That thing you hated in FIFA 15? It’s been fixed! Probably. Unless that thing was the failure of Tottenham’s scattershot transfer strategy to replace Gareth Bale, in which case you and I are still in lonely mourning. Everyone else, though, can be cheered by the news that, judging by a few hours of play, FIFA 16 addresses the most glaring of last year’s problems.
Which is, admittedly, how this goes every year, starting with an event like the one I’ve just attended, where a group of press are invited to a presentation during which the FIFA development team highlight the sometimes comic inelegancies of their own game ("Until this year, players were incapable of looking up") while showing early footage of the new game not making any of the same mistakes. Attending more than one of these events forces a certain recognition in even the most credulous optimist.
"In terms of fixing problems in FIFA 15, defending gets perhaps the biggest overhaul."
I am not a credulous optimist. FIFA 15 was a disappointment that, on the surface at least, seemed to prioritise maintaining the enormous financial success of Ultimate Team over the delivery of meaty gameplay changes. But things really do appear different this year, which is all about meaty gameplay changes--partly, no doubt, because Ultimate Team is not yet being discussed, but also because of what seems a genuine preoccupation with bringing "balance" to what the dev team already consider to be a solid foundation.
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"The engine is strong" says FIFA’s senior producer, Nick Channon, summarising the major additions of the last few years. He mentions the player impact engine in FIFA 12, the introduction of step-based locomotion two years ago, and the rebuilt goalkeepers of last year; all changes moving the game away from scripted gameplay and towards more unpredictable, physics-driven outcomes. The bottom line is that Channon's team are, and can afford to be, less concerned with tech this year, and are free to concentrate on figuring out how "to make the gameplay shine."
"Last year it was all about pacy wingers, if I’m honest", continues Channon, noting FIFA 15’s single biggest flaw, one demonstrated by the ubiquity of Real Madrid in online matches. Defence was outgunned by the game’s attacking options, especially speed, and the midfield was too easily bypassed. Part of FIFA 16’s mantra is "Play it your way", an inevitably slick marketing line that nevertheless digs at a solid bit of design philosophy. Channon says players should be able to "play football beautifully" (and, of course, competitively) using a range of styles and teams. The technique of Barcelona should challenge the speed of Madrid, and should challenge the organisation of Juventus, and should challenge the directness of Borussia Dortmund. (Tottenham remain out of luck).
It’s to that end that those fixes mentioned earlier have been implemented, the things you hate nullified. Defending gets perhaps the biggest overhaul. That pace problem is eased with some new animations--defenders turned by a trick or a step now have a pivoting animation which spins them quicker and retains momentum--while under the surface, player acceleration curves have been tinkered with to give beaten players a more realistic chance of getting back for a second challenge. Even more satisfyingly, the sliding tackles, which for a while have felt neutered into mid-range lunges, have been given back some of their ferocity and force. They have more range, they can once again be used to anticipate and block shots or passes and, with that eye on keeping defenders in the game, tapping ‘X’ at the end of a mis-timed slide will bring your tackler back to their feet in one smooth movement.
"The sliding tackles, which for a while have felt neutered into mid-range lunges, have been given back some of their ferocity and force."
Two other specific points about defending are worth mentioning because they address things that I found particularly excruciating in FIFA 15 and would like to celebrate the end of. Defenders have been given a new suite of animations for challenging for the ball in mid-air, which sounds incidental but looks to solve the ludicrous potency of looped passes out to the wings when, all too often, a fullback would be in a seemingly good position to win the bouncing ball but (one of those comic inelegancies) simply hadn’t been given the animations making him capable of such a challenge. And, just as importantly, more conservative team AI means that defenders all over the pitch will now identify dangerous space--gaps in the defence, running channels--and sometimes decide to leave the player they’re marking in order to cover positionally. It sounds dry, but it actually means less screaming at fullbacks and defensive midfielders who are causally crab-jogging into defence when a glaring, goal-shaped hole has been torn open mere metres away.
In short, defences are stiffer and sterner and--in order to balance this bit of rebalancing--there are a few new attacking options, too. The most obvious is the no-touch dribbling, which means players in possession of the ball can keep it rolling at their feet while feinting and turning over and around it--a Messi-dance of misdirection that the dev team liken to a clutch control for an engine. It’s activated by holding down a shoulder button, and can be combined with skill moves for extra flair and frustration. There’s also what’s officially known as "passing with purpose"--pinged balls to feet designed to speed through a midfield more prone to interceptions (that aggressive AI) and gaps in defences. It’ll need fine timing, and a striker with a good touch, but done right it’s more powerful than a regular through-ball.
There are, in other words, lots of real changes (including better player head-tracking, because by the way that thing about looking up was true) and perhaps the greatest and most controversial is the inclusion of women’s football for the first time. The most predictable, least appealing element of this announcement was the hostile reaction it got from some quarters (Channon’s line is unequivocal: "We want to be the most authentic football game in the world, and if we want that women need to be part of our game") but there are happier, more surprising sides to the story too.
The women’s game is great to play, for one thing--very much its own thing, with a different pace more deliberate build-up play. It feels logically and organically different from the men’s game, perhaps because the ratings system for women has been redesigned around the differing priorities and emphases of how they play football. An 85 rating in the women’s game, says Channon, can’t be translated directly into any rating in the men’s game, as attributes carry a different weighting into the overall player score.
And secondly, the legwork needed to deliver a version of the women’s game EA felt happy with has improved the game as a whole. Player model scaling used to be linear, which means every part of the body was increased the same amount in order to recreate players of different sizes. Getting women’s bodies to look authentic meant designing a more sophisticated system, with the side-effect that some more outlandish specimens in the men’s game--Channon picks out Peter Crouch and Ade Akinfenwa-- are accurately modelled for the first time. There’s a similar story for modelling long hair too. You’re welcome, Ibra.
What does all this mean? That the early signs are good, at least in terms of the core gameplay. There’s already more change and improvement going on here than we saw in a finished FIFA 15, and the women’s game is a long-due addition being handled with precise attention to detail. Most of the stuff I hated, and you probably hated too, is on the way out. True, UItimate Team plays such a central role in FIFA’s longevity these days that excitement should be tempered until we know more about EA’s plans are there, but for now--cautious optimism is permitted.