Why FIFA 16 is a return to form

Why FIFA 16 is a return to form
Brett Phipps Updated on by

The past couple of entries in the FIFA series have seen marquee changes which haven’t quite hit the mark. FIFA 14 saw headers receive an overhaul, only for the likes of Marouane Fellaini and Didier Drogba to dominate every cross. FIFA 15 saw goalkeepers allegedly upgraded, much to the delight of YouTubers uploading the fruits of EA’s labour at its buggiest. These changes were soon neutered in post-launch patches, quickly backtracking on each giant leap. FIFA 16 doesn’t look to dazzle with a ‘back of the box’ gameplay feature, but rather implement a series of foundational tweaks and improvements that, together, will hopefully bring beauty, and most importantly balance, back to the pitch.

Gameplay lead producer Aaron McHardy told me how the feel of this year’s entry bears resemblance to FIFA 09, in its approach of bringing the game back to its fundamentals.

“I think we had a similar year in FIFA 09. I think our tagline was ‘250+ gameplay changes’ and it’s kind of that feeling again with innovation across the entire pitch…We’ve left no stone unturned and we’re really going after the polish of the game and the balance of the game.”

Balance has been missing for a while in FIFA, favouring forwards and leaving defenders somewhere between panic stations and ‘why even bother?’. Not this year, because early code suggests FIFA 16 is a much more balanced prospect. The midfield, a position so often bypassed by players hoping to ping the ball to pacy wingers and forwards, has become as key as it is in the real sport.

FIFA 15 saw much of the technical and tactical planning thrown out the window in the name of out-and-out speed. Passing the ball to your quickest player for them to run head-first towards goal to terrorise cumbersome defenders became the go-to strategy, but this was hardly Mourinho-level ingenuity. Every game felt like the final ten minutes of a cup final, but defenders in FIFA 16 are now more agile and, importantly, more intelligent. Previously, you could make a pass straight to your forwards, neglecting the midfield knowing that defending players would only intercept if stood right next to the ball. Not anymore, with improved player intelligence, interceptions are far more common for lazy passes.

Players will now step into the space, closing down passing lanes and stopping you from finding easy routes forward. Also, a defender will now step in front of a forward waiting to receive a ball if they’re on their heels, meaning possession is much more likely to change hands in many different instances. Attacks must now move through phases of play, build patiently through the midfield, pulling defenders out of position before exploiting the space. Also, those inexplicable gaps left for attackers to run into aren’t as frequent, thanks to defenders now being more aware of danger areas, and stepping away from man-marking duties to cover zones. Players will also recognise changes in possession much quicker than before, meaning they’ll get back into position quicker, allowing you to maintain shape as a team.

Increased intelligence would mean little if they still couldn’t defend one-on-one situations, but you can now expect the likes of Raphael Varane to keep track of Messi’s mazy turns, no longer taking days to turn 180-degrees. Seeing the improved defensive agility in wire animations showed just how drastic the improvement has been, but in the game, it felt even further removed from 15’s sense of helplessness without the ball. I was able to shape my defence, track runs and jockey defenders and make a tackle expecting to win the ball rather than desperately hoping. Teams defended as a unit, and if beaten by skill, were able to get back into position. Standing tackles on mid-air balls, being able to jump up from a slide tackle early and better jostling mechanics have also vastly improved the defensive side of the game.

Thanks to these defensive improvements, matches feel slower, and more considered. Rather than be the absurd end-to-end encounters, the midfield will see possession change hands often, with key passes and good movement proving the key to creating chances. Lobbed through balls still seem a bit cheap as a go-to tactic, however, as they too easily beat the defensive line.

