When the generally super-positive reviews of Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 started hitting the net, it was hard to see – given the relatively limited list of improvements that EA were touting – quite how FIFA 16 had any real chance of defeating Konami's franchise this time around. Despite impressing in some areas though, PES contained some pretty large flaws – our review can be seen here – and for our money, that's left the door ajar somewhat for FIFA to try to stay ahead.
Surprisingly for EA though, they haven't really made a great deal of noise about the biggest improvements that this year's game contains. They've shouted from the rooftops about the limited and somewhat disappointing Draft Mode in Ultimate Team and they've caused a million misogynists to gnash their teeth and throw inexcusable insults (although it doesn't take much with idiots like that) by including a limited selection of women's teams. They've also mentioned changes to the way things work when you're on the back foot and defending your goal, but they've only really talked about "confidence in defending" as an afterthought.
However, those defensive changes – along with other tweaks and fixes to the AI – are what they should really have been bellowing about. With FIFA 16, the game finally feels like it's starting to realise the promise that it's shown for the last five or six versions. The simple reason for this is that in the game's single player modes, you mostly get a realistic challenge when you're playing at the edge of your comfort zone. No longer are career mode games that you SHOULD lose only lost because you couldn't beat the keeper with 12 shots before the opposition suddenly sprinted up the pitch in the 88th minute and scored with their only attempt. People used to call that effect "scripting" although it was actually a limited-time boost to one team's skill levels. That doesn't happen anymore, even if those who simply don't know how to lose with grace will claim that it does. Teams that are losing will pile on the pressure, which they would have a tendency to do in real life. If they equalise now or go ahead in the final minutes in a match they should be winning, it isn't because of any unfair advantage.
Now, you'll lose because you can't break down the CPU's defence when you have the ball and in attempting to do so, you over-stretch your play and leave gaps through which the opposition can punish you. This makes the game a far more cerebral challenge, especially when added to your opponent's new-found appreciation of tactical play. If the AI is behind in a cup match with 30 minutes to play, you can bet your bottom dollar that you won't be able to play a short goal kick without risking giving the ball away, since they'll be pressuring high up the park. If they're ahead and you've been threatening the goal, they'll slow things down and try to take the wind from your sails. Also, the challenge isn't identical in every single match, which it pretty much was before. A game against Werder Bremen felt like a game against Notts County, which felt like a game against Silkeborg. This time around, teams play to their strengths a little more, which mixes things up. Shutting down a midfielder that's running your team ragged might turn things on their head, or a speedy striker might need to be watched a bit more diligently.
Talking of speed, the challenge in the offline portions of this iteration of FIFA aren't simply about the speed of the players of offer. In days of old in FIFA games, the difference between a Premier League star and a League Two journeyman were often simply related to pace and acceleration. You'd be dominated by teams in higher divisions simply due to the fact that they could play the ball faster and generally run through your defence at speed, firing the ball into the net before your centre back had even taken a step. That's much less the case now, with the exception of players that truly are quick off the mark. Better teams win by playing better. Weaker teams lose by making mistakes, which happen more frequently due to their lower positional awareness and the occasional miscontrolled pass.
What this means is that while there really haven't been that many improvements in terms of game modes, what was there originally is a lot more fun to play. Not since the days of Pro Evolution Soccer 5 has a football game been as genuinely challenging without being relentlessly unfair. You'll more than likely be participating in matches with low scorelines if you're playing on a difficulty level that's challenging to you, but there's always the chance that a match will turn into a real punch-for-punch goal-fest. These possibilities keep things interesting and mirror the possibilities of real life football, to an extent. Losing can be as enjoyable as winning now and sometimes, a 0-0 draw against a team that should have given you a good thumping can feel like you've won the Champions League.
