If FIFA games were named like Friends episodes, 13 would be The One With the 360° Dribbling, 14 would be The One With Precision Movement, and 15 would be The One With All the Emotion. This year? It’s a bit harder to summarise.
For FIFA 16’s lead gameplay producer Aaron McHardy, the snappy pitch is “no stone unturned,” an allusion to his team’s exhaustive efforts reexamining every feature, mode, and system. “It’s a marketing problem. How do you communicate to your fans what you’ve done?...We want to go into every part of gameplay and touch everything to ensure it’s balanced and consistent as we can with the fewest bugs we’ve ever shipped with, so we can let all those big innovations shine through.”
That’s not to say there are a lack of additions, however, and no-touch dribbling is one of them. On an Xbox One pad, holding RB and flicking the right stick while running opens up the hips to throw off opponents. During my two-hour hands-on I use indecisively haired Brazilian Neymar to link exaggerated sleight-of-foot feints as the ball trickles forward independently, throwing in a few RT presses that lurch his whole body sideways like a bloke suddenly remembering he's left his phone in the pub.
Passing With Purpose is another alternative means of attack. Holding RB and A pings a fast ball to feet and exploits quickly closing gaps, giving a new weapon to those undone by the slow charge-up of a traditional pass. Oh, and shooting’s improved, too, especially with regards to what McHardy calls “magic moments.” Subtle changes to momentum and a smattering of fresh animations make successful volleys feel extra venomous, and stepping into the ball at pace results in a fierce thwack and truer trajectory. The controller vibrates during particularly sweet shots like a cat rewarding you with pleasant purrs. Introducing new options down the sides and centre, FIFA 16 welcomes self-expression.
But it, like American politics or a seriously complicated game of tic-tac-toe, is structured with an intricate series of checks and balances. To counter Passing With Purpose, for instance, defenders are now more eager to race in and challenge from behind. "We watched videos of some of the best slide tacklers in the world launching into slides from distance on a slick pitch and winning possession,” says McHardy. “Not everyone can do that, so there’s an attribute that governs whether they have access to those animations." While stronger passes speed the game up, aggressive defenders prevent them becoming magic bullets.
And to offset the lightning-quick likes of Ronaldo and Messi, a new swing-step animation prevents them getting easily turned. This feeds through to the crossing system: previously, wingers needed only sprint to the byline and launch a box-bound hit-and-hoper, but with more nimble blockers able to goad wingers using dummy tackles and immediately regain their feet after a slide, they’re now more of a contest. It’s remarkable how transformative a few small changes can be—like tightening a string on a piano and changing the whole tune.
If this all sounds a bit daunting, FIFA Trainer’s rolling tutorial can help. During a given scenario you’ll see up to two contextual hints floating above your player’s head. Near the box? Consider an RB+B finesse shot. At the byline? Try a whipped cross. “Tutorials are something we’ve not been historically good at on FIFA,” admits McHardy. “Over the last few years we’ve done research and discovered the best way to play the game is with your buddy on the couch: ‘A is pass, B is shoot’...And then as you get better you learn a little more. ‘OK, now you’ve got those down you can try a through-ball.’” The thinking is, the better you are at the game, the more enjoyment you’ll get from it.
FIFA 16’s other milestone is, of course, the introduction of 12 international women's teams, playable in Match Days, Offline Tournaments, and Online Friendlies. All comprehensively head-scanned and mo-capped, they’re no token inclusion. McHardy tells of how EA Canada originally tried female heads on men’s bodies with slightly horrifying results, so they had to rethink their entire approach to player physiques. That goes for both genders, so spindly ladder-man Peter Crouch now looks less like he’s been stretched vertically in Microsoft Paint.
While there’s no snappily titled marquee feature à la the Impact Engine or 360° Dribbling this year, there are so many systems at play now that even reevaluating one sends ripples throughout the game, and EA Canada edge ever closer to parity between them all. This is a game with a hundred tiny changes, rather than a handful of big ones, the inverse of death by a thousand cuts. Life by a thousand plasters, I guess? Stick that on the box, marketers!