We traveled to Stockholm to try the newest edition of the annual football series, hopeful that the mistakes from the previous year are fixed. Hopeful to hear something about Fifa Ultimate Team, and hopeful that the inclusion of the women's game isn't simply a commercial decision, but that instead is something that contributes to the overall experience.
Last year, when EA tried to sell FIFA 15, a lot of the PR talk was about how the game had to look realistic. This included the player's emotions on the field, and that they should reflect the importance of the match - if you scored in the last minute the team would be extra happy, more so than if you just scored in a training match. It was a nice addition, but for a game that contains gameplay imbalance, it felt like a weird priority. Therefore the joy - and relief - was huge, when they started their presentation with a focus on gameplay, and not aesthetic changes.
They started the presentation by showing us an improved defence. FIFA 15 has always felt balanced towards to attacker, the defender always having a hard time keeping up. In FIFA 16 they promise that it's possible to follow the attacker more closely. After a few matches, I'm not so sure it's the defence that's been improved, or the attacker who's been blunted.
Next they show a new training function; it's said to be useful for both beginners and more experienced players. It works like this: while you're playing a match, the game will constantly tell you what you can and should press. If you're running along the edge of the field, the game will tell you that you can press square to kick a high ball or cross to make a pass. It seems like a nice little addition, but I don't think experienced players will benefit from it too much.
So far they've focussed on gameplay, and as we continue with the presentation they carry on doing so. Career mode will offer extra, small tournaments, which will be playable between the big tournaments. This will enable you to earn a little extra cash and maybe get some of your reserve players on the field. Career will also offer training to your players, which will increase their attributes depending on how challenging the training is. They didn't clarify what a challenging training session will look like, and what makes it so, but it seems like an exciting idea.
All of the above seem less important compared to what could be the big surprise for fans of the series. More specifically for fans of FIFA Ultimate Team. FUT has been a sore area for EA ever since they decided to include a price range on players. It was a decision they made to prevent FUT becoming pay-to-win, but it ended up alienating a lot of fans. To the question of whether they will remove the price range this year, they say the decision is not yet made. It's understandable that they don't know what to do; either they remove it, lose money (because people don't buy FIFA points through them), and make FUT more pay-to-win. Or they keep the price range and end up with an unhappy group of fans.
What they have decided to do is a bit of a genius idea, and it's called FUT Draft. It works sort of like Arena in Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. You pay a certain amount of gold to participate and the players you're offered are always random. First you pick a captain and afterwards you pick the rest of the team - every time it's a choice between five random players. In the end you pick the players on the bench and the trainer. The selection of players is a tactical process, because the choice often stands between a strong player, or a player with good chemistry.
You play four matches with the team and it's possible to win gold and tokens, depending on how many games you win. Draft allows fans to try some of the world's best players in Fifa Ultimate Team and encourages fans to try players they wouldn't normally play with. In my short time with FUT Draft we only got offered world class players, but we're not sure if the final version will be like this. Hopefully, when the game comes out, Draft will pick randomly from all the players in the game, and not just randomly between the strongest players. That will only make the pleasure, when you're finally offered a strong player, even bigger. It's too soon to tell if FUT Draft will be a success, but the potential is there for it to become a new fan favourite.
It's not possible to play as women in FUT, and there are several reasons for that. First of all, there are only twelve teams and secondly, it's not possible to play men against women. EA justifies this decision with the fact that women's football and men's football are not comparable, and therefore it's not possible to let them play against each other.
When we finally picked up a controller and tried Sweden's national women's team, we had hoped for a bigger change. In the end it's still football though, although it seemed like female players fell down a little bit more easily, which invites a more tactical play-style where the ball will do more of the work. This was the only difference we immediately felt. EA deserves praise for the work they've done with the commentary this year. One concern was that the commentators would only used gender-neutral comments (so comments could be used in the men's game and then reused elsewhere). The first thing we hear is the commentators talking about women's football, and they mention a lot of the players by name. It may seem like an obvious thing, but it makes a huge difference.
It's clear that they've listened to fans of the series and tried to improve some of their past mistakes. The movement with the ball doesn't feel as fluid as it does in FIFA 15, but we reckon that's a positive. It's easier to turn 180 degrees with the defender, accelerate quickly and follow the attacker. This evens out the relationship between the striker and defender. We did notice some issues during our short time with the game; the frame-rate slowed noticeably every time the keeper made a goal kick, there was blurring between the player and the environment when they celebrated a goal, and it still seemed too easy to score with a header. However, these are all small things that can be fixed before the game comes out.
When working with annual sport games like FIFA, there are always three moments of judgement. The first is during short presentations like this, where we try and work out whether the game seems improved compared to the previous year. The next comes with the review, here the game will get a score and it's decided whether it's worth buying or not. The last - and the most important - comes months after the game is out, and after the online portion has been played beyond recognition. At this point fans will conclusively say whether the game is a good or a bad entry in the series. Whether FIFA 16 will be a good year, a year fans will remember in the same way they remember FIFA 10 (for example), it's too soon to tell. Therefore our conclusion is this: the improvements this year are focussed on gameplay, FUT Draft has the potential to become a classic among fans, and the inclusion of women's football feels well implemented. FIFA 16 seems like a big step in the right direction.