Here we are once again. It’s that time of year that - if you’re in the UK at least - the releases of EA’s annual Madden and NHL franchises are nothing but a precursor to. It’s FIFA time once again, and no matter what we say about the game here, it’ll undoubtedly be a massive success and sit at the top of the sales charts for the next ten months or so. But there’s reviewing to be done, so let’s do that!

We’ll be talking more about what happens on the pitch than off it this time around, mainly because EA has made only minor changes to the things that happen in the backroom of FIFA 15. The always-popular Ultimate Team mode contains the ability to create a “Concept Squad” – which is your dream lineup for the squad that you’re looking to build - so you always have a reference of what you were aiming for. You can’t use these squads on the pitch of course – that would be nonsensical - so this big new feature is essentially a glorified notebook. A new “loan” system has been brought into play for Ultimate Team, too. Loan players are available as EA Sports Football Club rewards and depending on your status, you’ll be given one as soon as you load up the game for the first time. These players join your squad temporarily and then leave after a set amount of matches, as you’d expect. There was concern that this would unbalance the game somewhat, but it actually works relatively well. You still get the feeling that FIFA Ultimate Team is a million miles behind the same mode that appears in Madden NFL 15, though. There’s just so much depth to the mode in Madden, and so much to do, that FIFA’s take on it seems somewhat lacking at times. Fans will utterly love it as always though.

Slight layout changes have been made to other modes and minor changes to their functionality have been made too, though the career mode – despite tweaks to player growth and the transfer systems – feels sadly all but identical to last year’s version. However, players wanting to take the professional footballer route will now find that their player gets much more realistic match ratings if you decide to control the whole team, which is far more fun that playing as a lone player. Previously, you’d generally end up with only a rating of six out of ten unless you actually scored a goal, even if you had a 100% passing record and were generally the team’s key player. Now, you’re rewarded properly for assists, general passing, and team play, without being punished so harshly for your off-the-ball actions – most of which are usually out of your control when you’ve opted to control all ten outfield players. Because you’re rated realistically, you aren’t relegated to the bench and then transfer listed when your team has won five games on the bounce and you’ve set up four goals anymore, unless you’ve genuinely played poorly as an individual player and had very little to do with the wins.

A nice touch when it comes to managing the way your team shapes up on the pitch is the ability to save up to six different team sheets per squad. If you want an attacking shape for example, you can switch to your more attack-minded team sheet, complete with that team sheet’s specific tactics, players, positioning, and formation, and you can do it at the touch of a button. There’s even the ability to assign more detailed instructions to certain players, so you can tell Balotelli to get in behind the line of defenders, or tell Rooney to drop back deep when the team is on the back foot, where he can. These changes work, and they work well.

On the pitch though, is where the majority of the work has been done. Most discussion has been about the way goalkeepers now behave as barring minor tweaks, they really haven’t changed for years. An overhaul of the entire system means that now, the man between the sticks is able to make more saves from more angles without the animations looking as canned as they used to. Their decision making is generally stronger, and they’ll narrow angles and come out to assist defenders more readily without your intervention. They also parry and tip the ball more too. This leads to some impressive-looking saves and a genuine feeling of unpredictability, which is exactly what the game needed. In days of old (FIFA 14), we were still at the point that if you did get one-on-one with the keeper, he’d rush out and skilled players could loft it over his head and into the net, or just hit a finesse shot into the corner, every single time. Now, it isn’t as easy by any stretch of the imagination, as the keeper will run out to close the angle, then maybe take a step back, maybe wait for you to take the shot, or maybe just put his entire body in the way to block your progress.

