Football’s a funny old game.
You oftentimes don’t reap what you sow. You can meticulously build towards the sort of all-inclusive team goal, the likes of which would make Ajax legend Rinus Michels blush with glee all to be undone by a moment of measured brilliance out of nowhere — à la Zinedine Zidane’s left-footed volley against Bayer Leverkusen to seal a Champions League triumph back in 2002.
It may feel unfair, and at times downright unjust, but that’s what makes the sport the most beloved throughout the world; that level of fervor and unpredictability. Until now, EA Sports Canada’s attempts at replicating The Beautiful Game have ranged between incredibly competent realizations all the way down to inconsequential in the face of Pro Evolution Soccer’s past dominance. It’s been an up and down ride, but make no mistake, this year’s iteration brings with it one of the most pronounced gameplay upheavals in recent memory.
With the potential to construct a play like that of the Egyptian pyramids only to have it crumble in disarray like a game of Jenga, the FIFA 16 experience now better encapsulates the moment-to-moment susceptibility housed within football; the risk/reward mantra that’s so ingrained in the very fundamentals of the sport. For once, it finally feels as though there are separate phases of attack and everything just feels a lot more reactionary and purposeful. The passing, for instance, has been revamped and doesn’t feel nearly as choreographed as previous years where it sometimes felt as though the game had devolved into a bout of pinball. This time around passing can regularly be too short with the propensity to be miscontrolled, which can subsequently drag players out of their respective positions leading to more avenues to explore enroute to that elusive goal. It’s a far more dynamic, and frankly realistic, way of depicting the sport and treads the line much closer to Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer than ever before.
Despite the evident admittance of its influence, it’s also particularly commendable that EA Sports has sought to rectify the midfield shortcomings of yonder. As noted extensively in our review of FIFA 15, the middle area of the pitch was always void of any real contestation, never the place where games could be taken by the scruff of the neck or seemed to have any real effect on the overall procession of play. Now, however, the general gameplay manages to mostly capture that balance of allowing you the sort of malleable room to really work towards a pattern of play and not be let down by a flimsy mechanic or one of those tried-and-tested balls over the top. It’s a refreshing change, and while not perfect – EA Sports’ post-demo tinkering being one of the culprits – it means that every match plays out in a more distinct and individual way. And unlike years before, playing the computer never feels too formulaic or monotonous either – a testament to the effort leveled towards arguably the most important aspect of the game.
The level of unpredictability brought about by the aforementioned variety in passing responses is an example of a much-needed injection of dynamism into proceedings and is in stark contrast to the days where matches of FIFA – be it on Ultimate Team or Online Seasons – would devolve into a series of preconceived tropes and repetitive actions of abuse. It’s taken far too long but gone are the days where pace-afflicted speedsters would induce tremors within the legs of defenders with a mere sleight of foot or turn in any general direction. You’ve now got to rely on a lot more cunning and anticipation to outgun a defender and the experience is all the better for it. Though still not perfect by any means – with collision detection, input lag, and the odd passing placement still suspect to a point – players now have to rely on diminutive movement rather than full-speed-ahead pace to get the better of an opposite number. It also makes you more appreciative of being able to read situations and react to certain stimuli as patterns emerge and it feels far more fulfilling to succeed as a result.
By the same token, when faced with the mammoth task of ascending through the rankings within Online Seasons or even Ultimate Team, the game’s mechanics can sometimes border on erratic, with little method to the madness. What feels fair in a standard offline excursion can come across as a little cumbersome when faced with a real-life opponent who can quickly punish your players’ tendencies to fumble the ball, misplace relatively simple passes, and get caught up in the same positional area as a teammate. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’s seemingly EA Sports’ way of drilling in the importance of concentration and composure on the ball; the notion that taking too long or attempting an unrealistic backwards pass will lead to your downfall. There isn’t any hand-holding here, and while there are some moments that do feel patently unfair, it’s by-and-large the sort of experience we’ve been inching towards all these years.
