FIFA 16 (for PlayStation 4)
BY MATTHEW BUZZI
EA's FIFA franchise has steadily evolved over the past few years, with the jump to current generation consoles in particular providing a chance to overhaul the on-field gameplay.
FIFA 14 introduced the Ignite Engine to the series on the new hardware, and FIFA 15 improved the game's fine control and pacing. This year's entry isn't revolutionary, but it brings noticeable improvements both on and off the pitch. The gameplay has changed—perhaps more than you might have expected—while nearly every mode has received a new fold or upgrade to give longtime players something fresh. It's disappointing that FIFA 16 ($59.99) lacks any major overhauls to shake up the series, but new features like women's teams, training drills in Career Mode, and tweaked on-field play have resulted in the best version of the game yet. I played FIFA 16 on PlayStation 4$399.99 at Dell, but the game is also available on Xbox One$369.00 at Groupon and last generation consoles.
Almost Pitch Perfect
No matter which mode you prefer to play, it's the on-field product that ties FIFA titles together. Whether you're taking other players on in Pro Seasons, playing for your favorite club in Career Mode, or building a dream squad in Ultimate Team, the way the game plays on the pitch is inevitably at the core of the experience. EA has altered the mechanics in some subtle ways, and the most-positive changes are to the shooting. Players approach taking shots in a much more natural way, wrapping their feet around the ball to roll or curl it in at finer angles than were possible before. There's more room for finesse this time around, and it leads to more varied scoring chances and a wider variety of goals. Shooting is simply more fun, and you'll no doubt experience moments of joy when a deft finish puts the ball just beyond the keeper's reach and into the net.
The greater attention to fine control extends to moving with the ball, which is generally improved over last year. You have more control over the ball than ever when standing still or barely moving, rolling it away from a sliding tackle or onrushing defender, and skilled attackers can easily beat their man. The digital athletes also take more realistic touches when bringing a ball down out of the air or collecting a pass. There are impressive animations that may remind you of moments you've seen in real games.
There is a strange sluggishness when turning with the ball, though, and the game's fastest players don't feel particularly quick. Even Lionel Messi feels a bit slow to change direction with the ball at speed, and sharp cuts shouldn't force what seem like wide turns. Cristiano Ronaldo could burn past players with ease at full pace in past titles (as he should), but defenders often have no trouble keeping up in FIFA 16. It was one of the first things I noticed about the gameplay, and I never quite shook the feeling that for all the close control possible with the ball, the players themselves don't handle as nimbly as they should. You can still torch a defender using skill and pace, but in the moment to moment play you might find some top athletes a bit unwieldy.
The tweaks made to the passing, on the other hand, feel much sharper and more responsive. Players move the ball quickly, and the developers have added a new Driven Pass that pings a line drive along the ground to teammates. It's easy to give the ball away in this manner, but the Driven Pass technique is useful for driving the ball onto a player's foot in a limited window, and can help setup counter-attacks very quickly. There's also a new feature you can toggle on or off called The Trainer, which highlights your player and suggests commands depending on the context. This helps new players come to grips with the game, and is useful for returning players familiarizing themselves with changes to the gameplay from last year.
It's a widely held belief that, in recent years, Konami's PES series has provided a more realistic battle for the ball in midfield in recent years, with FIFA trending more toward end-to-end action. Play is a bit slowed down this time around with the precise passing, as it does end up being difficult to get the ball back from opponents for long stretches. Teams also do defend a bit better as a unit, and tackling is perhaps slightly underpowered. These factors, combined with the improved close control and last-second passes that allow players to slip out of danger and maintain possession for longer periods, definitely change the way FIFA plays. The verdict on whether these changes in style are for the better will largely come down to personal preference.
Top Class Presentation
One area where FIFA has consistently beaten out PES is the presentation and licensing, and this year is no different. EA continues to add small flourishes and "authentic" features to the game, whether that be the referees' vanishing spray or yet more stadium recreations and player likenesses. It's all extremely professional, and the menus have been updated to look sleeker and navigate more quickly.
Martin Tyler's already-impressive commentary is even more dynamic than in the past—he'll throw in relevant news about performance and transfers when appropriate, and it all flows very naturally. EA has also provided another excellent, eclectic soundtrack for background music on menus. Whoever puts together the consistently great track list for FIFA games deserves a raise.
Better, Deeper Game Modes
There's a veritable bounty of activities and modes to take on in FIFA 16—certainly there can be no complaints about value for your dollar. The series' staples (Career, Ultimate Team, Pro Seasons, Pro Clubs) all remain, and a handful of upgrades embedded in these modes further expand your options. Career now integrates training drills right into the mode itself in a clever way, rather than leaving them as an activity relegated to the main menu and loading screens. In a manager career, you can select a group of players to train each week, and choose which drills they will run for attribute increases. There are easy, medium, and hard drills, and you can play through them yourself or have the game simulate results. If you're doing a player career, you can take on the drills with your player to increase your stats. They're fun, if a bit time-consuming, so having the option to play or simulate them depending on your mood is a nice touch. Career now includes pre-season tournaments, which bring your team to a different location for prize money. It's not a ton of added depth, but it is yet another thing to do.
Women's national teams were one of the most-advertised additions, and U.S. star Alex Morgan even graces the American version of the cover alongside Messi. They can't be played against men's teams, but you can choose from 12 women's sides to use against the others in a handful of online and offline modes. The game does play differently, mimicking the real slower-paced women's game fairly well, and the players are animated differently than the male players (perhaps a reason why women can't play men). Hopefully EA didn't exclude the ability to cross the two because matches would be unfair, but rather because they're playing two different games. Most men's teams would outmatch women's teams, yes, but playing as Walsall against Real Madrid isn't exactly fair, either. It's unfortunate that women's teams aren't playable in longer-form modes—it would be nice to have more to do—but prominently including them in the franchise was a great first step.
The last major addition to main modes is the Ultimate Team drafting, which allows you to build a super team in just minutes. When you buy into to an online or offline draft with your virtual currency, the game presents you with choices of several players in each position, challenging you to build a balanced squad. Your team is then used across four matches, and the more wins you string together, the bigger your prize. Unfortunately, the prize is only more Ultimate Team coins, so it doesn't serve much purpose if you're not invested in the main mode. Madden 16 introduced a similar feature this year in its Ultimate Team mode, and it's a fun short-term alternative that doesn't require the micromanagement of contracts and other busy work.
FIFA 16 is the most fully featured entry in the series yet, and it has enough to please veterans while remaining accessible to everyone. It's a no-brainer if you're interested in the sport and don't own last year's version—there's always something to do, and the core gameplay elicits genuine moments of joy. FIFA 16 is also easy to recommend to seasoned veterans given the unmatched presentation and new wrinkles to longtime modes, even without any major overhauls. The gameplay changes might not be universally loved, but FIFA 16 still offers a polished and impressive version of the beautiful game, with plenty of modes and features to keep you playing for hours on end.