We dare say that the online mode addicts will find a few exploits and render the game unplayable against all but your friends, but in general this all makes for some really good action. But the problems outweigh the improvements. We want the keepers to be unpredictable, sure we do. A goalie that collects every low shot or catches every rasper towards to the top corner is no fun at all. What we don’t want is for them to do unpredictable things that don’t make any sense. If a shot comes fizzing in, cannons off a defender, and the unsighted keeper ends up wrong-footed as the ball trickles into the bottom corner, we get that. It happens. If the keeper can’t see the direction of the ball, he can’t save it without getting lucky, and it would be unrealistic if he did so every single time. However, if a cross comes in at chest height and the keeper runs to the penalty spot to claim it, then makes no actual attempt to grab it, watching as the ball goes past him and lands at the waiting striker’s feet – a waiting striker that now has an empty net to aim at - that makes less sense. The new keepers are also somewhat terrible when it comes to low shots, too. Even if they look to be getting down to block the ball, they oftentimes somehow manage to let it past them, either under the hand or through the legs. In fact, scoring with a low shot has become what scoring with a curling finesse shot into the corner was in previous titles. These issues do tarnish a game that is generally a lot more enjoyable and more challenging than its predecessor. You can marvel at how fun the previous three matches were and how hard you had to play to break down the AI’s defence, but if in the eighty-ninth minute of the fourth game, your keeper spills a trickling ball into the path of a striker because he’s dived to save it rather than just made the expected attempt to gather it up, the memories of the previous three matches fade away far quicker than they should. Sadly, that sort of thing happens more often than every four matches. We would hope that a patch would correct some of the problems, but as usual, we don’t give bonus points for hope.

Elsewhere on the pitch, there are some truly nice changes. With each passing year, the ball is becoming less and less attached to the player that has control of it, and that’s the case again here. It isn’t simply a case of “this player has the ball” or “this player doesn’t have the ball” anymore. If you try to trap an overhit pass, the ball may ping slightly off your player’s foot and ahead of him by a few yards, narrowly avoiding the slide tackle of the incoming defender, which allows your player to skip off down the wing after the ball without having to use a skill move to beat his man. In previous versions, the ball would have been miscontrolled and then either brought under close control by the winger at the second attempt, or have been tackled away by a player that shouldn’t have even been close to being able to do so. It feels a lot less like a bunch of one and zeroes interacting this year, almost to the point of feeling entirely organic.

The ball’s newfound freedom makes for a generally more realistic-feeling game. Every cross isn’t met with a direct header on goal, since it can bend away from the striker or can simply slide off his head and out for a throw if he mistimes his leap. Every pass made by the AI in a single-player game isn’t targeted by GPS, and they can slice the ball away unexpectedly or overhit it out of play – especially on a wet pitch. That isn’t the only improvement to the AI either. The infamous “domination mode” which would kick in after you’ve controlled a match for 85 of the 90 minutes is gone, so there will be many less unfair 1-0 losses to be found this year. They’ll try to attack and get a goal, but they won’t suddenly turn into a team of Messis and wander around your defence as if they didn’t exist, before popping one into the onion bag from 35 yards.

Defences can be hurried and harried into making mistakes, and CPU teams seem to have a more general sense of completeness and tactical awareness. An heavy underdog controlled by the AI will sometimes be seen playing keep-ball in the corner when the score is still 0-0, for example, and they’ll now utilise short set pieces, rather than just lumping the ball forwards from anywhere on the pitch. On top of that, they actually commit fouls too. Last year, a CPU player being sent off or giving away a penalty was a ludicrous rarity. Now, it seems to be more realistic. It happened in our very first match, in fact. Don’t be alarmed though, it doesn’t mean that they’re always chopping you down, it’s just that if they commit to a tackle and they do bring you down in the penalty area, the referee will blow up with greater regularity. All of these changes make for a more entertaining single player game that is more unpredictable, more difficult, and more fun.

The usual graphical tweaks have been put into place, of course. Pitches deform realistically, LED advertising boards flash, corner flags actually bend – which makes for some fun celebrations – and highlight packages are actually well done and great fun to watch now. There are some places that are lacking thought, though. On corners and goal kicks for example, we don’t need to see the ball going out, a replay of the shot, a quick cut to a close-up of a player, then a scene showing the player putting the ball down, all before we can actually take the corner kick. At times like this, the presentation feels like it has been put in without much thought being given to what it means for the gameplay. On the whole though, the presentational improvements are worthwhile.

Conclusion

While the off-pitch changes this year are relatively minor, the on-pitch ones in FIFA 15 are important and generally good. The goalkeepers are going to be what divides the fanbase this time around. Some will love them, whilst others will generally hate them. At one point or another though, everyone will have a problem with them. The changes to their AI should be applauded for the most part, but what are probably the two most important players on the pitch shouldn’t make nearly as many mistakes as they do. You can spend hours building your team, arranging tactics, conducting transfers and generally preparing for a match, only to watch it all be for nothing as your keeper folds under seemingly non-existent pressure. A game without a goalkeeper slip-up is still a much better game than you'd find anywhere last year, but those slip-ups happen too often for our liking. Still a fantastic game for football fans, but probably not one that those prone to tantrums should play.