I’ve been attending early FIFA playtests at EA Guildford for the last four or five years now, and they all usually follow a similar pattern. The developers come out with some jazzy back-of-the-box names that sound like amazing new features, but in reality mean very little or nothing at all. Sure, there’s some focus on core gameplay, however not enough to impact the final product positively. The only exception perhaps being FIFA 14 on the PS4 and Xbox One, a game I still enjoy playing way more than FIFA 15. Anyway, the point I want to make is I felt a shift from the norm this year. It was the other way around, an approach that seems to have had quite the positive effect on FIFA 16.
If you read our review of FIFA 15 and followed my musings about it on Twitter, you’ll know I didn’t really like it. Compared to FIFA 14, where you could play a good game of football, it was disappointing in almost every single department. The keepers were erratic at best, shooting was flat and defending was near enough possible to do well, unless you constantly switched players and moved them around. A huge contributor to this was the fact that the game was horribly skewed toward pace, meaning any quick player was essentially a beast in FIFA 15. This meant midfield play and the actual building up of moves (you know, actual football) was near enough impossible. Plus, the game just felt too loose, without any real weight whatsoever. I’m quickly pointing these things out because after getting hands-on with FIFA 16, I can say the majority of the issues have been addressed. I found that I could actually play good, passing football and the midfield wasn’t just a space on the pitch to run into with quick players.
So how has EA managed to perform this miracle? Well, for me, the improved defensive AI is the biggest factor. Not that I didn’t know myself, but we were shown plenty of videos highlighting FIFA 15’s defensive deficiencies. Players not covering space, not being aware of opposition plays around them and in general just being silly. These are all things that happened, but not in FIFA 16. Really? That’s what you’re probably thinking, and I was too. However, when I started playing it was so apparent. You could literally see the AI covering spaces you had left and tracking opposition runs as well as humanly possible. Unlike FIFA 15, I saw players making some really clever interceptions too. You now feel relatively equipped and confident of holding up, recovering the ball or just plain taking out attackers as they come at you. It’s brilliant. You no longer feel completely naked when a player like Ronaldo, Messi, Bale or any other quick player is charging at you. Even when you do get skinned, you have the ability to get back thanks to the combination of sexy new animations and a recovery button. It’s also all contextual, so the majority of it will just happen as you naturally try to claw back at the guy who just whizzed past you. Seeing this in motion is something else, the animations are wonderful. Also, you now have the ability to make in-air tackles, meaning you stick a foot out and poke the ball away from danger. I found this to be incredibly useful as it pretty much eradicated the problem of the ball bobbling about in the area and the resulting cheap goals.
All the defensive changes and introductions have a knock on effect on the rest of the pitch too, specifically the midfield. The improved defensive intelligence means you have to actually play some football to reach the opposition’s goal. You have to think about your passing, create spaces and look for movement. Hey, what do you know, that kind of sounds like real football! Not the hockey or basketball-like style of FIFA 15, relying on running with quick players to score goals. It also helps that the pace of the game has been slowed down, allowing you to dictate the tempo with your play style rather than anything else. That doesn’t mean star players or even quick ones are completely nullified either. No, not at all. FIFA 16 just plays a far more balanced game of football. It feels like a war between attack and defence, with the midfield being the staging the key battle. Personally, I found it fascinating and (importantly) thoroughly enjoyable whether I was playing a human or the AI.
And that’s another thing; not playing against a human player is a whole lot of fun now too. If you’ve ever played on World Class or Legendary, you’ll know the AI just cheats, with even the likes of Aston Villa playing like Barcelona. In FIFA 16, I found both levels of difficulty to be suitably challenging yet each team played realistically. By that I mean Barcelona played like Barcelona and Dortmund played like Dortmund, even making the odd misplaced pass, defensive error and dribble not resulting in a goal. In fact, the toning down of the pace, defensive improvements and favouritism towards quick players has resulted in both team styles and player individuality shining through. Players like Messi, Silva, Iniesta and Hazard are joy to control, each feeling and playing like they would in reality. Perhaps neither (team or players styles) element is as deep as PES, but it’s a massive step in the right direction with FIFA 16. See, sometimes you don’t just need jazzy back-of-the-box features. The simple stuff matters.
