The FIFA series has fallen victim to what I like to call "crabbing" over the last few years. This is where an obvious exploit—such as the over-emphasis on pace or through balls—is fixed, but in the transition, an old annoyance is carved open like the Sunderland defence.
Sideways "progression," also known as the Tom Cleverley effect, hasn’t been helped by the re-emergence of the Pro Evolution Soccer series, which has benefited massively from Konami opening London-based studio PES Productions in 2012.
On-pitch authenticity—despite the lack of official team licenses—has become Pro Evo’s main selling point over the last two years, underlined by PES 2016 releasing to rave reviews earlier this month.
The FIFA property is a commercial juggernaut, one that will always sell vast quantities until the day a cheesy-grinned Sepp Blatter is placed on the cover. However, with PES enjoying the kind of rapid development that makes Harry Kane look a slow burner, it’s fair to say FIFA hasn’t had to look over its shoulder so anxiously for years.
So how does FIFA 16 play?
Putting it bluntly, FIFA 16 doesn’t play a better game of football than PES 2016, nor does it come close. The sport’s intricacies aren’t intelligently replicated, tactical battles are simplistic and game-winning patterns are easily forged.
Yet, most players know this and have been enjoying the game for years (myself included). EA’s series doesn’t need to be the most technically gifted or realistic to dominate the two-horse race currently being waged in the video game world (let’s all forget Pure Football happened).
Proceedings are interestingly pitched when the action begins. The effectiveness of pace has once again been quashed, with physical contests and 50-50 challenges taking on greater prominence.
Both the opposition and your AI-controlled team-mates are quick to cover obvious gaps. This means a pinpoint through ball towards speedsters such as Loic Remy and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang isn’t going to result in a bulging net as often as it did last time out.
Each player now possesses a physical presence, too, with movement and decisions off the ball making a real impact on how matches progress.
Sergio Aguero vs. Winston Reid was only going one way in FIFA 15. Now, the game is better equipped to allow the powerful defender to utilise his body in the same manner as his real-world counterpart. As we saw during this one-on-one contest in Manchester City’s recent 2-1 loss to West Ham United, being able to outmuscle and outwork one of the world’s best strikers takes complete concentration. FIFA 16's defending is much the same in this regard.
You can put your body between the opposition and the ball, use their position to gain height to win headers or even subtly tug their shirt to shift momentum back in your favour. Flip things around and it’s noticeably harder to break through the last line of defence without having to fend off a shoulder-to-shoulder or coming together.
The increased physicality is soured slightly by pernickety referees who are now more inclined to give petty fouls. While the officials’ understanding of giving advantage has been tightened—no more whistles when you’re through on goal after a team-mate has been fouled—even the slightest of nicks can result in decisions that unfairly halt play.
This is particularly dangerous in your own box, as even if the ball is won, making any kind of physical impression on the opposition often ends with a generous penalty being awarded. PES 2016’s referees are too lenient, so neither game is yet to nail the art of totting up and dishing out punishment when it’s truly needed.
Tackles in FIFA 15 either resulted in success or failure. Things are much less rigid this year, with random bounces and deft touches of the ball affecting where the dome drops. Two players can slam into each other with neither of them winning possession, the ball then pinging off elsewhere instead.
Shots are more likely to be influenced if the defender sticks a boot in, with deflections and subtle changes in movement significantly impacting the ball’s path.
This means there’s no lost causes. Just getting a toe in can completely alter situations that would have ended in a certain mark on the scoresheet in last year's game. Fans of the John Terry salmon dive should rejoice.
Player momentum and positioning also impacts the power and trajectory of your shots. In general, you’ll need to pound the power bar harder than before to rip one into the top corner. If your player isn’t set properly when an attempt is unleashed, however, the goalkeeper will need nothing more than a long-barrier to stop a pathetic effort rolling into his gloves.
While launching one at goal is less predictable than last year, it’s immediately apparent that crossing will be the method FIFA 16 online players exploit.
A huge percentage of goals—for and against—come from nipping ahead of goalkeepers who simply cannot deal with crosses played on top of their position. Even Thibaut Courtois, a behemoth in the air, is easily caught out when trying to contest the ball with an ailing fist. Crowd the ‘keeper from a corner and expect a celebration prompt within seconds.
The aforementioned frustrations—soft fouls, overpowered crossing—become more of a problem online. Tweaks can be patched in, but those who have grown frustrated with FIFAs of the past are unlikely to feel any different this year.
Passing is precise, dribbling is more responsive than ever, but as hinted at previously, EA has a habit of giving with one hand and taking with the other.
Let's Talk About FUT
This shows itself in FIFA 16’s Ultimate Team mode, where the new Draft section is a really exciting way to try out some of the game’s best players.
You must choose between a handful of formations and then fill your squad with one of five stars available in each position. Do you prioritise chemistry by placing Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo together, or do you shoehorn the likes of George Best, Eden Hazard and other superstars into the wrong position to go for all-out attacking power?
These are the decisions you’ll be faced with, but with the entry fee standing at 15,000 coins or a Draft Token (unless you want to pay real cash), there’s the total possibility you won’t make any profit from winning the four-game tournament. Prizes are generally gold packs if you’ve performed well, but the value of these can vary wildly, making Draft less rewarding than many will have hoped.
That said, Ultimate Team is still one of gaming’s most addictive (and potentially costly) modes. PES 2016’s myClub added a masterstroke with the ability to develop individual players, but many will still opt for FUT due to the thriving auction house and the overall glitz on display.
It’s obvious EA and Konami could learn from each other in this respect, as both have a tendency to implement progressive features without reaching their potential. The first developer to add club histories—all-time top scorers, match records across multiple years—gets a massive, soggy kiss.
The usual array of career modes, training games and other time-consuming features remain in FIFA 16. Live updates also return, ensuring the game will remain relevant all the way until next September. If you’re sinking your life into Ultimate Team and a career mode, say goodbye to having friends (virtual Dimitri Payet doesn’t count).
This year’s presentation is predictably fantastic. From the Barclays Premier League overlay to the replication of all Premier League grounds and commentary that doesn’t grate (no mean feat after PES 2016’s horrific introduction of an over-animated Peter Drury), the usual slickness hasn’t dropped an ounce of what the kids call “swag.”
Artists such as Years and Years, Sam Smith and Bastille prop up a soundtrack that couldn’t be more "FIFAish" if it tried, and in turn, it underlines how Konami is still playing major catch-up when it comes to presenting its menus and off-the-pitch atmosphere.
So, yet again, we have a FIFA title that looks great, remains fun and, crucially, is addictive. However, it plays the type of football that would make David Moyes proud.
Physical battles and one-on-one contests are more responsive than ever, but alterations need to be made to the success rate of headed goals from crosses. If this translated to real life, Moyes would still be Manchester United manager and the Red Devils would have beaten Fulham 82-2 in February 2014.
This year's game prioritises an entertaining and accessible formula over the complexities of football. The short, snappy basics are key to success in a title that replicates real football in everything but the on-field gameplay.
If PES 2016 plays with the intricacy of Pep Guardiola, FIFA 16 can be considered gaming's Ian Holloway. Entertaining, fun, but not for everyone.