Of course, attackers have been given some new toys to play with, too. The three biggest changes are no-touch dribbling, crossing and drilled passes. By holding RB/R1, a player will fire the ball towards its intended receiver in the hope of preventing the opposition from intercepting. In the context of the new defender AI and their improved ball-nicking abilities, it’s an incredibly useful tool. But you have to make sure you teammate is prepared to receive the pass, as it will arrive at just short of the speed of sound. If the receiver isn’t in a position to receive the pass, it’s likely they’ll miscontrol it and possession will be lost. In my brief time with the game, the new feature was used very often when playing without pressure on the ball, but once you begin breaking down the defence, knowing when can be the difference between a goal and a squandered opportunity. The power does need tweaking, though. It’s great when making passes from midfield to forwards or across the pitch, but when trying to thread the needle just outside of the 18-yard box, firing a rocket to your player’s feet doesn’t work.

No-touch dribbling is a new way to trick defenders without actually changing the path of the ball. By holding LB/L1, you can then press the left stick to your heart’s content, without actually putting foot-to-ball. Feinting to go one way, then dragging the ball the other is a great way of creating space, and can be used with a rolling or dead ball. The only issue is when the ball is moving, the player animation makes it a little too obvious what you’re about to do. Players break into a salsa dance while running down the touchline, not entirely dissimilar to NFL wide receiver Victor Cruz’s touchdown celebration, something any Sunday league player would leave them in a heap for.

But if you manage to create a yard or two of space on the wing, you’ll be able to take advantage of the excellent new crosses. Rather than float the ball into the box every time, it’s now whipped in with pace and can be put in with spin to take the delivery away from the defender and into the path of your striker. The game now compensates for multi-part player runs, meaning the runner doesn’t have to break stride in order to meet the flight of the ball to allow for diving headers and some incredibly satisfying moments. This also brings greater emphasis to drilled crosses and paying attention to the runs your players make, rather than aiming for the penalty spot and hoping someone is there by the time the ball is.

Whenever new principles are introduced, it’s a case of working out what new finger-Twister moves you’ll have to pull off to make them possible, and EA has recognised the increasing complexity of FIFA with the introduction of the FIFA Trainer, an overlay of contextual commands to help newcomers learn. Depending on who you’re controlling (and their current expertise), visual cues help move you through phases of play. A novice will see ‘A – Pass, B – Shoot’ next to a player’s body, while higher-trained gamers may see ‘LB + Y – lobbed through ball, RB + B – finesse shot’. It’s a novel idea in theory, but in practice, it’s overwhelming and distracting. To look at the buttons takes your attention away from the match, and leaves you vulnerable to tackles.

I also got the chance to play two of the women’s international teams, Germany and the USA, and EA has done an excellent job translating their likeness into the game and producing quality football. The player models have been given a complete overhaul, and thanks to most of the players being face captured as well as the US and Canadian national teams being mo-capped, it looks like a women’s football match rather than simply a FIFA mod. During the presentation, EA noted that, thanks to the introduction of female player models, proportional scaling is now possible, meaning the likes of Ade Akinfenwa and Peter Crouch are no longer simply stretched, but shaped as they are in real life. Also, more varied hairstyles means that Zlatan Ibrahimovic finally has animated long hair during gameplay.

Much was made of the inability for women to play against men, but this was explained during the presentation as being down to the bespoke rating system for the ladies. EA has given women their own ratings, so an 83-rated woman will be different to an 83-rated man. As you’d expect, the best female players don’t match the best men, so rather than give women on-par ratings with men, leading to unrepresentative numbers for the sport’s leading stars, a bespoke system was created, meaning matches don’t work across the two.

It’s refreshing that this year EA isn’t going for the headline-grabbing change, but is instead tweaking its fundamentals, and in doing so producing a much better game of football. The changes have brought balance to what many felt was a misstep last year, where goalkeepers were unreliable or too good, and much of football’s intricacy was lost by the way of blistering pace. Not this year. Teams are smarter, build up play requires finesse, defending takes precision, and goals need to be earned. Play may be slower, and goals may be a bit harder to come by, but they’re all the more rewarding for it. This year could be a good one.