See if you can spot the pattern. In FIFA 11, pace was overpowered. In FIFA 12, pace was nerfed. In FIFA 13, pace was overpowered. In FIFA 14, pace was nerfed. In FIFA 15, pace was overpowered. In FIFA 16…
Yep, the world’s biggest football game is back – and this time it’s slower than ever!
I’m oversimplifying, of course. The last five years have seen the series make as much, if not more progress than any similar period in its history. But, particularly for someone that’s written about each match engine for the last six years, the FIFA feedback loop feels very real.
The way I see it, there are two possible explanations. One: the developers at EA Canada have found the simplest way to make customers feel like their annual purchase is more than just a roster update. Alternatively: a perfectly balanced football game simply doesn’t exist, and with each corrective redesign EA is orbiting in vain around a non-existent ideal.
Which side you take is a question of faith. Because, particularly for a FIFA Ultimate Team devotee, the feeling that directionless and seemingly arbitrary changes are being made to the way FIFA plays each year is a troubling one. I’d like to believe that these guys know what they’re doing; that the fact that my 92 pace striker won’t be able to out-sprint a 42 pace defender for another 12 months is all part of a richer playing experience. But with hundreds of hours of my life at stake, each year that optimism becomes just that little bit harder to tap into.
Let’s take the sympathetic view for now. While many of these changes seem to contradict gameplay aspects which were fundamental to FIFA 15, they aren’t, in and of themselves, negative. Indeed, one of my favourite things about playing FIFA 16 has been how challenging I’ve found it, particularly for the first few hours.
Apart from the changes to players’ relative speeds – all but killing off the through-ball as a cheap source of chances – the biggest change has been to passing, one that represents a more dramatic shift to midfield play than we’ve seen in a fair few years.
There are now two kinds of passes: your old, garden-variety button-tap, which has been made slower, and the Pass with Purpose, essentially a finesse pass (using R1) which fires the ball into to feet with a shinpad-rattling ferocity.
The problem with finesse passes is that few players are good at controlling them, and so it tends be much harder to keep possession, let alone turn, if you receive one high up the pitch. With normal passes being weakened, pinball passing moves are now nigh-on impossible, and it’s difficult even for top teams to keep possession.
FIFA 16 is the first football game I’ve ever played where I’ve so consistently felt the need to pass the ball back to my defenders, at times feeling forced to retreat from the edge of the opponent’s box all the way back to my own half. When you think about it, that actually means there’s a never-before-seen level of realism at work here. But I’m not sure it’s one that I want.
Defending, too, has changed quite dramatically. The slide tackle is no longer simply a last-ditch option, and is now the best way to steal the ball. Tapping circle (yes, I use PES controls) no longer sets off a wild, three-metre slide but, depending on the position of the ball, often merely extends a stretched leg, allowing quick recoveries and a greater reward for practice and timing.
However, just as with the finesse passing, it seems the effectiveness of block tackles has, as a corollary, been watered down, meaning I often find myself in the unenviable position of having an opposition player wander into my box, not wanting to slide tackle for fear of conceding a penalty, and feeling completely unable to do anything other than watch on.
In fact by far the most common kind of goal I’ve conceded has been this – an opponent with a basic understanding of the dribbling skills stepping away from my ineffective attempts to “contain” and walking right through the centre of my defence to slot it in the corner, unhindered. It makes a nice change from Aubameyang running onto chipped through-balls, but it often feels like a very frustrating way to concede.
Defensive AI, too, has undergone a major overhaul, with your teammates now seriously proactive when it comes to stepping in on your behalf. Take your finger off the controls and you’ll often find a covering defender will nip in and deal with threats in a way that seems almost too forgiving of the lazy (or distracted) player. Of course, this affects your attempts to attack, too, as even the most limited human opposition seems to get a big AI helping hand.
This more aggressive approach to defence combined with the new, more difficult passing leads to some very scrappy games. Unlike PES, or even last year’s FIFA, fashioning a chance feels like a real accomplishment – let alone scoring – and progressing your way through an online season is far more about nervily holding on to 1-0 wins than it is taking part in high-octane, high-scoring thrillers.
