Video Games Review: FIFA 16 (PS4, 2015)

EA Sports’ superstar FIFA franchise spent the bulk of the last console generation aggressively locking any and all competitors out of the genre before being caught off guard last year by an unexpectedly strong showing from Pro Evolution Soccer 2015. Can EA Sports turn things around in 2016?

Let’s start by talking about how great the player AI is across the board. This is, for me, one of the biggest highlights of FIFA 16. Previously, FIFA games tended to put all of the responsibility, usually divided among an entire team, squarely on your beleaguered shoulders. You were always surrounded by other players but help was never forthcoming – you needed to get that ball downfield and in the net and you needed to do it alone. FIFA 16’s players, both team-mates and opponents, are much better at finding their marks, poking holes in the defense. They actually create opportunities by doing their jobs and will actually be where you need them to be for a pass or shot on goal.

They’re not on top of the action 100 per cent of the time, however – if you pull up even for a moment, they will too and will then look on in apparent bewilderment (or perhaps amusement) as you get creamed by the defense. The key to avoiding the situation I’ve just described is momentum. If you don’t ever stop moving and don’t ever stop passing, everything will be just fine.

Another reason you’ll need to keep that ball moving is because the defensive intelligence is now far craftier than they’ve ever been before, even on lower difficulty settings. They’ll disrespect your personal space and sabotage your lanes, they’ll steal the ball whenever your attention slips for even a moment, and I’ve never had so many sure-thing passes be intercepted. This keeps the game from being plagued by the problems of previous iterations where being a one-man band was the key to survival. You still to run an aggressive defense (and here your AI are less probably useful than they are on the attack) but if you’re watchful you’ll start to notice the computer attempting to pull the same offensive moves you do which allows you to badger their players in turn.

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This upgrade in AI means the use of the team commands bound to the D-pad are now more important than ever before. Using these commands puts your teammates into specific modes -“defensive”, “attacking”, “offside trap” – and these strategies will lead them into plays that create further opportunities. This is important because I found when I just left them on the “standard” setting, they reacted just a mite too slowly. On more than one occasion, my players would let an easy steal sail past them like Daria with the basketball and I’d be momentarily angered by this lapse of judgement. Then I’d remember I hadn’t actually told them to be on the attack and when I did so it would frequently change the energy of the entire game.

For newcomers, the favourite new feature will be the FIFA Trainer, which is an on-screen overlay that will pop up next to the active player. It will helpfully suggest plays dependent upon your current situation and position. To be honest, series veterans will switch this option off the moment they’re able to do so but as someone who drops in and out of FIFA games pretty regularly, I found it immensely useful. Sometimes you just need someone to tell you to do something other than a regular old pass and how to get it done.

So to recap, all the new bells and whistles are great. There’s lots of options and button commands and newcomers don’t feel like they’re getting a crazy information dump when they jump in. Great stuff. Alright, let’s talk about the other major inclusion in FIFA 16 – the series-first appearance of women’s football.

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Women’s games are far slower paced than the men’s which would be the primary reason they can’t be played against a men’s side. Additionally, their goalkeepers are smaller than their male equivalents and aren’t as sturdy as a result – they might give up a rebound rather than lay claim to it the way a male goalkeeper might, for instance. Little differences like these make the women’s games interesting in just how differently they play from the regular all-male matches.

It’s not just a way to placate the politically correct crowd or a kiddie pool version of the game either – the slower pace makes defending, moving and passing far more accurate and it means you need to be hyper vigilant because a devastating counter is only ever one bad decision away. The women’s league gives you far more time to think about your strategy than in any men’s game. It’s also really nice to hear the game’s commentators Alan Smith and Martin Tyler supporting the women’s teams with names and clubs. Pleasant bonus? The entire Matilda’s squad is included in the roster!

After playing through the women’s tournament I found myself wondering why there wasn’t a lot more for them to compete in. There’s only a handful of modes that support women’s teams – the main tournament of six matches, or a quick single match – just don’t really seem to give enough variety for such a markedly different approach to the game. EA Sports have taken a very clear line on how they’ve presented the differences between men’s and women’s soccer, and that’s to be respected, but where the men’s teams get so much to do, the women are confined to a sole, storyless tourney. It seems to me that there shouldn’t be anything stopping EA from at least having an all-female version of the men’s 22-match fantasy league.

All of these sports games build themselves upon the fantasy of becoming a sporting superstar and putting together the greatest alternate universe version of any given team – FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode is the perfect example of this. This year’s installment is getting a new system called FUT Draft which isn’t too dissimilar from the Draft Champions mode in Madden 16. It will let you put together an absolutely ridiculous side that you can deploy in quick matches rather than craft your squad of football-playing robots over the course of weeks and months of grinding.

The difference between Draft Champions and FUT Draft is that Draft Champions doesn’t cost you anything to use. FIFA 16 charges you a substantial amount of digital currency, both real-world and in-game, every time you use it. The first taste is free, of course – it won’t charge you to go on the initial tour – but after that the game comes after your Coins (in-game currency) or FIFA Points (currency bought with actual money) with a vengeance. You earn coins from simply playing the game but it still comes to almost AU$3.60 just to enter. Here’s the thing – the way the system is set up does stop people from gaming the FUT Draft to make your Ultimate Team a pack of monsters in a heartbeat, along with all the attendant prizes and accolades, but it also reduces the entire mechanic to pay-to-win and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

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Having said that, as sports simulations go, few have the level of skill and clear devotion to the sport that FIFA 16 does. It works hard to replicate the thrill and atmosphere of the beautiful game, combining solid physics with genuinely engaging modes (and greater inclusivity with this year’s Women’s League that, despite the lack of options, is genuinely wonderful to see). Pro Evo has its work cut out for it this year.

Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Tons of modes; Women’s League; Great AI
Lowlights: Only two modes for women’s teams
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Released: September 22, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Reviewed on PlayStation 4