I've reviewed FIFA for three consecutive years, and each time EA Sports has presented a stronger offering at the initial reveal than it has done with the final product. There's a reason that around March there's a flood of previews proclaiming 'This year's FIFA will right all the world's wrongs and also fix your nan's dodgy cooker': it's because every tweak and adjustment made to the previous year's offering is turned up to 11, making the differences so prominent.
At preview, FIFA felt sharp. The passing was electric, with games moving at a great pace which kept you constantly on your toes. Rather than the end-to-end encounters of previous years, the battle was very much in the midfield, where players intercepted poor passing play with aggression. That said, passes zipped around the field, crosses flew in with a variety unseen in the series, with curl, whip and a sense that the wide man was aiming for a player in space rather than nonspecific areas of the penalty box.
All of these great changes have had their edges dulled in the time between then and now: a real shame. It seems that too many cooks spoil the broth in the name of 'balancing', and what we have once again is a marginally better offering that in actuality could have been leaps and bounds better. Yes, FIFA 16 is better than FIFA 15, but in light of what Konami has brought to the table, the improvement feels hollow, as PES 2016 is so far ahead of its rival.
It's been almost a decade since the battle between PES and FIFA felt like a contest. While FIFA has changed minimally in recent years, PES has taken a back seat, overhauled its engine, and come back this year better than ever. With FIFA's incremental updates, the series has aged dramatically on the new-gen consoles.
FIFA 15 was a misstep for the series, and EA has tried to right the wrongs with fundamental tweaks to gameplay rather than a single 'back of the box' update. However, in an attempt to correct previous issues, some changes have done more harm than good. The keepers, for instance, while proving more competent than 15's Fabian Barthez clones, also take away much of the excitement of frantic scrambles in the box. Goalies are now much more eager to come and catch or punch deliveries clear, even if they arrive as far away as the penalty spot. This sounds good, when you're a defender, but the problem is EA is so scared of presenting those between the sticks as fallible that they never make a mistake, removing all of the intrigue of pumping the ball into the area.
In real football, when a stopper strays from his line, hearts enter mouths because of the possibility, no matter how slight, that they'll misjudge the flight and present the attacker with an open goal. However, FIFA keepers so rarely screw up, even when the striker makes the better run, that it almost seems impossible to get the jump on them. Now, as soon as you see the keeper leave his line on a cross, there's no point even trying. It's boring.
This sense of disappointing inevitability is also true in one-on-one tussles. Speed and strength are the two biggest physical components in football, and FIFA fails to get them right again, making core encounters redundant. In career mode, as Manchester United, my strike force consisted of Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku and Antoine Griezmann. The little and large combo, I hoped, would serve well for all defences. However, it wasn't long before I realised that no matter the opponent, any and all were capable of outmuscling and outpacing my entire frontline. Nathaniel Clyne barged Lukaku off the ball with ease, while Leyton Orient's backline easily kept pace with Griezmann and Depay in a Capital One Cup tie. This shouldn't happen. It takes any strategy out of the game. All substitutions are made for fitness reasons, nothing more.
This imbalance isn't new, and neither are the ongoing legacy issues which continue to prove a hindrance. The three-point turn continues to be the best skill in the game, because player animations are so rigid and player models so big that it's the most effective way to dismiss a defender: they can't react quick enough to sharp-angled changes of direction. Even when you've beaten your opposition, there's still a lack of fluidity in the final third unless the ball is on the wings. Off the pitch, the final hour of deadline day in career mode still passes without the ability to confirm signings, meaning any pending deals are dead in the water. These issues will take, it seems, more than a yearly update to iron out.
There have been some improvements, but again these come with caveats. The more aggressive defensive AI means that the midfield is, unlike Arsenal's, no longer there to look pretty. Build up play now takes time, with sloppy passes met with quick interceptions as defenders are now more willing to take advantage of poor play. This can be countered somewhat with the new bullet pass, but this new feature is a double-edged sword: all other passes now feel far slower, and also it's all-too-rare that players are ready to control the ball.
The risk/reward aspect of the bullet pass is this: should you make the pass when your player isn't ready to receive it, he'll miscontrol it and give the other team possession. The trouble is it seems that your players are never ready to control the ball in the final third of the pitch, which again is poor.
The new skill games introduced this year are excellent, and double-up by giving career mode new impetus with the introduction of player training. Players can take part in up to five drills per week, and taking control of the training yourself is no laborious task. Each drill is fun to play and offers an interesting challenge. It adds a bit of spice to a mode continuing to age fast in all other respects.
EA's other attempt at coaching, FIFA Trainer, however, is a visual mess which overwhelms the player with too much information and detracts from the football. It's reminiscent of FIFA 04's off-the-ball passing mechanic, where players were too focused on everything other than the man on the ball, meaning possession was frequently lost.
FUT Draft continues the tradition of FIFA Ultimate Team being EA's crown jewel. Players can pay with coins or FIFA Points to enter a lottery draft where you choose a formation and pick all-star players for every position, before taking part in up to five games in a knockout tournament. It is as addictive and brilliant as always, with price ranges feeling far less invasive than when they were first introduced, and thoughts already turning to the litany of excellent teams that can be produced.
The issue that FIFA has is that its underlying engine, mechanics and systems have been dragged on for too long. While it has been carried for the past few years on the new generation of consoles, PES has waited quietly in the wings, revolutionising its game. FIFA has aged rapidly this year thanks to Konami's offering. FIFA 16 does feel incrementally better than 15, but PES 2016 feels miles better than both. Again, it's such a shame because the version of FIFA I played at reveal was far better than what's on offer now.
It's reached a point where I enjoy the modes of FIFA more than the gameplay, and that's quite shocking. While you debate whether or not to get the next edition of FIFA, the real question is whether or not you should jump ship entirely. FIFA is in need of an overhaul much on the same level as PES was. In the meantime, it's starting to feel an awful lot like the PS2-era again for football games.
Women's International Teams in FIFA 16
The introduction of 12 women's international teams in FIFA 16 is a welcome one. Rather than feel like a throwaway addition, each team's lineup plays really well. It's a shame that the only way to use these teams is in exhibition or a limited international cup, and only against each other thanks to a bespoke attribute system. It'd be nice to see the introduction of club teams in the coming years.
The women's game feels much like the men's, and sadly that means suffering with the same gameplay issues. That said the bespoke stats means that, if anything, play is actually slightly more enjoyable, with passing a shade more fluid. However, with passing in general moving at a glacial pace in FIFA 16, it's very hard for any particular piece of play to shine. Women's football is a long overdue inclusion in the FIFA series, and hopefully one that will go from strength to strength with each yearly release.