Until about five years ago, I barely knew anything about soccer. Today, I'm a West Ham United fanatic and a San Jose Earthquakes season ticket holder. The reason? FIFA, the sport's unofficial ambassador in the U.S. and one of the best sports games on the market year in and year out. But this year, I have to come to grips with a glaring reality: It's getting stale.
Of all the current-generation sports sims, no game has changed less than FIFA - an annual cash cow that has become one of EA's most important franchises. As recently as a couple years ago, it was still heads and shoulders above the competition in terms of graphics, presentation, and modes, consistently introducing smart additions that elevated the gameplay without hurting the overall formula. Now, even the perennially underperforming Madden has caught up to FIFA in some ways, at least on the field.
This year's edition of FIFA introduces its usual handful of smart additions and gameplay tweaks, its most notable additions being the FIFA Ultimate Team Draft and women's teams. On the field, it plays much the same as last year, with perhaps a bit less emphasis on pace. Interceptions are way up, but that's countered by the fact that it's easy to keep the ball on your field while sprinting, which makes for a lot of breakneck counters - a FIFA staple. I'm not going to lie, it's a lot of fun, but Pro Evolution Soccer supporters have a point when they point to that sim's more nuanced and reserved pace as a positive. The crazy back-and-forth verges on feeling unrealistic at times, especially when playing the computer, which rarely attacks the ball with anything resembling vigor unless you're playing on World Class difficulty or above.
Women's teams make for a welcome addition for this mix, even if they are not well-integrated to the game as a whole. After their spectacular run to the World Cup title over the summer, it's a delight to be able to play as the U.S. Women's National Team, and the game is helpful in automatically putting together a quick tournament where you can try out the various teams. As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, though, for as much work as EA has put into accurately modeling Megan Rapinoe and company - and they've clearly gone the extra mile on that front - it's baffling that you can't manage one of the women's teams through the Career Modes International Manager function. True, there aren't enough teams for a proper World Cup - Japan is an especially glaring omission on this front - but even a bunch of friendlies and a generic tournament would suffice. Instead, the women's teams are introduced and more or less forgotten, there only to break up the usual run of Barcelonas, Bayern Munichs, and Real Madrids when playing online.
More successful is is the new FIFA Ultimate Team Draft, which is similar to Madden's Draft Champions, but with a few key differences. As with Draft Champions, the FUT Draft lets you choose from a pool of randomly selected players to put together a dream team and try to win as many games as possible. Unlike Madden, though, EA Canada makes no bones about the mode being there to grind coins and acquire players for Ultimate Team. There's a fee to play - 15,000 coins or around $3 in real money - but much greater rewards. Prizes vary, but there are reports of players getting "jumbo premium gold packs" containing the likes of Wayne Rooney and Franck Ribery for hitting the maximum of four wins, putting it more in line with Hearthstone's Arena Mode.
The greater prizes should help the FUT Draft have a bit more longevity than Draft Champions, which started strong and was quickly forgotten once everyone earned enough wins to get the two elite players (I sure wasn't going to play 20 or 30 times for Adrian Peterson). It's also aided by the inherent strengths of FIFA Ultimate Team, particularly the much larger pool of players and the depth afforded by team chemistry, which encourages you to look beyond basic stats and think about how the team comes together. In general, FIFA Ultimate Team remains the strongest Ultimate Team mode among sports games, benefiting from a superb interface, a massive pool of players, and smart features like player loans, which let you try out elite players before investing in them.
Beyond that, the remaining changes are more mundane. Preseason tournaments are a fun addition to manager mode, enabling you to take on a variety of teams from around the world for a nice boost in your transfer funds, but they don't offer the radical addition that being an International Manager did a couple years ago. There's a "FIFA Trainer" overlay that offers button recommendations; but after a half with it on, I turned it off. The recommendations may be useful for new players - especially when shooting - but I found the way they sometimes covered up the ball and other players incredibly distracting. It's a far cry from the NHL Trainer, which features passing and shooting cones that make it much easier to line up a shot, and is sorely missed when playing online.
