Alan Partridge himself may as well have penned the marketing bumph for this, the 23rd annual edition of EA’s football series.
Promises of – in the publisher’s words – “confidence in defending”, “control in midfield”, and “moments of magic” intimate a return to Fifa’s early-2000s nadir, where back-of-box buzz phrases overshadowed the on-pitch action. As such, it’s a relief to report that these Partridgisms, while cringeworthy, are not without justification. There is substance behind the slogans.
The Fifa series has enjoyed a rejuvenation since the leap to this generation of machines, but all too often matches in Fifas 14 and 15 were dominated by players with elite pace and power attributes. Mercifully, thanks to the above tweaks – “confidence in defending” in particular – that’s no longer the case. Centre backs mark snugly, constantly buffeting and tugging at even the strongest forwards. Full-backs track properly and look to step in front of onrushing wingers before they can reach top speed, while defensive midfielders break on to under-hit opposition passes, always seeking to spring a deadly counterattack.
Pace and power are still as important as any other attribute, but timing – bursting past a full-back at the right instant, or shrugging off a central defender just as a crossed ball meets your striker’s forehead – is now critical in using them correctly. Nowhere is this better showcased than in the newly introduced women’s matches. Without the Olympian velocity of a Cristiano Ronaldo or Yaya Toure’s adamantine strength, finesse is imperative – that means recycling possession among midfielders and full-backs until a tantalising defensive gap offers a through-ball opportunity, or an out-of-position opponent provides a brief window in which to cross.
For your first 10, 20, 30 games with either sex, creating chances – let alone scoring goals – feels almost impossible. Results read like an essay written in binary. Then everything clicks, and you realise it’s exactly as virtual football should be; challenging your brain’s ability to unpick an organised opponent, rather than your index finger’s RT-holding endurance.
As a result, this version of Fifa lacks the usual immediacy, and some of those seeking the end-to-end goal bonanzas of previous years won’t have the patience to persevere. More fool them. After a few days with the game, its more deliberate build-up play becomes second nature, and it’s then that you’re really able to drink in Fifa 16’s other little simulation improvements.
Players adjust their bodies while making slide tackles or blocks in order to get just a toe or a knee to the ball, rather than ignoring it once locked into an animation. Keepers are more human – rushing from the area to clear overhit through balls and adopting better angles at shots from out wide, but also flapping at crosses and sometimes out-jumped by taller forwards. Referees use vanishing spray at free kicks which, like in real life, stays on the turf for a few minutes afterwards. In isolation none of these adjustments constitute a selling point, yet together they again bring the series one step closer to what you see on Sky Sports of a Sunday afternoon.
The downside to the more cerebral action is that it slightly diminishes tactical variety. An array of possible formations make themselves available, yet from English Premier League to Colombian Liga Dimayor, it often feels like neat passing triangles are the only viable play style.
For instance, Bournemouth carry a perfect strength-and-speed tandem in Glenn Murray and Callum Wilson, yet deploying a long-ball policy over a series of games – even with the former set as a target man, and Wilson instructed to run in behind – garners few chances and zero goals. Few will truly care given the passing game improvements, but having to turn Plymouth Argyle into a Devonian Barcelona (“Paella? We only sell pasties out this way, my lover!”) does feel at odds with the reality EA craves.
With the main focus on simulation rather than structure this year, career mode has to settle for a few refinements instead of a full overhaul. Pre-season tournaments are a welcome improvement on meaningless friendlies, and weekly training drills for up to five squad members provide a smart means of expediting player growth. Further fleshing out the world are additional mid-match discussions from Martin Tyler and Alan Smith, such as analysis of transfers made elsewhere in your league.
Scouting remains an addictive time sink, although one which eschews believability as you drop down the divisions – my best talent spotter repeatedly recommended Wayne Rooney, Christian Eriksen and Gylfi Sigurdsson. For Leyton Orient.
Got, got, need
Strides are being made within Fifa Ultimate Team, after a 12 month period in which EA was lambasted for meddling with its card-collecting, dream-team-building mode. Web and companion apps return although they require a (thankfully simple) verification process before use, and price ranges are much wider than those so heavily criticised last year.
The new Ultimate Team draft mode, enabling the construction of an all-star squad for four games, also delivers a refreshing break from the mode’s typical early grind. It’s all very moreish for now, but could change again once the people who peddle in-game currency for real cash determine how to exploit the system. Prepare for a winter of Mourinho-style tinkering.
And what of the old debate pitting Fifa against old rival PES? As demonstrated by unending schoolyard squabbles on social media, it’s an almost redundant debate – both games are edging back towards peak form, yet neither is likely to coax ardent fans of one series into switching sides.
What isn’t in doubt is that EA’s game offers the superior package. Ultimate Team, career mode, online seasons, female players, dozens of leagues and hundreds of teams all with weekly line-up updates, bespoke overlays for Premier League and Bundesliga matches … the feature list goes on. While on-pitch matters between these two old foes are too close to call, Fifa’s breathtaking scope secures yet another silver pot for an already heaving trophy cabinet.
This article was written by Ben Wilson, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 22nd September 2015 08.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010