FIFA 16 Preview
Submitted on: 06/27/2015 by Chase Becotte
Soccer fans want to believe their sport is the most creative game in the world. Having a moniker like the “beautiful game” sort of touches on that point, but what’s hard about living up to that ideal is that it flies in the face of video games and how people play them much of the time.
In short, people have always tried to figure out how to “beat” games. And in the sports world, much of the time that means figuring out what works and then doing that over and over to succeed. In FIFA’s world, that means using the fastest players, hitting an elevated through ball behind the backline, swarming on defense while not worrying about fouls, or being really good at right stick dribbling.
Now it would be unfair to say that’s all there is to FIFA, but the point is you still see a lot of the same tactics on the field game to game. Personnel, play style and formations are things that perhaps should matter more and could matter more if you made them worthwhile. But that can only happen if you make the ways you currently “beat” the game less successful.
In short, it seems the folks working on FIFA 16 are looking to create more beauty on the pitch while simultaneously uglying the game up by combating some of those well known tactics you use to score and defend. The developers want to create beauty while creating muck.
So below I’ll talk about the couple hours I spent with FIFA 16 and how the game is coming along at this point.
Creating Beauty While Creating Muck
First and foremost, the team was upfront about admitting that the midfield in many respects did not exist in FIFA 15. Whether it was through quick pinging passes up the field or by simply dribbling long lengths of the pitch, the game was played in the final third at each end. I don’t think anybody would disagree with that conclusion, and so the first element that comes into play here is passing, in terms of both its importance and its success rate.
So what the offense now has at its disposal is the normal passes we’ve always had, and also a more forceful pass that can be triggered by holding RB or R1 (depending on your console) and the pass button. What this does is two-fold: it opens up the chances for more interesting long passes on the ground; and it allows you to fit the ball into tighter spaces, which is important because the defense is more aggressively closing down passing lanes this year.
The key things here will be who can make those passes at a high success rate, and who can corral those passes at a similarly high success rate. I think it’s also easy to argue that last year elite passers (and crossers) did not really stand out much of the time. In theory, it seems great to have a guy like Pirlo playing deep as that controlling midfielder. However, if it’s easy to get 95 percent of what Pirlo brings, only with the added speed of someone like Ramires, then people are going to go with Ramires because the passing differential does not matter enough. This same logic applies to those players with high ball control ratings -- in terms of their ability to control firmer passes versus those with feet that are not quite as gifted.
It’s too early to say whether or not player differential is there -- or at least whether specialists will at least stand out in more areas -- but I think how rewarding the passing ends up feeling will be heavily influenced by player differential.
At first glance, it might be concerning to read more forceful passes are in play now for the attacking side, especially when it was arguably already too easy to pass the ball around and create scoring opportunities with almost any team in FIFA 15. However, if anything, it almost feels like those more forceful passes were introduced as a reaction to the defense getting a boost in both awareness and skill.
The easiest thing to notice so far is that AI defenders are more tactically aggressive. I’ll call it their cone of influence being expanded, but basically what I mean is their vision is far more ball-focused now, and so they’re not totally keyed in on just denying their man from getting the ball. What this creates are chances where softer passes, or just errant passes, can be picked off by nearby defenders. Last year I would find myself being incredibly frustrated when a nearby defender would not step up and stop a dangerous player on the ball or step in to close a passing lane if the man he was marking was further away from the play. To this point, it seems defenders are far more aware of when there is a chance to strike, and they also realize who the dangerous man is at key moments.
The backline as a whole also seems to be on more of a string. Again, if you took user input out of the question, there were times last year where you just had to question what backlines were thinking in terms of moving in sync and keeping the right shape. It’s nothing I’m saying is “fixed” now, but it’s something where you immediately notice a smarter group in the back overall.
Again though, much like with passing, this goes back to hoping that defense as an attribute matters more. The strategy much of the time last year was simply stay in front of your man using defenders, and then have the fastest midfielders you could find streak back for the double team and attack the ball carrier. Individual defensive ratings need to matter more, and whether user control is in play or not, speed should not be the factor you look for in a defender or defensive midfielder, but rather his ability to play good defense.
A final point I want to make here is that defenders are also opening up and swiveling their hips more easily when backpedaling now. Another reason why users go to double teams so often right now is I think because they feel terrified in one-on-one situations. The dribbler has generally had the advantage, but now defenders are staying more square to the play, which allows you to contain and then strike with more confidence. It’s a nuanced change, but it’s something where if you go from playing last year’s game and then go right to FIFA 16 it will immediately stand out.
The physical side of the game is where I get simultaneously very excited and very worried. Big men I will contend were nerfed last year. Whether it’s on offense or defense, they just felt out of place. Speed is always king in sports games, right or wrong, but it’s not a good sign that most players online went with short and fast over any sort of height.
