FIFA games are like an iconic team’s soccer jersey. They’re ubiquitous. They have trademark styling. Supporters wear them as a statement of unwavering loyalty.
And every year, we see a new version of it. Some new touches here. A splash of color there. Maybe a couple of high-tech features to keep things fresh.
But, just like the 2015-2016 Arsenal home kit, the new FIFA is pretty much what you know. And if what you know is what you love, FIFA 16 is pretty great (as reviewed on the Xbox One).
If that’s not the case, then maybe 16 doesn’t have enough to earn a spot in your starting lineup this year.
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What you’ll like
Women deservedly get the spotlight
Finally, women’s teams have made it to FIFA. You can now play as 12 of the most prominent international squads, recreating some of the best matchups from the recent Women’s World Cup.
Playing with Alex Morgan, Marta, and their respective colleagues brings a new dynamic to the typical FIFA experience. Matches feel a little different, primarily in their pacing, which adds a unique twist to the action.
Unfortunately, the women’s involvement is somewhat thin. You can only play with the aforementioned 12 national teams, so that means no clubs. You can set up exhibition matches, along with a mini-tournament, but that’s about it.
Regardless, this is an important and necessary step for the franchise. Let’s hope next year’s release will incorporate an even bigger female presence.
Off-the-ball controls that help the gameplay stay on the ball
FIFA 16 introduces “no touch” dribbling, which adds an extra layer of depth to its already intricate controls. Now, players can move and juke without touching the ball, similar to stars like Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The idea is to fake opponents into thinking you’re going one way while you go in another direction. All you need to do is tap a bumper and nudge the stick where you want to feint.
No touch is cool, and it adds more depth to the gameplay. It’s another useful tool to get past defenders, and I couldn’t help but smirk after pulling off my first few fakes. While the mechanic can be immensely satisfying, I can see it ending up as another interesting concept that EA will simplify and downplay in future FIFAs.
A career of cultivation
Career mode is one of the most enjoyable aspects of FIFA, but it hasn’t changed much in the last few versions. While 16’s new wrinkles are far from revolutionary, having the ability to train every week is a great development.
If you’re following the manager route, you’ll pick five regulars from your team to work out — each doing a different drill. People going for the player career can pick five activities for their lone footballer. You can focus on things like passing, defensive awareness, and so forth. The exercises incorporate the skill-based minigames that have become commonplace in recent FIFA titles.
If you manage your training wisely, you’ll be able to increase the ratings and monetary value of the individuals on your roster (or your single player).
Drafting isn’t just for American football
FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) is one of the most popular features in EA’s soccer game. The mode lets players build teams using card packs containing randomized personnel and upgrades. Up to this point, the traditional FUT experience has consisted of starting with a mediocre roster and bolstering it with new packs as you play.
This year’s release introduces the FUT Draft, which gives you the chance to draft a team of soccer all-stars for a series of special matches. You’ll begin by choosing a captain from a group of million-dollar maestros. And for the rest of the positions in your lineup, you’ll have a pretty stellar set of options to choose from.
Just to give you an idea, my first draft resulted in a team that included the likes of Ronaldo, David Luiz, Alexis Sánchez, and Thomas Müller.
I like this mode, but it just feels like a streamlined way to play FUT. Also, I’m not a fan of the high price to play. I had an entry token to start with, but each subsequent draft will cost 15,000 coins or 300 FIFA points to enter. To be clear, you can grind your way to enough coins without having to use any real-world money, but I’d rather not have to spend all that time and currency to enjoy this mode.
It’s worth noting, though, that if you do well with your FUT Draft team, you’ll earn some pretty decent rewards. So, you do get some return for the cost of entry — along with the fun of roleplaying as a wealthy, wildly irresponsible owner.
What you won’t like
FIFA Trainer isn’t ready to leave the practice pitch
One of the first things you’ll notice when playing 16 is the new FIFA Trainer feature. With the click of a stick, you can now toggle a simple overlay next to your player, which gives contextual gameplay tips. These include button prompts for simple maneuvers like shooting, tackling, and performing clearances. The Trainer is supposed to automatically level up based on your performance, dishing out more complex tricks if you prove your ability.
This is a good idea in theory, but the execution needs significant improvement. The overlays were more distracting than helpful, and the auto-leveling doesn’t work well. I found myself having to manually set the Trainer’s levels to guarantee I’d get the advanced tips.
While I see the benefit for beginners, it could also make the game seem more daunting.
Ignite is losing its spark
EA touted its versatile new Ignite game engine when the current generation of consoles came out a couple of years ago. Even then, I was skeptical about the advancements it brought to FIFA’s visuals. Now, I’m just disappointed.
When compared to Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer (PES), FIFA is starting to look dated. The player models haven’t changed much. They still have a plastic patina that makes them less like flesh-and-blood humans and more like action figures. Hair is even worse, with most players sporting cuts from a vanilla catalog of styles.
While many stars received the fancy 3D-scan treatment, leading to realistic facial representations on their digital doppelgangers, the footballers who didn’t get that personalized care come across like generic create-a-players. Just take a gander at recent blockbuster Liverpool signing Roberto Firmino. Or don’t — because you won’t even recognize him.
FIFA’s crowd tech was decent a couple of years ago, but I want to see more — not just interchangeable templates. I’m tired of the flags and banners with logos and names. I want something authentic … something awe inspiring.
I want to see Dortmund’s Yellow Wall. Not a generic mosaic.
Gimmicks disguised as features
Every year, FIFA touts things that are “enhanced.” One year it was goalkeepers. The next year, it was ball physics. This year, we have defense. These enhancements come in the form of improved tackling, team support, and interception intelligence.
While I’m all for tirelessly tweaking to achieve that perfect balance, a lot of these adjustments end up going overboard. The aforementioned interception intelligence is a great example. I don’t remember players having an almost supernatural ability to predict ball trajectories in previous years. This time around, though, I’ve seen defenders turn into the Amazing Kreskin on a regular basis, magically predicting and preventing my through balls with scary regularity.
Yeah, soccer is like that. Many passes don’t find their intended recipients, but a lot of this stuff doesn’t feel organic or natural. And this is a common consequence of yearly releases. Sometimes, settings get dialed up a little too much, messing with the overall flow. It happened with the heroic goalies before (which never really got fixed). Now, we’re getting it with the precognitive defenders.
The inclusion of women’s soccer is a defining achievement for FIFA 16. And we should celebrate it.
But, I don’t understand how EA thinks a half-baked Trainer mechanic, no-touch dribbling, some Ultimate Team additions, fog (yes, fog), German Bundesliga graphics, and a few other gameplay tweaks are enough to counter what Konami is doing.
Without a doubt, FIFA 16 provides countless hours of fun football. Any soccer fan will find tons to enjoy here. After all, this game is your mom’s mac and cheese. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable.
And that’s the problem.
If EA’s golden-booted goose keeps following this back-of-the-box approach, where it only cares about adding more bullet points to its tried-and-true core, PES might take back the throne as king of virtual football.
Like a war-weathered Snake on an operating table, Konami ripped PES apart and rebuilt it in the Fox Engine. It still has some demons, but it’s fighting them head-on. What matters is that the developers took risks to make their game better.
EA knows what it takes to do this — because that’s how it made FIFA great again just a few seasons ago.
It’s time to tap back into that innovation.
FIFA 16 is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and the PC. The publisher provided GamesBeat with an Xbox One code of the game for review purposes.