Note: On the eve of this review being written, EA Sports released an update for the game that fixes some bugs, improves stability in some game modes and adds transfers and some licenses. We didn't, however, have the opportunity to properly test the game with the new update, so this review only deals with the default version of FIFA 16.
The biggest criticism we usually hear from non-FIFA players is that EA Sports' football simulator is always "the same as last year." In the sense that it is a football game, filled with official licenses, and many offline and online modes, yes, that's always the same. FIFA fans however, can easily attest that FIFA usually changes a lot from year to year, and sometimes even in a shocking way. FIFA 15, for example, marked a dramatic change from FIFA 14, so much so that the game lost focus, stability, and overall quality.
This year the situation was different. EA Sports admitted that it was necessary to refine gameplay and that's what they did. FIFA 16 is more stable, has fewer 'bugs', and within lies the hidden potential of some high quality football, but it's still not a perfect game. Far from it. FIFA was already a complicated football game, especially for beginners, and the new edition does nothing to improve that situation, with new dribbling and passing options, plus some scrambled button configuration. One new feature is the "no touch dribbling," which lets you pull off a feint while pressing the L1/RB and the left stick. This means you can now use this new no touch dribbling, right stick feints, protection dribbling with L2/LT, and the front dribble with L2/LT + R2/RT. In addition to the usual sprint and normal dribbles. It's too much.
As for passing, there are all the classic types (regular, through, high ball...) plus the introduction of "passing with purpose," which in practice is a much stronger and faster pass. While pressing R1/RB, you can send the ball at high speed to a colleague, ideal for long distances, but it can go very wrong in close proximity. This can cause a faulty take from the player receiving the ball, giving it to the opposition. Even veterans will have to undergo a process of adaptation to all the new mechanics, which will not necessarily be easy, but a casual player might easily feel overwhelmed with so many choices and moves at their disposal. In an effort to facilitate this process, EA Sports has released a new help system that suggests during the game which buttons to press in a specific situation. It's not particularly useful or effective, unlike the Skill Games, which continue to be fun and provide good training.
When you eventually discover all you can do with FIFA 16, you will realise that you have all the tools necessary to put some high quality football into practice. The dizzying pace of FIFA 15 has been reduced considerably for the new edition, many (but not all) of the problems regarding physics and animations have been resolved, and the gameplay has become more balanced, cohesive and realistic. In other words, FIFA 16's gameplay is magnificent... when you are allowed to play.
The biggest problem we found on the game came from an imbalance between the difficulty settings. Up until FIFA 14, we always played on the "Legendary" level, but last year we felt the need to downgrade to "World Class". This year the situation is even worse, with an artificial intelligence that is simply relentless, not because it's particularly smart, but because it is way too good. It usually applies some heavy marking, exchanges the ball with great ease, and almost always anticipates when the player will try a tackle. On top of that, add some anti-football tactics to make things ever worse. We appreciate that EA Sports attempts to recreate every element of real football into their simulator, but when you begin to implement these kind of tactics into the AI, maybe you're going a bit too far.
If you happen to be losing against the AI close to the 75 minutes mark, the other team will "park the bus", effectively blocking the path to the goal. Worse even, it will switch the ball with uncanny accuracy and, when it gets the chance, it will run up field into the opposite corner and sit there trying to keep the ball away from you. This obviously happens in real football, and we see these tactics every weekend, but it results in a very frustrating experience for the player. Continuing this line of thought, what will come next, faked injuries and long stops for medical assistance when players have phantom cramp?
Playing FIFA 16 on a high difficulty is a painful experience, because regardless of whether it's a team of three stars or five, the AI will simply not let you play. In the "World Class" difficulty, we finished the vast majority of matches with less possession than the opponent, even after sending the team on-field with the specific strategy of keeping the ball. The problem is that the AI is excellent at regaining possession of the ball and then can exchange it easily in both defence and midfield. This will force you to chase and tackle like a mad man trying to recover it - until you quickly turn it over again. It's too frustrating and it's not a direction we feel EA needs to take when balancing the difficulty settings. We don't think it should be getting harder and harder, but more realistic. A difficulty setting and an AI should represent a team's real value in a proper manner, not one where everyone plays like Barcelona. Note, however, that once again there are sliders that will let you adjust the difficulty in a number of ways, and you can get to know them better in our Sliders guide.
Fortunately the online experience was more satisfying. It's in this context that the gameplay improvements and refinements became really apparent. We played several matches that resulted in either losses and draws, but we were almost always having fun and felt like we were being treated fairly. Even the losses that were most difficult to swallow, where we endured goals on the counterattack after overwhelming dominance, seemed to result from our own errors and the opponent's quick thinking, not due to gameplay bugs or the scripting that most players refer to as 'divine intervention'.
We're going to risk saying that FIFA 16 is arguably the best football game we ever played online, with a lot for players to explore, from the highly popular Ultimate Team Mode, to Seasons mode with clubs. One of the biggest new features in this area is the FUT Draft, which will let you form a team by choosing players for each position, plucked from a batch of six random options. Here you will need to balance the natural ability of each player with their contribution to the team chemistry. For example, will you choose a right winger with 82 rating, but no impact on team chemistry, or a player with 78, but with the capability to improve the team's chemistry?
When you eventually set your team, you will participate in a tournament (online or offline) until you are eliminated. The reward at the end will be determined by the chosen difficulty level (if playing offline) and the number of victories. You can win multiple packages or even players with FUT Draft, but to participate you will have to pay as well. All players have a token to try out FUT Draft, but from there on in you will need to buy these tokens, each costing 15,000 gold coins or the equivalent of a couple of quid. Prices aside, it seemed to us like a nice introduction to the FUT universe, especially for players who accumulate many gold coins and want to spend them on something different.
We can not end the FIFA 16 review without mentioning women's football, which debuted in this year's iteration. In the end, it's still football, so don't expect dramatic changes in gameplay, but there are some nuances that slightly alter the general feeling. We liked the introduction of the mode, which finally offers a well-deserved representation of the growing women's game, but what features in FIFA 16 is merely a sample of what we could see in the future. With twelve national teams and a single tournament mode, there is very little to do in this part of the game. Let's see how women's football will evolve in the coming years.
With FIFA 15 EA changed several gameplay elements, but the game lost focus and direction, two essential pillars that seem to have been found again in this new edition. In terms of licenses, general presentation, graphics and game modes, FIFA 16 is superb, as it always has been, but more importantly, gameplay has been improved in all sectors. There are still some animations and physical reactions that need to be adjusted, but overall you will find a game where you can practice high quality and realistic football. Unless you go up against the higher difficulty levels. If that's the case, get ready for a few hours of frustration.