When it comes to their annual football sim FIFA, EA Sports are in an enviable position. The series has a well-established fanbase, which the developer knows will return to the franchise year after year, to keep up to date with the latest squad updates, to begin building their Ultimate Team for the season, and to participate in the game’s massive online community.
As a result, FIFA’s marketing buzz come August of each year generally focuses on one or two ‘innovations’ added to the series in the hopes of attracting both new and lapsed fans. For the rest of us, we recognise and accept these for the PR fluff they generally are – then purchase the game regardless. For FIFA 16, much of the hype machine has been allocated to the inclusion of women’s national teams in the franchise for the first time ever, following the success of the FIFA Women’s World Cup earlier in the year.
With the free-to-download FIFA 16 demo now upon us, we’ve spent some time exploring the game in-depth, and trying to look beyond the headline iterations. And while as we all expected, FIFA 16 largely plays very similar to its predecessor, there are a number of core gameplay changes that will keep series veterans happy, too – at least for another year.
Aside from the obvious inclusion of the women’s teams, the most notable welcome adjustment to FIFA 16, evident here in the demo, is a reduction in the pace of matches, with the series’ signature free-flowing arcade-style play toned down just a little in favour of more tactical and strategic game management. Passes no longer zip at an unrealistic pace and ‘snap’ to the feet of your teammates; they require greater precision to control both their power and accuracy. This has a knock-on effect in terms of the overall speed of play, and while the front shoulder button in combination with the pass button can now be used to add additional pace to ‘drive’ a pass across the pitch, by default players will find it’ll take just that little bit longer to break down an opponent’s defence. Coupled with a ‘re-balancing’ of sprinting and acceleration that previously felt a little overpowered, players will have to work that little bit harder to reap their rewards in FIFA 16.
The fine tuning of certain situations in both attack and defence is apparent in the FIFA 16 demo, with the shooting and tackling systems both receiving a notable upgrade. Along with volleys looking much more realistic this time around, the power of shots has been tweaked a little; standing efforts travel much more slowly and with less ‘venom’ compared to those hit while sprinting towards goal, for example. In defence, players can now tackle in-air when the ball is bouncing, ‘fake tackle’ to lure an opponent in, or cancel out of a slide tackle to avoid the previously present situations of rather unfairly leaving a gaping hole in your team’s back line following a slightly mistimed effort.
Series veterans will be delighted to hear that AI goalkeeping has received a significant overhaul, and while the occasional howler still slips through, FIFA 16’s keepers are now much more balanced; feeling less overpowered in some areas, while major cock-ups in others have been toned down significantly.
In terms of the teams available for players to choose from in the demo, Real Madrid and Barcelona top the bill of men’s clubs, along with Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Chelsea FC, Inter Milan, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, River Plate and the Seattle Sounders. The inclusion here of the women’s national sides of the United States and Germany have understandably earned the most attention, however.
Keen to experience a FIFA women’s match for the first time, we dived right into the action with the Carli Lloyd-skippered World Cup holders taking on the two-time champions Germany. Unfortunately, while the inclusion of the teams is undoubtedly a nice touch, we failed to notice any real differences in gameplay here, with the two teams simply playing like re-skinned versions of their male counterparts. While we’re certainly not saying that the female players should be underpowered, the Women’s World Cup 2015 had its own, unique atmosphere that has sadly failed to translate into video game form.
Besides the ability to dive straight into an exhibition game, the FIFA 16 demo also comes complete with a taster of the new FUT Draft mode, which will allow players to pay an entry fee (of either 15,000 coins, 300 FIFA Points, or 1 Draft Token) to draft a line-up full of Ultimate Team superstars for up to four matches either on or offline. Cards, coins and FUT packs will be rewarded based on your win-loss record in each of the games you participate in, with a defeat spelling the end of that draft. It’s a neat, inoffensive feature that may encourage some players to jump into EA’s prized cash cow of Ultimate Team for the first time.
Rounding out the demo’s available features is the inclusion of the newly-added FIFA Trainer. Effectively serving as an in-game tutorial HUD, the system offers tips to series newcomers mid-match in an effort to improve their play. For series veterans, however, it’ll probably serve as little more than an annoyance – we turned it off before we’d even finished playing our first match.
Minor grumbles aside, FIFA 16 looks set to continue EA Sports’ philosophy of evolution rather than true innovation – and when you have the best football game available, that’s not a bad thing. While the headline-grabbing features ultimately look like they’ll fall a little flat in some respects, the expertly detailed fine-tuning and tweaking of the title’s core gameplay mechanics should tide over players well enough, at least until FIFA 17.