rookie's climb to stardom.
Your rivalry with Jackson Ellis (a fictitious player) comes off a little too scripted in the early goings, but it is a load of fun shutting his ass up, as this video (by another gamer, YouTube's QJB) demonstrates. For those who can't pull off a triple-double in the rookie showcase, you can reliably anticipate that Ellis will be drafted ahead of you by a team you thought was your best fit. That stokes the "I'll show them" attitude that, if it's a little simple, is as good a basis as any for a career mode's emergent narrative.
Unfortunately, NBA 2K14 is as close to an always-online game for sports as we've seen so far. If your console is not connected to the Internet, the MyCareer and MyGM modes are unavailable to you, as are any multiplayer modes, naturally, including "The Park." That's a blacktop court where your created player runs ball with others' created players. It is, in a sense, similar to how Grand Theft Auto V divides its offline story and its online cooperative/competitive experience, and The Park is uniqe to next-generation versions.
That means if 2K's servers are down—and longtime players know this is not a rarity—all you can access are the one-off play-now modes—the tutorials and practice, an exhibition game, streetball, etc. You can't run a franchise or singleplayer career offline. For some, that's understandably a deal-breaker.
MyGM is a remodeled version of the Association mode longtime basketball fans have played in this series on the 360 and PlayStation 3. It too ramps up the roleplaying element, putting you in the between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place role of a front office executive trying to keep an owner and players happy and the media at bay. I dealt with this the least in my time since Friday but it blends the control of Association with the (somewhat scripted) theatrics of MyCareer to support the emergent narrative players have written for themselves as they steer their clubs.
As admittedly bad as I am at basketball, nothing makes me want to learn and be better at a sport than NBA 2K14, whose admirable commitment to being a role-playing game, in addition to a sports simulation, is on full display with its PlayStation 4 offering. A mildly interested basketball fan who already has the console must still pick this up.
Madden's next-generation offering delivers the most necessary gameplay upgrade while doing nothing in the realm of extra modes and little in game-day presentation. This can leave you feeling like you're playing a PS3 version of Madden on sharper resolution—until you go back to the old edition and try to run a draw on third-and-five.
I harshly scolded Madden NFL 25on the Xbox 360 for boneheaded, three-blind-mice blocking—for a run or a pass—by the offensive line. It is so improved on the PlayStation 4, it forced me to realize just how shit-headedly I had been running the ball before. Now, you could argue that I was conditioned to always bounce a run to the outside because of how porous the offensive line play was on the current generation (particularly how a linebacker would repeatedly breeze unmolested by a guard with no obvious blocking assignment across from him, and drag your ass down from behind for a loss.) But when I see an offensive line sensibly executing double teams and picking up linebackers—and a running back who can squirt through the hole, putting his hands out contextually to fend off an obstruction, I realize that, yes, god dammit, the draw is supposed to be run straight through the middle.
I didn't fool with any of the precision modifiers, either—and the better tactile feel of the DualShock 4 thumbsticks means you will still get plenty of performance from regular cutbacks and flick-stutters on the left stick without using a juke or spin move.
Lots of people are marveling over what the improved blocking does for passing in Madden, and indeed, you can throw more confidently from a truer pocket as the tackles steer the pass rush to the edges. But running is much livelier and effective, particularly from the draw, in which your line sells a pass block. Running may even be too overpowered. I wasn't running with Robocop, mind you, I was tearing off seven-yard runs on third down with Trent Richardson—behind the Colts' line—and the Browns' (as I waited for PSN to come online Friday).
Still, what surrounds Madden NFL 25 is almost identical to its PlayStation 3 (and Xbox 360) versions. EA Sports' pre-game introductions remain positively stone-age, even on the PS4, compared to its peers. At least the booth team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are less given to repetition. Nantz shocked the hell out of me when he described both a big gain and a critical open-field tackle and left the scene by saying "but he's still got the first down." In the past, the play would be get one big-play statement and be punctuated with another noncommital exclamation.
Of the three next-generation games, Madden might come off as the least improved simply because so many of the animations are the same and the game makes little effort to put more than two football players in any transition scene. There's no way you can see a player celebrating all alone—no one else on the screen—after getting up from a first down and think, yeah, that's what I see on TV. American football is the most telegenic of all sports, and in this area Madden NFL 25 makes no strides whatsoever using the PlayStation 4's capabilities.
Deep down, though, the additional computing oomph supplied by the PlayStation 4 may be most visible in the complicated relationships of the line of scrimmage—and Madden NFL 25 on the next generation may have done the most to save itself of any sports title this year. We just won't know it until next year.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games.