Also livening things up on the pitch is the fact that players makes mistakes. Unlike the kind of things you see in other sports games, they're aren't obviously forced mistakes, either. In a full career mode season, we saw a single occurrence of a goalkeeper failing to spot an incoming striker and inadvertently passing the ball right to him. Oh, and there was that absolute gift of a goal when the opposition defender drilled a pass back to the keeper, who miscontrolled it, let it through his legs and then couldn't clear it away as it crossed the line. Then there's the time that the defender took a big swing at a ball to clear it away in the rain and it sliced off his shin and went back over his head, setting us up with a clear-cut chance. Mistakes are made as they are in real life, with very little in the way of predictability. In every game, something new might happen that you haven't seen before. It could be a defensive error, but it could also be a striker rounding the keeper and with an open goal, taking a shot while off-balance and putting the ball into the car park when it was easier to score. It should be noted that even without mistakes like that, strikers are generally less deadly. It isn't the case that in a match where an opponent takes ten shots on goal and only wins 1-0 that the keeper has made nine saves, which it would have been before. They'll hit the ball over the bar or wide of the post if not settled correctly, if they have a lack of skill, or if they haven't thought about the angle of the shot. Heck, if a 53-rated striker takes on a first-time volley from outside of the box and doesn't catch it absolutely perfectly, the chances are that the ball will end up in the manager's dugout. Things like this make actually thinking about your play more rewarding, since it can be more beneficial to control the ball outside the box and play a killer pass than take the risk of having a pop on the full from an unrealistic distance where you'll more than likely waste the chance you've worked so hard to build. Sure, we've seen local legend Ryan Harley smash the ball into the top corner from outside the box before in real life, but we've seen him try it and miss a heck of a lot more times than that. That's no criticism of our Ryan. That's just the nature of the game. Not everything you try will work exactly as you planned when you're playing in real life and that's most definitely the case in FIFA 16.
Goalkeepers are also a highlight. Rather than the game presenting shots on goal with binary outcomes where the keeper's canned animation either reaches the ball and blocks it or it doesn't, the ball might be fired with so much pace and spin that it glances off the underside of the keeper's outstretched hand and ends up rolling into the net. It might be that it glances off the underside of the keeper's hand and bounces out for a corner. He might tip it onto the bar. You never know what is going to happen with a shot on goal until you see it happen, and that leads to adrenaline-fueled goalmouth scrambles, surprising outcomes and general entertainment.
That isn't to say that everything is perfect on the pitch. Referees are a little bit too harsh at times and it occasionally feels like they're getting commissions from Hallmark, given the amount of cards they hand out. There are also times when they'll whistle for a foul when you genuinely didn't see any reason to, since there haven't been any tackles or jostling for the ball. On a few occasions, when one player is clearly the one to cause a free kick, it'll be given the other way and the innocent party will get a yellow card. In real life, the man in the middle makes a wrong call occasionally. They're only human. Have EA gone as far as to include that in the mix? If it is intentional and not a result of errors with the collision system (which is far more likely) then it isn't a wholly convincing effect since the fouls that are called incorrectly aren't borderline things that could go either way. We should also stress that it doesn't happen in every match, either. In fact, you could go for several games without seeing a refereeing error, but then see a handful over the next two or three games. Some will highlight issues in the collision system, as there are times where players will trip over each other repeatedly, but the problem has been lessened by quite a factor when compared to last year, to the point that we've only seen players get tangled up in that manner two or three times in total across dozens of matches.
Of course, all of this discussion is about how the game plays offline.
Online, things are a little bit different. We can't include a game's fanbase when it comes to calculating a score for a review, but unless you actually know who you're playing against, online play in FIFA 16 is a bust. Everything seems to work well enough, but the players you're matched up against will abuse the fact that skills and tricks – particularly the "fake shot" – are still massively, massively overpowered. It isn't fun to the see "OMG CR7 FTW!" crowd who would rather set themselves on fire than play as anyone other than Real Madrid carve through your defence time and time again after comically and unrealistically pulling off ten fake shots in a row to get around your helpless defence before finessing the ball into the bottom corner. Then you have the griefers, which appear to make up a massive, massive percentage. In a drop-in Pro Clubs match, you'll find 7 players playing the game properly and then one guy in goal who thinks it's hilarious to catch the ball from a corner and then turn around to throw the ball out for another corner thirty times in a row. In a FIFA Interactive World Cup match – where every on-field player's skills are set to 85 in every area to ensure an even match – you'll get a player screaming obscenities at you because Exeter City's now 85-rated Bobby Olejnik has saved a one-on-one chance against the also 85-rated Sergio Aguero and they're too stupid to understand how that could ever be possible. Big Bobby would have a fair shot at it even without the skills boost after taking up a good starting position, but try telling them that as they're insulting your mother.
