We’re on the show floor at E3 and somewhere within the hulking Electronic Arts stand, as music and gunfire blares out all around us, EA Sports senior producer Nick Channon and I are preparing to play Fifa 16. Naturally, the game’s demo mode features the two teams of the moment – Barcelona and Real Madrid. Generously, Channon has let me play as the former.
But we’re not just having a kickabout. Nick wants to show off the changes to this latest iteration in EA’s annual footie sim. And, as usual, there are big promises.
This time, though, they’re not centred on one or two targeted areas of the simulation. “We took a step back this year,” says Channon. “We got to a stage with Fifa 15 where things were a little bit unbalanced. We felt we had really good technology and lots of good systems, but we wanted to improve them all. We literally looked at the whole game, we looked at how to improve shooting, passing, everything.”
So here’s what we can expect.
Reactive AI marking
Channon says the AI defenders have also been tweaked so they work more as a unit. In one example he shows us, Real Madrid is just building an attack with Modric on the ball, so the right back is looking to run up the field. However, when the Croatian midfielder loses possession our defender immediately starts running back into position. “Last year he would have kept running forward for a while; he wouldn’t have recognised the situation quite so quickly,” says Channon. “This was creating gaping gaps which could get quite frustrating.”
The designers have also changed the man-marking system so that defenders will now recognise if a player is making a threatening run and move in to intercept. Channon shows off a sequence in which Pique breaks out of position to track a run, prompting Rakitic to drift in a cover. “Last year you probably would have been in on goal there,” says Channon. “We’re just tightening everything up a little bit.”
Escapable slide tackles
“Previously, slide tackles were a bit all-or-nothing,” says Channon. “If you missed, you were done. We wanted to make it more realistic.” He shows off a sequence where Marcelo goes in to tackle Messi, who anticipates the slide and lifts the ball over the leg of the defender. However, if the sliding player hits the tackle button again, he gets quickly to his feet, allowing another stab at an interception. “We can now branch out of the slide tackle animation at any point,” says Channon.
I try this on a few occasions and manage to get the timing all wrong, but it should allow more skilled players to control defensive plays more precisely. It also looks like defenders may be able to use this for mid-air blocks, creating rather impressive sliding interceptions.
“We really bypassed a lot of the midfield last year,” says Channon before insisting that, this year, the area has one of the game’s most recognisable changes. The new interception logic system ensures that AI players are much more aggressive in making interceptions. Instead of ignoring the passes that zip past, they’ll stick a leg out and try to make contact.
To counter this, EA Sports has also tweaked the passing system itself, adding a new “pass with purpose” feature: if you press the right trigger while hitting the pass button, the ball is pinged a lot faster. “It’s about adding balance,” says Channon. “We obviously don’t want to make it impossible to break through.”
When I played against Channon this was the most obvious of the new Fifa 16 elements. The midfield is much more aggressive and risky now, with players like Suarez happy to keep nipping in and breaking up those cross-field passing moves.
Modern players are adept at maintaining control of the ball – while dribbling or while stationary – without actually touching it. “If you look at the likes of Messi and Ronaldo, they body feint and do a lot of movement around the ball,” says Channon.
Fifa 16 makes an attempt to simulate this, using the left bumper button. As usual, moving the left stick while on the ball lets you dribble, but then tapping the bumper separates you from the ball. “Think of it like a clutch in a car,” says Channon. “Hold it down, the engine disengages, you’re now not in contact with the ball so you have a moment to feint, fake or body swerve, both while stationary and running with the ball, allowing you to ride a challenge.”
Crossing has always been a contentious element of the Fifa experience: too easy to score from in 2014 and too tough in 2015. So what will 2016 bring? “What we’re trying to do now is lead the player a bit more,” says Channon. “In previous games crosses would be a bit square, but now players will put it a little bit ahead to get the attacker to run onto it. There’s more of a margin for error now as we don’t want it to become over-powered, but it gives you an opportunity to come in and get on the end of it.”
He shows this off by running Ronaldo down the wing, then chopping in the cross just after the 18-yard line. True enough, the ball swings in toward the goal, putting it out of reach of Karim Benzema, but just within toe distance of an incoming Barca player. Channon concedes that, previously, battles in the box could be a little random as a cross flew in, so this is an attempt to reward player skill with clearer chances. I’m not sure how clear it will be in a proper match, or how it will differentiate from a double-tap whipped in cross – all that will become clear after a few more games.
Wrapping a foot around the ball
So, Fifa has had ball physics for ages, but now Channon says his team is modelling the interaction between the foot and the ball in 3D space – thereby leading to more emergent behaviours as one meets the other. What does that mean? Well, if you hit the ball from a slight angle your player is more likely to get their foot around it, adding extra spin and therefore giving it a curved flight.
This new ability to pull off bending, driven shots has a downside too – as I discovered to my cost. Several times, I approached the ball at the wrong angle, thereby slicing it away from the goal mouth – which is substantially less impressive. But, hey, it’s probably also authentic.
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Here’s Aguero wrapping his foot around the ball for Manchester City Photograph: Electronic Arts
This may actually be my favourite new feature. If you press R3 during play, the game brings up a “contextual overlay system” above the player you are controlling, providing a selection of possible moves. If you’re just dribbling the ball in your own half, it’ll probably just suggest short or long passes, together with the relevant button, but once in the opponent’s territory it’ll bring up a range of attacking options. There are several levels of advice to select from, so intermediate and experienced players can get more complex pointers, including tougher skill moves. “It just helps people get more out of the game. I mean, half the people on our own team didn’t know about bounce pass!”
It’s not too intrusive on screen and it’s really useful for players who can’t be bothered to study the instructions – or those who played PES for years, and so end up continually hitting long pass rather than shoot when they’re several yards clear in front of an open goal. Obviously that never happens to me. No way.
So how effective are the new alterations? It was hard to tell after one match amid the pummelling noise of E3, but it certainly felt fluid and interesting. Defending against pacy attackers seems more robust, and hopefully the new swing step move will augment the jockeying and containing elements, while the “pass with pace” option ups the game on the other side. If the aim is a faster tempo with a wider variety of both attacking and defensive options, EA Sports has done its job for the year.
Defensive swing steps
“A lot of the player feedback was, ‘we want to have more confidence in defence’. It’s quite difficult to keep up with skilled wingers like Bale and Ronaldo so a lot of people ended up just playing as Real Madrid. We didn’t feel the defence was as tight as it could be. Everyone loved how dribbling worked last year but it was quite difficult to keep up.”
Consequently, the Fifa team has sought to make players feel more responsive while defending. One result is the new “swing step” move where defenders are able to quickly switch direction while running back toward their own goal in front of an attacking player. This apparently stops the player from over-running and creating gaps for the opponent to accelerate through.