As of now, it feels like big men have some purpose again. On the ball, they continue to feel a bit scarier, which I think had already started to occur last year. But beyond that, they now feel more important on 50-50 balls in the air. I think headers and how to win them has been overly confusing in FIFA for years, but right now even if you’re still confused about where to align yourself, it feels like the big guys do have the advantage again.
What concerns me is that the game is still a bit of a chaotic, physical mess. Going with the tractor beam approach of rushing the ball and just going through the man to get it is far too viable still at this point. If you’re going to put so much effort into trying to give the defense more weapons and make it harder to move the ball through the midfield, you can’t then simultaneously allow so much physical play to go unchecked.
Now, I have no doubt part of why I feel this way is because the physics of the game just sometimes lead to ugly looking situations where players fall down and there probably was not an actual foul, but because the collision on the ball looked so weird you almost expect something to be called. Regardless, there has to be more ticky-tack calls or an increase in yellow cards to sort of combat this element of the game. Otherwise I still feel like you’ll see folks go to a heavy dose of double teams, or at the very least they won’t try to contain and use the new weapons at their disposal and will instead opt to go back to the old bag of tricks.
In the Air
So I talked a bit about big men and their potentially increased role, and obviously that matters with anything having to do with the ball being in the air. But more what I want to talk about is crosses and headers. With the way a lot of the defensive improvements are shaping up, it feels like crosses will become even more important as more of the game funnels towards the sidelines to avoid some of the clutter in the midfield.
This is intriguing on a couple levels. First, the addition of feints via the LB/L1 button and the right stick opens up even more opportunities in those tight spaces near the sidelines. Second, defenders are clearly more active in terms of getting their legs up to stop crosses and passes that are in close proximity to them. So what you have is more of this cat and mouse game where neither player wants to react and give up a dangerous cross in the final third.
Adding to that is that I think 50-50 balls in the air do feel a bit more understandable and fair so far, yet at the same time scoring chances feel much more dangerous. It would not be hard to say headers felt a bit nerfed last year (perhaps in reaction to being overpowered in FIFA 14), but it feels like it’s a real weapon again as headers are back to having serious velocity when you hit them right..
There was an instance where I got off a cross that ended up bouncing off the grass, and Kagawa then chose that moment to fly in and dive to head the ball into the net. It was a moment I certainly never witnessed in last year’s game, and it was a special moment of brilliance that did not feel cheap. As always, balance will be key here, but I like a lot of what’s going on in this area of the game so far.
The last elements I want to touch on with gameplay have to do with dribbling. I touched on the feinting, and it’s a nice addition, but the reason it feels helpful is because a lot of the best moments right now to me are in the final third. So when you’re out near the sideline, there’s standoffs of sorts where the ball carrier is at a standstill, and he’s sizing up a defender who now feels a bit better equipped to read and react. Neither side wants to strike first, so feinting is another way to try and bait defenders into mistakes.
Beyond that, dribbling feels a bit harder overall in terms of just trying to go around people. And because the midfield feels a bit more compact, dribbling in tight spaces feels like it will be more of a challenge and yet a bigger deal to pull off. Small, finite movements will perhaps be a big difference maker this year -- rather than just relying on your ability to quickly speed burst through all the trouble in the midfield.
The Other Beauty of the Game
I won’t spend too much time talking about the presentation at this point, but I do want to say I think the faces look much improved this year in close-ups. FIFA’s camera view simply gives it almost no shot of being a truly “wow” game in the graphics department during gameplay, but during those close-ups, the game does impress quite a bit. That being said, the audio in the stadiums is still the real presentational star of the game. The crowds seem somewhat alive from a visual perspective, but again, perhaps based on the camera view you don’t feel like the crowds are really alive from a visual standpoint, just from an audio one.
I did not talk about shooting very much because goalies are always a little wonky in these early builds. But I would say shooting from distance feels like it will be more important with chances in the box being a bit harder to come by so far. The changes they’ve made to the shooting physics do seem notable, but from a critical perspective I just don’t feel comfortable saying much more at this point. The same goes for slide tackles, which I know the development team put a lot of work into this cycle. Be that as it may, I simply did not toy around with them enough to give much of an opinion at this point.
With that being said, I see FIFA 16 being in an interesting spot right now. The game feels more balanced than it has in a couple years at this moment, but work still needs to be done to keep it from being a game that devolves into this chaotic jumble where people are just running around at full speed the entire 90 minutes. There’s time to hone in on stuff like fouling and physics to make that work in the same way there’s still time to make players continue to feel a bit different from one another on the pitch.
If the development team can make those adjustments, then at least on the pitch I feel confident this will be another solid campaign for EA’s flagship sports franchise.