Ta-da! FIFA 16 gets four stars. You already know that since those stars are right there, just above, and the first thing you looked at when you opened this page up. But what kind of stars are they? An enthusiastic ‘FIFA is better than ever and only narrowly misses out on a perfect score’ stars? A lethargic ‘well, it hasn’t changed much, but I can’t take any stars away because it’s still pretty good’ stars?
For an idea, take this example, which conveniently rolls all of this year’s best new features into one thrilling anecdote. As cover-man Messi, I receive a quick punt from the backline which catches out a lunging opponent (Passes With Purpose), then let the ball roll ahead as I do a few body feints (No-Touch Dribbling). The seas momentarily part and I sprint into the gap like an athletic Moses, hooking the ball out wide to Bale who intelligently positions his feet and bangs in a curved delivery (Dynamic Crossing) that I volley sweetly into the net (Catchy New Name For Shooting). Strikes, passes, dribbles, positioning - EA Canada improves each area.
There’s not one all-encompassing back-of-the-box feature this year à la the Impact Engine or 360 degree dribbling, but if you’ve played any recent FIFAs you’ll notice the additions. Everything slots in effortlessly. Passes with Purpose are more balanced than they were at the preview stage, letting you fire a rapid but harder to control ball at teammates, and as a countermeasure, defenders more aggressively intercept them.
Shooting is more satisfying. It’s not that first-time crackers and 30-yard volleys are more successful - better keepers see to that - but that due to accurate foot placement, you’ll see greater striking variety and understand what conditions make for the perfect connection. One time when the ball’s caught under my player, he adjusts his feet to shoot rather than magically slinking into another animation.
For the first time ever in a football game, Super Mario Strikers aside, you can use fully face-scanned, mo-capped women. Despite this obviously being a good thing, it’s feels like a small first step. There are only 12 teams, for example, and they’re all international. You can use them in offline tournaments and friendlies, and online seasons and friendlies, but a lack of career mode makes them more of a curio, and with slower pace and weaker shots, it’s unlikely you’ll regularly use them over the men. Still, it's an important platform on which to build. Women's clubs next time, EA Canada?
No-Touch Dribbling enables you to ignore the ball and take direct control of players themselves with a hold of LB, dipping shoulders and angling limbs using the left stick. It slots alongside knock-ons, close control, and rapid pace shifts to offer another weapon in your offensive arsenal, and feels like the last piece of FIFA’s dribbling puzzle. It's not all weighted in favour of attackers though. Defenders have a smattering of new animations - knee-height challenges, instant recoveries from slides, nimble turns - to keep up with tricksy dribblers.
There's also less of a gulf in play quality, meaning the likes of Ronaldo won't be able to rampage through your lines like before. This is one improvement that feels like a misstep. Impact players are supposed to cause trouble, to make you think differently about how to stop them, but here Messi is simpler to boss, Bale easier to catch. FIFA 16 dulls superstars’ sheen to pursue more of an equally weighted team game focusing on slower build-up play.
With the intimidating array of controls, modifiers, and double modifiers that can confuse even long-time fans, the new FIFA Trainer is a necessity. This graphical overlay is a rolling antidote to stuffy tutorials, turned on and off mid-match with a click of the right stick. Contextual pointers over players' heads are more friendly advice than call to action, and have several tiers of complexity depending on which you select using the D-pad. While it does fulfil EA Canada's promise of teaching even FIFA veterans new tricks (press Y during a throw-in to launch the ball into space; hold RB and press X for a bobbling pass), it won't raise your game. Reading a list of combos in Street Fighter gives you new techniques, but it doesn't make you a better fighter.
It's a shame, because the computer is absolutely punishing. In the quest of making their AI smarter, EA Canada has instead created a Skynet-style monster that's just a few sequels removed from escaping the pitch and hacking into the Pentagon. It wriggles away from four-man tackles. It fires pinpoint passes through ball-sized openings. It has men back and men forward and men up and down, and it predicts what you'll do with scary precision.
Even on beginner mode the AI is daunting. The only difference between it and world class difficulty is fallibility: when the lowliest team waltzes through your lines with the ease of 11 ballerina ghosts before slowing down when it realises it's being too good - like Dash running a school sprint in The Incredible - you feel you're being pandered to. Be warned: unless you'd like to give up 60% possession to a computer who'll make you question mankind's dominance on this planet, playing against the AI is a frustrating experience, and this seems to contradict FIFA Trainer’s entire purpose.
If you can stomach these psychic ball hogs (at least it feels good when you beat them), you’ll enjoy the career’s new features. There are pre-season tournaments that let you start your year with about £10 million extra spending money if you win, as well as give you a chance to trial players in matches with unlimited subs, and training that allows you to improve up to five players a week through skill games, whether playing them yourself or simming them, to raise attributes and market value. Though the effects of a 2+ pace increase on the pitch is negligible, it gives you worthwhile activities between matches besides reading emails from moaning benchwarmers, and makes you feel like you’re building towards something.
FIFA 16's best mode by far is Ultimate Team Draft, in which you assemble a loan team out of a randomly generated assortment of rarities, then play four matches against either computer or human opponents, to win packs of Ultimate Team players based on your performance. Constructing your squad and shifting people around in the endless pursuit of perfect chemistry almost doesn’t need the ensuing matches - it could work as a self-contained puzzle mode. Since packs cost money, Draft has a £3/$3 entry fee, but the prize always matches this, if not surpasses it.
The only other new online options are regularly updated Live Tournaments, featuring rewards, but they’re only really worth entering if you’re literally the best FIFA player ever. Otherwise, stick to the returning ranked Seasons and co-op Seasons matches, create custom tournaments, and form Pro Teams with your virtual pro for up to 11 vs. 11 matches. Servers seem solid, lag is rare, and matchmaking’s fair.
Extra options in attack and defence enrich FIFA 16 without overburdening it. There’s no one winning tactic, so it’s up to you how you want to play, whether threading intricate passing patterns together, shooting from distance, or mastering original dribbling techniques. Oh, and Draft mode will make Ultimate Team fans’ faces melt. Although marginally slower then before, with a greater focus on build-up play, a slight loss of arcade appetite is a small price to pay for FIFA 16’s for fresh balance.