The long and the short of FIFA 16's online play comes down to the fact that while you may be there to play football, the random opposition that you'll be dealt – nine times out of ten – will be there to play FIFA. There are exploits to be found and they'll find them. That's where EA need to take control. It shouldn't be possible to pull off a dozen fake shots, a rainbow flick and a few roulette moves and retain perfect control of the ball every single time, or for the matchmaking system to only take into account quit percentages, rather than there being some sort of reporting interface in the game's infrastructure that prevents idiots from being inflicted on innocent people more than a handful of times before they're relegated to the drunk tank.
We're guessing that an inability to control the fanbase is why they've provided offline versions of everything that can be played online in Ultimate Team, including the new Draft Mode.
Draft Mode, for all the fanfare that EA have put behind it, is a very limited add-on to Ultimate Team where you're given a choice of five random formations, five random managers, and five top players in each position, with the goal being to assemble the best possible team (with the highest possible chemistry rating) that you can. "Legend" players are apparently included, but we're yet to see one appear. Once you've built your squad, you can head out onto the pitch to take on a series of four knockout matches against increasingly talented opposition. If you win at least one game, you'll get a reward that's the equivalent of your entry fee, generally in the form of Ultimate Team card packs. If you win all four, you get a bigger prize. We found ourselves picking up three gold card packs for winning just two matches, but then only a "jumbo" gold pack and a standard single gold pack for winning all four, so the payouts aren't necessarily all that well-structured. The main bugaboo that people will have is that it actually costs a fair bit to even enter Draft Mode. You get to play it once for free but after that, each play will cost 15,000 Ultimate Team coins or 300 FIFA Points. In real terms, that works out to about £2 per play. Like we say, you'll generally win back the cost of entry, but given that you could be rewarded with gold packs that contain nothing but seven contract cards, a stadium you don't want to play in, a ball that you don't want to use, a manager from the Tippeligaen and three players from the Saudi Arabian Premier League, there's the chance that the cost of entry will appear to be a bit high. A lot more could have been done with this mode, rather than just four relatively dull knockout games, too. How about a league, or a World Cup-style affair with groups and a knockout contest to finish? How about drafting a team of players with lower skill levels being tasked with taking them into the game's addictive career mode? All of those would be preferable to what's here.
We should make mention of the inclusion of women's football, too. It's nice to see ladies' teams making an appearance, especially after the utterly enthralling recent World Cup in Canada. There have been minor alterations to the gameplay in terms of how quickly things play when you're playing as a women's team but other than that, you'd be forgiven for thinking that all that's happened is that a few player models have been switched out and new commentary has been recorded. We absolutely welcome the inclusion in FIFA 16, but there's also something of a limited, novelty "look at what we included this year that we'll quietly forget about next time" nature about the whole thing. The sixteen teams can play against each other in friendlies or in one single World Cup-style tournament, but that's about it. Whether or not EA carries on as it should and expands things next time around is anybody's guess.
But, it's just one more way of playing in a game that includes masses of ways already. Online isn't generally fun for the reasons that we've mentioned, but if you like challenging and engaging gameplay, offline is the way to go. Folks who play one match before ruling the game out or who play on the amateur difficulty setting and enjoy winning every game 15-0 won't really notice much of a difference to last year's effort but for those of us who want to face off against a tough AI-controlled opponent and take on a real challenge, the devil is in the detail.
It may be passé to say, but FIFA 16 is a game of two halves. Off the field, not much has changed that you could really write home about. The stalwarts of career mode and Ultimate Team feel much the same as they did before with very minor changes. With the ball at your feet though, the tooth-and-nail fights to hold on to a 1-0 lead against superior opposition or to take advantage of an entirely organic mistake to equalise in the final knockings of a lower league cup match, along with the general feeling that you're taking part in a decent tactical battle are stellar. The things EA hasn't shouted about are the things that they've clearly worked the hardest on and while there are still flaws, this is the best on-pitch representation of the beautiful game since Konami's PlayStation 2 efforts.