It’s about time something connected to world football’s governing body delivered good news. So try this: after years of being accused of prioritising slogans over substance, EA Canada’s first wave of changes to FIFA 16 are all ones specifically requested by gamers in response to last year’s edition. Having played it, this less-is-more approach looks set to reinvigorate its flagship sports series, and – here’s the best bit – leave the online menchildren obsessed with scoring ‘sweaty goals’ weeping into their Suarez posters.
For instance, change number one on the tick list covers… number ones. As in, goalkeepers. Last year’s retooled (yet temperamental) netmen have been given an additional stack of new animations and AI enhancements that mostly eliminate the fury-sparking mistakes of FIFA 15. No more halfway line lobs that limp into the onion bag while your keeper does a passable impersonation of Nelson’s Column; no more inability to recover in any situation that requires them moving back towards goal.
I say ‘mostly’ because every keeper has the odd Rob Green moment. Especially Rob Green. In FIFA 16, as in reality, that remains the case. Overall, however, they’re already noticeably more reliable.
Not only do custodians ship fewer soft goals, they’re also less busy generally, as defensive play has been significantly upgraded. 25 under-the-hood tweaks to off-the-ball movement – for instance, centre-back turning circles being tighter, and players looking to mark the most dangerous threat in their vicinity rather than any old opponent – coupled with the toning down of sprint speeds mean it’s suddenly really tricky to score.
Last year’s first playtest for journalists threw up several farcical scorelines (and accompanying eye rolls) that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an ice hockey rink; yet this year, in around 15 matches, the closest I got to a goal bonanza was a single 3-2. And that was between Barca and Real Madrid.
There’ll be a backlash against these defensive measures from the type of online player who only ever makes use of those Iberian behemoths, and desires to either win 7-0 or disconnect at the first whiff of defeat. But in terms of realism and competitive balance, the emphasis on defending is a long overdue, and extremely welcome, change. Let babies be babies. The rest of us can focus on trying to recreate actual, real football.
A couple of other new elements stand out as incremental revisions that transform matches for the better. My favourite is another defensive one: players break faster on loose balls and make moves to intercept accurate passes if close enough to do so. From an attacking perspective, new harder passes (on PS4, hold R1 while hitting X) are an always-satisfying method of zipping the ball between these more observant foes, while properly whipped crosses and drilled shots prove to be potent weapons once you’ve adjusted to the more stringent defending.
From a personal standpoint, the one major frustration remaining is that it’s still impossible to specify which players go up for set pieces – a vital tactic for sides with big defenders, such as Stoke and Crystal Palace. Producer Nick Channon frustratingly confirms it’s not one that’ll be rectified anytime soon:
“We’re not changing anything related to that this year, but it’s definitely something to think about. There are always priority lists. For me FIFA 16’s main one is about making sure we have balance on both sides of the ball, and I think we do. But it is an interesting idea.”
Annoyances at having 6 ft 3 defenders shackled to the halfway line at corners aside, the signs here are promising – which is more than can be said for anything else linked to the FIFA name at present. EA Canada is taking measures to make the series better for those who want to mimic real football, and infuriating for trolls who’d rather manipulate every flaw to their advantage. The salient point is that it should make for an even more beautiful game.