That said, there are few new features that fit that description. However, they actually add to the game positively rather than just being included for the sake it. Take the purpose pass for example. After using it, I actually wondered why a football game hasn’t featured this before. In simple terms, it’s a pass with more power on it than usual. You might think it sounds just like holding the pass button down longer, but that’s not the case. This pass has more genuine zip on it, the idea being you use it when you want to thread a pass through a tight gap or thump it forward when you’re on the break. That or (as I did a few times) switching play without resorting to a long high pass. Its execution is simple, you just hold one of the shoulder buttons in conjunction with pass and voila. Nothing too hard. Sticking with the passing, you have the dynamic crossing too. A fantastic addition, this evolves an extremely important part of the game from a straight line long pass to intelligent, whipped crosses. Players will bend and curl balls into the box around defenders, genuinely looking for players on the same team and their runs. If you use it effectively, it turns every chance to cross the ball into a real opportunity. I loved it.
Then you have my favourite new thing outside of the proper gameplay stuff, no touch dribbling. Sounds weird. How can you dribble without touching the ball, right? Well, you can. It’s something that’s really hard to explain in written form, but I’ll try. I guess you could kind of call it an evolution of feints or shimmying, but it’s essentially when the ball is still moving when you’re dribbling but you’re not touching it. The best way I can describe it by showing you Messi’s amazing goal against Bilbao recently (see video below). If you watch carefully, he dribbles, but there are times where he barely touches the ball or doesn’t touch it at all as it moves forward. That or… Do you remember Berbatov’s amazing skill on the touchline at Old Trafford to set up Ronaldo? Yeah. That is no touch dribbling, done by holding one of the triggers. I actually liked EA’s explanation of it on the day, imagine the clutch in a car and you’ll have some idea as to how it works. I used it to good effect against a certain member of FUThead news quite a few times!
Before I get into how the women’s football plays (no, I didn’t forget), it’s worth touching on a few other things. The ball physics (one of the best parts of FIFA 15) remain mostly the same, with some tweaks done to improve things further. Passing remains pretty good, natural and unpredictable, but the biggest impact of the aforementioned tweaks is on the shooting. A weak part of last year’s outing; lashing the ball at goal now has a satisfying feel back to it. That’s the biggest compliment I can pay it. Keepers, praise the FIFA gods, are much better too. Still the odd shot where you think they could’ve done better, but for the most part they are good. I didn’t notice any worrying signs that were present at the same stage of FIFA 15 and later at gamescom. Visuals also seem to be better, with faces and character models looking more like their real life counterparts rather than professional wrestlers. This change, surprisingly, came about thanks to the inclusion of women’s football, making the development team realise they need to improve the current modelling process. All for the better. Just like the introduction of the women’s game.
Yes, that’s right. I said for the better. I have to say I had a great time playing women’s football in FIFA 16. Playing as either USA or Germany, I found the matches to be a bit more fluid and nimble compared to the men’s game, graceful even. There was a clear difference, in a good way. That’s not to say it was all nicey nice, not at all. There was still a physical element to matches, yet I still felt like I could play a good game of football, much like the rest of FIFA 16. This, as EA told us, is down to a different way of gathering the women’s stats and getting them into the game. No details were revealed regarding the process, but whatever they did it worked a charm. Women’s football is genuinely a great addition to FIFA 16, I enjoyed playing it much more than I thought I would. Also, the player models (wavy hair included) looked better than the guys. I’m not even joking. It’s true.
So, yeah, there you have it. It’s fair to say I left EA Guildford impressed with my first look and hands-on with FIFA 16. EA has focused less on the big name features and more on the core gameplay, the stuff that matters. It’s like an evolution of FIFA 14, one of the best games in the series for a long time in my humble opinion. Well, on the PS4 anyway. It plays an enjoyable, balanced game of football. You now feel like if you know your football and want to play a passing game; you can do exactly that. Unlike FIFA 15, the midfield exists and it’s not all about pace. Oh and you can defend with some confidence. Huzzah! I said this to the developers that were there, and I’ll say it here too. I’ve been going to these things for a good few years now, and this is the best shape I’ve seen FIFA in at this early stage. Now it’s just a case of not doing what EA somehow always do, toning things down or completely messing things up. If they don’t do that, FIFA 16 could well be the best one in the series for years. Seriously, if anyone from EA is reading this, don’t… Just don’t. Please.