Put together, it's tough to see how FIFA 16 constitutes a big improvement over last year's edition, which featured similarly conservative additions but benefited from still feeling fresh on a relatively new generation of consoles. With the next-generation consoles now firmly entrenched, fans are justified in wondering when FIFA 16 is going to take the next step forward.
The FIFA Conundrum
The tough thing about writing a review like this is that I still love FIFA. If this is your first time picking up the series, then you're apt to have a blast. Just today, I played a bunch of online matches, and I found myself having to wrench myself away from the TV so that I could write this review. FIFA is addictive like that.
Even now, it still has some clear advantages over other sports sims. No sports sim outside of Football Manager has a more flexible and elegant manager mode than FIFA, which organically introduces storylines that turn every transfer window into high drama. I thought I was done with it after a six season binge in FIFA 15, but moving the MLS and Liga MX to Europe so that I could get them into the Champions League sucked me back in. It has a fantastic sim engine, letting you play around with a wide range of what-ifs like, "What if the LA Galaxy were in the Premier League?" For the record, they finished in last place, but not before a run to the quarterfinal of the FA Cup and a win over Tottenham, which is the Spurs-iest thing I've ever seen in a video game.
FIFA also continues to boast the best online mode, cleverly turning games into a promotion/relegation battle filled with dynamic commentary; and as I mentioned before, the best Ultimate Team mode. Last generation, it was so far ahead of the pack that it made games like Madden seem embarrassing by comparison. This generation, it's still very strong, but the gap has narrowed considerably. Among other things, it could use some work in the looks department. The character models are detailed and attractive, and they generally animate fine, but the stadiums in particular could use a lot of work. I was particuarly shocked by how bad Centurylink Field - a new addition - looked in comparison to its Madden NFL 16 equivalent. Granted, Madden and FIFA are two very different games, but the wide angle shots looked straight out of the Xbox 360 (to be fair, more established locales like the Etihad and the Santiago Bernabeu look fine, though lacking in detail).
Over the years, I've talked about EA's struggle to keep improving an already amazing sports game without cooking the proverbial golden goose. To some extent, that still holds true. But when I look at FIFA 16, I see a lot of room for improvement. Career Mode, as much as I love it, needs more spice. It lacks the in-game social media elements of NBA 2K, which should be a given at this point, and even the fun of having a major signing being introduced via a press conference - something that PES has over FIFA. The accompanying player-only career mode is mostly fine, featuring an adequate goal and advancement system, but it lacks the complex feedback of NHL and the storytelling of NBA 2K, and as such comes off as rather generic. Both of them badly need more reasons to keep playing, even if it's something as simple as a trophy case that can be built up over time. On the field, PES has shown that a slightly slower-paced approach that emphasizes controlled build-up can work very well, making the whole experience feel more authentic. I don't think FIFA should copy PES, but EA Canada would be wise to take a hard look at what Konami is doing with their soccer sim.
Going forward, the competition is only going to get more intense. It's been an unusually strong year for sports games, with Pro Evolution Soccer, Madden, and NHL all being noticeably improved, and Rocket League standing ready to steal some of FIFA's thunder. By comparison, FIFA looks like it's standing still. For a lot of soccer fans, of course, that won't matter, as it is still a very fun game that does a lot of things right. But after three straight years of conservative updates, FIFA 16 is now falling behind.
The message for EA should be clear: Conservative updates are no longer enough. FIFA is going to need to go big next year to once again be considered a top-tier sports sim on par with MLB: The Show and NBA 2K. The alternative is a steady descent into mid-table mediocrity.
FIFA has a very clean interface with a fast loading menu. FIFA Trainer is a surprise miss, though, greatly distracting from the action on the field.
FIFA is still the king of local multiplayer, and FUT adds lots of value, but the career modes really need additional reason to keep playing. Even a trophy case would help.
The commentary is still very solid, and team songs are clearly discernible from the crowd. Not a lot to complain about.
FIFA still looks very good, but it has fallen behind other major sports sims. The stadiums in particular could use more detail.
I've consistently defended FIFA as the most well-rounded sports sim. But the series has felt like it's been standing still this generation, and that is felt more acutely than ever in FIFA 16. As always, it has its strengths, and the FUT Draft is a strong addition, but it's not enough to break the feeling of staleness that has descended upon the once undisputed king of sports games.