Every year, EA Canada is forced to ask themselves the same question: What is the best way to improve FIFA 15 without cooking the proverbial golden goose?
Over the past couple years, the answer has been incremental changes, tech improvements, and a very careful transition to next-generation consoles, which has seen the series continue to win praise for its excellent design and tremendous polish. But caution also has its drawbacks. FIFA 15 is one of the lowest-rated entries in years, averaging an 82 on Metacritic—a far cry from the solid 90 ratings of previous versions.
Personally? I've really enjoyed this year's version of FIFA 15, as reflected in my review at the time. To this point, I've put between 100 and 150 hours into the career mode, the online play, and my incredibly dorky pen-and-paper FIFA league. In a lot of ways, I think it's still way ahead of the curve in comparison to most sports games.
With that said, I can see why some fans are still getting restless. Hardcore soccer nuts have been touting the much dryer but more technically accomplished Pro Evolution Soccer as this year's best soccer games. More casual fans feel like EA Canada is becoming complacent. The general mantra is that FIFA isn't doing enough to improve from year-to-year.
In my opinion, that criticism is fair, even if I don't think FIFA 15 gets enough credit for still being really, really good. People underestimate how hard it is to move from one generation to the next while continuing to put out a really polished product, but the sports game curve is also unforgiving. Even well-regarded franchises can endure a steep decline if they're not careful.
So how can EA Canada immediately improve FIFA 16? Here are a few ideas.
1. Make Strides with the A.I.
PES 2015 isn't the most polished sports sim in the world, but one area the series has been eating FIFA's lunch of years now is in artificial intelligence. Frankly, the players in PES are smarter than their FIFA counterparts on both offense and defense, able to intelligently execute runs and consistently stick a toe out to stop short passes. It's also possible to manually control a player who is off the ball, though the process is the sports equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your stomach.
FIFA has done much to improve its A.I. over the past several iterations; but to be honest, there's still work to do. Even now, there's still not enough of a difference from team to team, with lowly Cardiff City playing much like the exciting and free-flowing Arsenal. There also needs to be more nuance from player to player to truly differentiate the likes of Neymar and Ronaldo from the pack. There's still a lot FIFA can do in this area; and while it's not as exciting as a career mode overhaul or a graphical upgrade, it will make a huge difference on the field.
2. Give the MLS its Due
The MLS continues to be the butt of jokes among soccer afficianados, but there's no denying that the league has come a long way over the past several years. With more stars than ever and two new teams coming into the league in 2015, next year is as good a year as any to polish up the MLS content and make it a league worth playing in career mode.
That is including but not limited to the actual stadiums (or at least a few like Centurylink Field) and an MLS-specific broadcast package, as well as the ability to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League (or its generic equivalent). The latter might be tricky owing to the game's lack of Carribean licenses, but any post-championship league would be welcome, even a "dream scenario" in which the Sounders or the Galaxy compete in the Champions League. True, it's not "sim," but games like FIFA are as much wish fulfillment as they are soccer simulators.
Mostly, I just want to play in San Jose's new stadium next year without having to deal with decidedly European weather patterns. Soccer superfans may not care much for the improvements, but FIFA has always been about proselytizing for the beautiful game, and there are apt to be plenty of curious newcomers who will want to represent their local team. It's about time that FIFA gave them an incentive for doing so.
3. Lay off the Pace
In returning to FIFA 15 recently after playing PES for a few weeks, a colleague of mine commented, "FIFA is addicted to speed." And it's true. Even in comparison to prior versions, FIFA 15 plays like the sports equivalent of Super Street Fighter II Turbo, which in some ways makes it feel a little too much like an arcade game for its own good.