As one has come to expect , there is, of course, an iterative finesse to this year’s graphical fidelity. While not wholesale by any means, the players’ animations and general likenesses are improved upon noticeably, with better lighting, recognition of events throughout the match, and more diverse celebratory actions. The crowds now do the Mexican wave, too, if that’s something worth waxing lyrical about – we’re sure the minds behind the 1986 World Cup are thrilled about its inclusion. What’s a far more welcome addition, though, and one that’s frankly taken far too long to enact, is the incorporation of Women’s football into the package. Well, just a selection of international teams for the minute. Seemingly diverging from the beaten track momentarily, EA Sports has admirably taken some care in creating this new facet of the game, it’s not simply a tacked-on rehash, void of originality or any discernible traits. It actually feels refreshing and is a sure-fire sign that things are going in the right direction.
Like the sort of hard-hitting defensive solidity that would mirror Tony Adams in heat , the back end of the pitch is now decidedly more steadfast in its approach to danger, too. It’s no longer the case that Gareth Bale’s direct running to the byline would cause a collective conniption amongst your full-backs, rather it’s now a matter of your defensive unit setting itself in accordance with how the midfield is controlling the game, whether that means dropping back an extra ten yards to receive more passes or to hold the line tightly in response to an over-the-top through ball and an onrushing striker. Everything just feels more cohesive and less susceptible to implosion so long as you’re methodical with how you proceed. Plus, the inclusion of an in-game tutorial-of-sorts named ‘FIFA Trainer’ alleviates some of the growing pains associated with learning the art of defending, or even the game for that matter. Sure you can play with a healthy dose of risk by sending your AI defenders out of position to close down an impending threat but the game now expects you – and damn well challenges you – to be mindful of the potential for that to go awry. The odd howler and the fact that ‘keepers are still far too slow in getting back to their line after charging out aside, the defensive portion of FIFA 16 is a lot more nuanced than ever before and though it takes a lot of practice for everything to fall into place it’s worth it in the end.
Leaving the mechanical tinkering to one side, two of the more mentioned additions to the mostly ignored Career mode are that of pre-season tournaments and player training regiments. While the former is little more than an aside, the latter is actually a nice little inclusion that gifts you more reign over how your squad is developing on a weekly basis. With five available slots, (one or more per player) you can assign developmental tasks to your fledglings and watch them receive a ranking for their work and a small boost of stats in the process. Unfortunately, that’s the long and short of improvements leveled towards the mode that can now be considered the series’ black sheep of neglect – a crying shame given its immense potential as an engaging base to become a manager, deal with situational variation and the day-to-day running of your club, all the while attempting to stake your claim as one of the best in the business.
As for FIFA’s most prized money-printing phenomenon, Ultimate Team, the starkest of differences lies within Draft mode; a new addition that allows you to put your Ultimate Team nous to the test by constructing the best-fitting team from a five-player draw in each position on the field. It’s a novel inclusion in all honesty, one that feels as though its appearance is to act as a sampler of everything the mode has to offer in order to coax players into the fully fledged experience. Everything else housed within is effectively business as usual. After all, Ultimate Team is what it is; you either love it or you simply don’t bother with it. And even though the fluctuating market conditions, potential to construct a team how you want to, and the general fervor around the mode are genuinely attractive propositions, there’s little in this year’s offering that’ll convince you to shift your opinion one way or the other.
It’s maddening, beautiful and downright frustrating all in the same utterance; an unpredictable, oftentimes surprising, experience that gives and takes in the same breath. It’s more like the sport that it’s trying to replicate than ever before and oddly enough that’s not always as laudable as one might think. Though not as refined as optimally as one would hope, (its shortcomings symptomatic of the constraints inherent with the annualized release model) there is undoubted progress in the right direction here. It’s just as well, too, what with resurgence Pro Evolution Soccer as the contender confidently staking its claim as the best football game around with its latest release. Thankfully for us, it’s looking like a two-horse race from here on out so let’s cross our fingers and hope that it’s not won on points difference like a certain league was a couple of years ago. As you might be able to tell, I’m still a bit bitter.