When the demo for FIFA 16 was released some of us at The Digital Fix eagerly downloaded and booted it up as a new FIFA is a key point on the year’s gaming calendar, marking as it does the start of the big push towards Christmas. We were glad we did as the few games we were able to play felt like the best games of football ever played on a games’ machine. It was so different to the previous year’s iteration and generally just so real. It piqued excitement levels that much more.
What we have then with the full release is something which illustrates what made us so eager to have it in the first place. However, this is tempered by the reality that it’s not the greatest football ever but is still changed compared to last year, and in a good way. Allied with the ever-wonderful presentation and additions to content this year we have a good package but one concealing flashes of excitement rather than delivering rapturous and full throttle football.
The football itself has been altered significantly, which isn’t always the case with EA’s yearly release. Here the fundamental change is that we have a much slower game where pace and power does not always win out and the skill and abilities of you and your team are as important as they would be in real life. Whilst Messi and Ronaldo have always been able to score wonder-goals, and here they still can, you find that those glorious pitch-long runs are gone, the ability to kick and rush is lessened and the need to play football, pass the ball and work those gaps is essential. It’s refreshing. A rewiring of your brain will be needed, so that you stop threading through balls all the time or think to pass earlier rather than take on that third man, but give it that time and the benefit is clear to see.
With through balls being a few pixels short of complete this year the need to master passing and crossing is greater than ever. The best way to score goals is to pass and move, create the space, and benefit. It can make for some wonderful moments - real fist-pumping celebrations inbound - when you score something so original and new to you as a FIFA player, but making that happen is not simple. The standard pass seems a little bit off-balance right now. You tap it and it goes largely the same strength/pace as if you long press, although maybe not as high in the air. Whilst this needs some attention in a future patch there is the option of a driven pass, made by tapping the pass button whilst holding down R1. This is really like a through ball, but manual, and therefore can actually result in some kind of success.
As always the presentation of FIFA 16 is quite superb, if samey compared to previous years. Your XP level carries over as do your coins gained from playing copious hours of previous versions. As such you can get your fancy celebrations, kits, FUT unlocks and more straight away. You can go and try out the enhanced training sessions with more things to do this year than ever before. You can start a career - as you, a player or the manager. If choosing to play as yourself in-game (what was Be a Pro mode) you get to train and develop in and outside of the actual matches across each season. This year, for the first time, women's football is represented with a variety of the top international teams and players. It’s all very slick.
One big change to the modes on offer is the introduction of FUT draft. FUT is still there as we know and love (hate?) but now for the price of 15,000 gold coins or 300 FIFA points (i.e. real money). On entry it allows you to pick each of your team, subs and squad players from a potential five each round of the draft. So you want to pick your lead striker? OK, here are five options. Another five for the goalkeeper and so on. The masterstroke here is that it allows everyone to play with some of the top, most expensive cards, including in-forms (IF). It can get a little silly, truth be told, as we got IF Ronaldo and standard Messi in our first draft. It was glorious. Then we came up against a challenger in the first round who had those two AND Aguero. Oh. Your FUT draft side takes part in a competition - on or offline as per your initial choice - where you play up to four games (fewer if you’re knocked-out) and depending how far you get, the better the prize is. This prize can vary. It was meant to cover costs, but as with the reality of FIFA packs bought from the store, the quality can vary. It therefore means that this fantastic opportunity to play with the players you’ll otherwise not get much chance to use is limited, and costs money, and you might lose in the first game with them anyway. The fact there’s a trophy relating to this too is extra pain. A top example of superb consumer-centric-innovation handcuffed by the money-making machine that is EA and FIFA.
There’s a lot to do in FIFA 16 and it will keep fans going for a year until the next one comes along. It has plenty of modes, it looks great and it sounds better than ever. It feels different enough to last time to get you going and if given the chance will show itself to be a vastly different beast but one that is so in a good way. FUT itself is still an absolute life-sucker if you let it become one but so is the career if you want it to be. Even just following the real world is bigger and better with the usual ability to play your team’s next match and so on, but combined with videos and news of what’s happening day in, day out - in the gameworld as well as the real one.
So, what is the verdict on this year’s FIFA then? It feels like a new game presented in a spruced-up shell taken from the old one. It pays out in kind over time if you invest the effort to learn, rather than get frustrated at the fact you can’t do what you did before. It brings some new things to the table which work and others that don’t. It might well be the last of its kind before a bigger, proper, overhaul next year. Time will tell. In the meantime you do have the current best version of the game around and one that you’ll not want to leave for older iterations once you get going. That doesn’t mean it’s the best FIFA yet, merely the best one right now.