We get hands-on with EA's latest attempt to tackle the beautiful game.
FIFA presentations are normally a list of new buzzwords. A chance for the developers to dazzle us with PR speak, where they tell us just how much better this year's game will be when compared to the last. This time, however, we got the impression that they really mean it when they reference the things they didn't like from last year's offering; there's room for improvement and they know it.
That's not to say that there aren't buzzwords for us to absorb, of course there are, but this year it didn't feel like they were trying to make a mountain out of a molehill and oversell the great new hope for the franchise: in FIFA 15 they made a game that over time revealed imbalance, and in FIFA 16 they intend to turn that around.
They're planning on doing so not by making wholesale additions or by adding in a raft of new features, but instead the plan is to polish the hell out of what they've got. After our hands-on and during an interview with gameplay lead Aaron McHardy we joked that FIFA 16 was going to be the ultimate patch for FIFA 15, and while he was keen to point out that there was more than just a couple of minor tweaks coming in the next iteration, as far as we can tell the point is essentially sound. The brand lost ground last year / season, and now it's time to put it back on top.
The patch joke was perhaps a little flippant, but when you consider that the only significant revision to the match engine this year comes via the goalkeepers, its easy to come to such a conclusion. But you know what, we're not complaining: FIFA 15 was a solid football game, but it was far from perfect. There's work to be done on balancing, and thus making it a more fulfilling overall experience. EA Sports are now considering how to best achieve their goal, and we agree that what the game really needs is more bite in midfield, and a more evenly contested battle between attack and defence. Having listened to the developers talk at length about their plans, we certainly think they're on the right track.
This is an ad:
Obviously the most high profile announcement is the inclusion of women's football, and we'll get to that in a bit, but it was a couple of other tweaks that were most obvious during our afternoon with the game.
The biggest change to the match engine that we noticed was improved interceptions, and in contrast to that, the "passing with purpose" - a more powerful pass that's activated by hitting RB while moving the ball forward. Now there feels like there's greater emphasis on player placement as you're moving towards the opposition goal, and just mashing a through ball in behind the defence isn't going to be enough as the AI of the players is now trained to read space better and move in to cover dangerous positions more naturally. It's a small AI tweak, but it's noticeable straight away.
This is an ad:
Another minor change, but one that made the game look much more authentic, is the contextual head movement of the players, who can now track a ball and watch the play around them unfold. They can also now, for the first time, look up. This is another minor adjustment, but it makes a difference.
The final significant change is the new tutorial mode. This will be a real game-changer for many players. Now, if you're a novice looking to learn the ropes (or even if you're average looking to get decent), you can activate the FIFA Trainer, a mode that will show onscreen the potential actions of a highlighted player. It's all contextual; for learners it might say "pass" or "shoot" and show which button to press, but as you level up the mode it scales the complexity of the instruction it offers. Beyond giving learners better insight into the nuances of the series, this should open up advanced controls to players who plateaued in recent years, or who over time have failed to absorb some of the more complicated button combinations.
There's a raft of other, smaller changes planned, and they start at the back and work their way through the team, or as EA would say it, they want to innovate across the whole pitch. According to the developers, goalkeepers are getting the most attention out of any of the individual positions. According to McHardy they've "done a lot of work to make [the keeper] more human", and the plan is to make scoring a goal feel more meaningful.
Defence is another key area for the studio. They want to bring back "confidence in defending", and their plan involves improving the agility of the players at the back. New slide tackle animations will have players spring up and get back in the action quicker than ever before, a move to counter the trickery of advancing forwards. We're also going to get quicker transitioning into defence, and more support from the whole team when trying to get the ball back.
As we move up the team, they want to make the midfield matter. "Last year it was far too easy to play long ball football," McHardy explained before adding that "interception intelligence wasn't high enough". That's something they've looked at fixing, and you can adjust your players' tactics so that they are more proactive when closing down space, but there's a caveat to that because if you make players too aggressive and if they're not good at interceptions, it could very well cause problems and leave you exposed. There's no-touch dribbling for attacking players, where skilled feints can tangle up a defender and potentially send them the wrong way, but in contrast to that the defenders can initiate a game of cat and mouse in return, with fake tackles now an option too.
Of course EA don't want to blunt our goal scoring exploits, and they're still chasing after more "moments of magic", and they're trying to encourage emergent scenarios all over the park. They also want players to be able to express their favourite brand of football, rather than letting last year's super-effective "route one" style prevail in FIFA 16. To that aim we're going to have more options when playing a passing game thanks to the new passing options (and countered by better interceptions). We're getting dynamic crossing, where there'll be more emphasis on strikers and their positioning, and much will rest on where the delivery comes from (curved runs will reduce angles and mean more accurate crosses). We're promised more clinical finishing, shooting will be "a lot more consistent in this year's game," and improved modelling of the foot making contact with the ball will allow for more realistic shots.
Before now we've not mentioned the introduction of women's football, but in truth there's not much to report. Players are naturally a little slower, and so play feels a little bit slower, but this is a natural fit when you consider the pacing of real-world matches. Otherwise it feels pretty much identical to the men's game. Adding women into the mix has also meant benefits for the wider game. They had to change the way that they scale individual players, and this now allows for more accurate male players too, so better proportioning will make a tall player like Peter Crouch look more authentic than ever before.
A shout out also needs to go to the inclusion of ponytails and hair simulation. New animations and new head-scanning techniques means that they've got realistic hair movement in the game, so not only do the female players look more realistic, but Zlatan Ibrahimović looks fabulous now. Currently there's only plans to introduce international teams, and they'll be playable in three modes - but if they prove popular we'd expect to see EA expand this new part of their game. It's certainly about time that women's football was introduced, and it's great that the brand is promoting inclusivity and equality. It might seem like a small step right now, but it's actually a hugely important one for both the game and the sport in general.
In summary, it looks like EA Sports is working hard to correct the wobble they experienced with FIFA 15, and after everything they told us during this first round of presentations, they're certainly talking about improving in the right areas. If they can perfect the balance that they're so desperate to get right this year, then there's nothing to say that FIFA 16 can't be the best football game that they've ever made, and given the resurgence last season of Pro Evolution Soccer, it's going to have to be.