EA Sports FIFA 16 review: golden goal

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher EA Sports
Developer EA Canada
Release Date Sep 22, 2015

Like the best professionals, FIFA 16 responds to an unexpected challenge with disciplined play driven by the knowledge of what it takes to win.

Having slammed the door on its competition for much of the preceding console generation, EA Sports' FIFA was blindsided last year by the soccer video game equivalent of an equalizer goal. Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 delivered stronger gameplay than FIFA 15, a withering success against a franchise that prides itself on technical brilliance.

To carry the sports metaphor further, all eyes fall on the betting favorite after such a startling blow, especially when a fickle crowd turns and cheers the underdog. After PES 2015 arrived, players of both games wondered if the big goals routinely scored in FIFA 15 were truly earned.

FIFA 16 responds with a longtime pro's self-confidence, never too proud to shape up the softer parts of its game, and committed to winning on fundamentals, not reputation.

It all starts with a strong upgrade to the intelligence of all computer-controlled players, teammate and opponent alike.

refined intelligence makes it imperative to give your team instructions

Past editions of FIFA were almost punishing in the obligation placed on the lone human-controlled ballcarrier, offering little in the way of support. FIFA 16's teammates space out better, probe the defense more intelligently and better present themselves for a pass or a scoring opportunity.

Their support seems to be somewhat conditional, however; if the human player is moving and advancing, they will too, but the briefest of pauses will stop them and leave the player to a smothering AI defense. Keep moving and keep passing.

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The opposition defense is much smarter about interfering with passing lanes and intercepting passes, which provides a more earnest challenge (particularly at advanced difficulties) and backs FIFA 16 off its predecessor's overabundance of big plays. Users still must play a very active defense without expecting computer teammates to help as much as they do on offense. But when I recognized the CPU building up its attack in the same way I would, I started jumping its passing routes, picking off the ball without attempting a hazardous tackle.

The refined intelligence makes it imperative to give your team instructions with D-pad commands, as an AI will use a specific posture or strategy — "attacking," "defensive," "offside trap," for example — and do things that the default "balanced" approach responds to slowly, if at all. Often when I was frustrated by a lesser-rated side I'd remember that I hadn't told my players to attack, and the immediate difference in play was stark.

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Two new user controls help the game play truer, though one, the "no-touch dribbling" modifier, has a steeper learning curve and is best employed when controlling one of the game's top players. It's a means of creating additional space between the ball and its handler, allowing for feints and tricks to misdirect the defender. In my novice hands, the no-touch dribbling modifiers (there are two degrees, one with the left bumper, another with the left bumper and the right trigger) seemed almost gratuitous and less effective than sprinting, stopping and starting using the standard stick controls.

The more useful control is the "driven pass," which involves a standard pass command modified with the right bumper button. The pass is faster and sharper to beat the defense but the recipient has a harder time taking control of the ball, particularly if he or she is lower-rated in the ballhandling department, or if the passer has a low passing skill.

When used without a reason, the driven pass slowed me down because the receiver's first touch is less precise than when he or she takes a standard pass. But in key situations the driven pass made my attack deadlier. Taking Liverpool against Lyon I zapped a driven pass from Christian Benteke to Lucas Leiva, where the usual crossing pass would have been suboptimal (Benteke was more behind Lucas than lateral to him) and the softer through-ball pass (triangle or Y) would have slowed the attack or been intercepted. Lucas feinted, then stepped into the clear and buried the ball in the back left corner.

I wish there were more for FIFA 16's women to do

The driven pass option is usually highlighted in a new feature called the "FIFA Trainer," a pop-up box that appears next to the ball-controlling player. It suggests commands depending on the situation. Veterans will likely turn this off, but as a striver in this field I appreciated the reminder, not only that I could do something other than a basic pass or shot, but how to do it.

The combined effect of the new commands and options is a very welcoming, very inclusive FIFA, which is appropriate considering one of its centerpiece features, the debut of women's soccer.