Now, I've always respected FIFA's ability to balance a sim-quality experience with sheer fun—a quality that has been the series' secret ingredient for years, and I'm leery of EA Canada messing with that balance. But I definitely wouldn't mind if EA Canada dialed back the speed a bit in an effort to create a slightly more defensive and tactical experience. As it is right now, there's almost no reason to use the big, lumbering strikers who can head the ball into the net because the Sergio Agueros of the world are so lethal (admittedly, it was almost exactly the opposite in FIFA 14 with its overpowered headers). In FIFA 15, speed is more an issue than ever, and one that is begging to be addressed without swinging entirely the other direction.
4. Introduce Online Leagues
This has been a fan request for years now, but here it is again: Introduce online leagues. They are an amazing way to extend a sports game's lifespan. And as I discussed in a recent episode of the Press Row Podcast, they are an important way to hook the hardcore—the kind of fans who are tastemakers for the general populace.
I recognize that online leagues aren't an easy thing to pitch these days, especially with the bulk of the work being put into the more popular Ultimate Team. They take a lot of work to build and maintain. The reward, though, is an unusually dedicated core who will follow their chosen game wherever it goes and talk it up to anyone who will listen.
Sadly, I don't think online FIFA leagues are going to happen anytime soon. From what I've been able to see, there's little to no will in EA Canada to put together online leagues. But if they want to build buzz for FIFA 16 among hardcore fans, that's the best way to do it.
5. Introduce a Real Sense of Continuity to the Career Mode
I'm now in fifth season of my FIFA career. Playing as West Ham, I've put together a world class team that has won the EPL, collected numerous trophies, and climbed over PSG and Bayern Munich to reach the Champions League Final. In real life, I would be a legend on par with Pep Guardiola. In FIFA, I still get emails from management expressing support in the face of my "difficult time" as a manager.
In truth, FIFA does a better job of fostering a sense of continuity in its career mode than most sports games in the way that it will introduce little storylines, talk up the return of a player in a matchup with their favorite club, and build up hype for well-performing players. But once the season is over, FIFA seems to hit the reset button to some extent. Even after multiple trips to the Champions League, I still struggle to lure top players to my club, and my transfer budget is still comparatively miniscule (though, in fairness, it does grow with sustained success). The most tangible result of my success is Brazil's decision to hire me as their manager; and even in that case, there's no mention of my trip to the World Cup final with Belgium (where I lost to France, but I digress).
My point is that a little continuity would go a long way: More prestige for my club and my manager, a trophy case, and in-game career achievements would all provide good incentive for continuing to play into my sixth season and beyond. The late NCAA Football is actually a good model in the way that a school could grow and woo more recruits based on its success over time. As it is, while FIFA has certainly done a better job of holding my attention than other games across multiple seasons, I don't feel a huge amount of incentive to continue without a sense of real advancement. And no, I'm not going to take a job with Manchester United.
Oh, as long as we're talking about career mode, it would be nice to be able to be able to make more money for the transfer window by organizing the sort of international tours that have been common for EPL clubs. In keeping with the suggestions above, perhaps sustained success would earn friendlies with the likes of Real Madrid in New York City for a large payday, while others would have to travel to New Zealand. Anything to make friendlies worthwhile.
6. Introduce the Women's World Cup
Seriously, it's time. EA Canada missed its initial window with FIFA 15, but it's not too late to introduce it for FIFA 16. And it would sure be nice to be able to roll up a female player or female manager and compete with the boys. Like I said: wish fulfillment.
In all honesty, there are plenty of ways in which FIFA can be improved and rebalanced for next year, but those are the ways that immediately come to mind. I'm sure that other fans would point to the need for continued improvements to the animation, more dribbling moves, and the rest. But after two years worth of technical improvements, it feels like its time for FIFA to think bigger. Whether that entails a complete career mode overhaul, bigger gameplay changes, or something else, it's hard to say. But with NBA 2K, PES, and even Madden quietly chipping away at FIFA's sports game dominance, it's time for EA Canada to be bold.
If that means risking burning EA's most successful franchise to the ground in the process, then maybe that's what it takes. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained. One way or another, FIFA 16 figures to be a turning point for the series. It will be interesting to see which way EA ends up going.