Now, what’s difficult is saying whether any of these changes are a good thing. I’ve relished the challenge of relearning the game. And I personally prefer the satisfaction of a rare scrappy goal to feeling like I can score four or five at will. But matches can often feel a bit like hard work – stressful, even. When you don’t feel like you can score, you feel more upset when you concede. And when you don’t feel like you can keep possession, you feel much more at the mercy of luck.
When I was a child my parents would tease me about my “Nintendo face”, when down to my last life and facing a tough boss, my cheeks would go red from sheer concentration. Nowadays, particularly when playing football or fighting games, I find the most telling sign is how hard I grip the controller. FIFA 14 gave me sore thumbs. And after a week of playing FIFA 16, the callous is back.
So the gameplay is different. And apart from crossing, perhaps, it’d be hard to point out any one way in which it’s definitively improved. But then the “feel” of the game is the hardest part – both to define and critique. What about the rest of it?
The presentation is, as we’ve come to expect, top notch. While I still feel the player models look strangely stretched, the lighting, textures, pitches and stadiums have never looked better. Improved, too, are the menu screens, with more “live” information provided as you log in each day, including, quite delightfully, a selection of the best goals from the past week’s FIFA that autoplays on the main home screen. FIFA very much sets the bar when it comes to how a football game should look and sound, and it’s managed to somehow raise that bar yet again.
It’s not just in the looks department that FIFA leads the pack. Ultimate Team has, for the last few years, been my favourite way to play football games, and returns offering the same potent mix of competitive play and collectible-card squad-building. I was particularly excited this year when I heard about Draft Mode. Those that play Hearthstone will be familiar with the concept; you’re given a random deck of players with which to assemble a team, and your understanding of the Chemistry system, the pros and cons of different formations, and even real-life football knowledge is all put the test as you take on other scratch teams.
As someone who refuses to spend any money in FUT, I was delighted to at last get the chance to play with the best players and have some respite from vanilla FUT’s annoyances (what I’d give for automatic contract renewals). Imagine my disappointment, then, when I found out that Draft Mode costs FIFA Points to enter – about £2.50’s worth. With scant rewards on offer for winning games, it’s little more than a cynical additional EA revenue stream that most will find pretty hard to swallow.
Career Mode remains largely unchanged, barring a few tweaks to training and pre-season. One suspects that Draft Mode took up a fair part of this year’s development time, and that’s before, of course, we consider the investment made in FIFA 16’s headline-grabbing new feature – women’s football. It’s a relatively limited mode, offering only friendly online matches or an offline tournament (needless to say, only against the same gender), but it’s nevertheless a wonderful thing.
Firstly, it offers a completely different secondary playing experience – one that’s much more technique-focused and less physical, more considered and controlled compared to the bruising encounters offered by the players’ male counterparts. I found myself scoring completely different types of goals and having different types of matches to what can quite quickly become a fairly homogenous competitive-online experience. Even just for one-off games, it’s a great option to have, particularly during long sessions with friends.
Secondly, there’s a young girl playing FIFA right now, enjoying the game, playing as her heroes, in a way she’s never been able to before. That has to go down as a win not just for EA, but for video game culture as a whole, and perhaps for football culture too.
What I can’t say is whether it reflects a meaningful representation of women’s football – I shamefully haven’t seen enough of the sport to say. But in the different gaits of the players, and the nature of the matches themselves, it feels like much more than a mere graphical re-skin has taken place – this isn’t just regular FIFA with ponytails.
In its features and presentation, if not in its gameplay, FIFA is doing more than any other franchise to push the genre forward. But gameplay is so important. And so we’re left at a difficult point. Is FIFA 16 “better” than FIFA 15? It certainly offers more. Is it better than PES? In most ways, yes. But I’m still troubled by that feedback loop. This year’s interpretation of football – with its austere, plodding scrappiness – isn’t how I want the beautiful game to be. Or how I daydream it when I’m scoring in the World Cup final in my head. The thing is, I think the guys at EA would agree with me. But they’ve got units to sell. In the meantime, I’m still here, stuck in the same old pattern.
FIFA 13, fun. FIFA 14, not so fun. FIFA 15, fun. FIFA 16…