The women's teams are noticeably slower-paced, which answers the question of why you can't take them against a men's side. Their smaller goalkeepers also give up rebounds where a male counterpart would scoop up the ball, so a player would be wise to follow her shot by switching to any player close in the neighborhood or, if on defense, whale on the clear button (B or circle) to get it out of town. It's a neat strategic consideration to keep in mind. The women's "International Tournament" plays a lot like college soccer, which is appropriate considering American universities' outsize influence on the sport. Even at higher difficulty settings, mismatched teams will produce some extreme statistical totals, particularly shots on goal.

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Women's soccer in FIFA 16 isn't some dumbed-down version of the game, because the slower pace allows greater precision in passing, movement and defense, meaning deadly counterattacks are always on the table. On the whole, playing with the women's teams gives a player more time to consider his or her strategy than in the men's professional side of FIFA 16. Announcers Martin Tyler and Alan Smith also support the women's teams with dialogue specific to their players and clubs.

I still wish there were more for them to do. The modes in which the women's sides are available — an unbranded tournament that maxes out at six matches, or standard one-off play — don't provide enough context to support what is otherwise an admirably different way of playing soccer. EA Sports' forthright and respectable presentation of the differences in women's soccer means their players can't show up in a mixed-gender competition like Ultimate Team or Be a Pro. But if you want to create a larger story for any of the 12 women's teams, all you have to work with is a single generic tournament. What, I wonder, would have prevented FIFA 16 from offering a 22-match fantasy league of these women's national teams, playing everyone home and road, with the aggregated statistics and player progression enjoyed in the men's game?

FIFA has long indulged fantasy scenarios and alternate-reality leagues and schedules. Look no further than Ultimate Team, which FIFA originated in 2008, isn't rooted in any kind of reality, and still is the franchise's most appealing mode of play. FIFA Ultimate Team has, by a mile, introduced me to more spectacular performers in world soccer than watching two World Cups or all of NBC's Premier League broadcasts. It gets a boost this year with something called FUT Draft which, like its Madden NFL "Draft Champions" counterpart, lets players assemble a highly rated squad for short-term use, rather than labor through building an 85- or 90-rated side.

The drawback is, unlike Draft Champions, each trip through FUT Draft costs virtual currency. A lot. The first tour is free but afterward, it takes 15,000 "Coins" or 300 "FIFA Points," the latter of which is bought for real money. Coins are earned whenever you play FIFA 16's numerous modes, but the entry fee is still equivalent to about $2.50. On one hand, this is a brake on abusing FUT Draft to level up your main Ultimate Team with the prizes it offers for winning. On the other, it's a pay-to-win scenario, rather than a complementary experience.

The slower pace of women's soccer allows greater precision in passing, movement and defense

Ultimate Team is still the best mode for newcomers, of which there are many in North America. Untethered from the expectations that ride with managing a name-brand team like Réal Madrid or Chelsea, I focused purely on the players I had and how to win with them and make them better. I formed intensely loyal relationships with my top performers. My new favorite is Nolan Roux, just a 75-rated striker for Saint-Étienne in France's Ligue 1, but a guy who is always at the vanguard of my attack, slamming home a pass for a timely score. Without FIFA Ultimate Team, I probably wouldn't know or care anything about him.

Watch the lower right corner of that video. When the voice recognition indicator lights up, that's me jumping up and down and screaming, "We did it!" In the end, making the player care is where FIFA 16 outshines everyone in sports video gaming. It synthesizes the joy of these athletes and their fans alike.

Wrap Up:

No game rolls out the TNT like FIFA 16

I rarely cheer my players in any other sports title because it's like laughing at your own joke. Yet here I am, falling into a 2-2 tie with Germany in the semifinal of the "Women's International Cup" tournament, dreading extra time or, worse, penalty kicks. And in the 90th minute, Ali Krieger swoops in on her own, takes the pass and lofts a pinpoint cross to Alex Morgan, whose divebomb header delivers our salvation.

This sequence is the story of FIFA 16, from its participants, to the tools used to deliver the goal, to the cathartic payoff that sent me leaping from my seat. Sports video gaming is at its best when you're fighting your ass off and the miracle comes through. And when it does, no game rolls out the TNT like FIFA 16.

FIFA 16 was reviewed using a "retail" downloadable Xbox One copy and a retail disc-based PlayStation 4 copy provided by EA. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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