We visited EA Guildford recently where I went hands on extensively with FIFA 16's gameplay, which promises to deliver the most balanced, and sophisticated game to date. The early signs, are incredibly positive.
As you can see from the FIFA 16 gameplay reveal, an awful lot of focus is (rightly) going on the defensive side of the game this year to try and find a better balance between the art of defending, and FIFA's already vast array of powerful attacking options. I'm pleased to report that this extra focus, results in a much improved gameplay experience across the board in FIFA 16.
This is lead by EA's "Innovation Across the Pitch" theme, which among many other fundamental gameplay tweaks, contains brand new interception logic, finally ridding the game of players idly watching the ball roll by mere yards from their feet. In FIFA 16 players pro-actively look to block and divert those passes and they do so with great success. This new AI behaviour caught me out quite a lot at first (because old habits die hard) but you quickly learn to take much more care with your pass direction and choice.
Most impressive though is when players intercept by actually stepping in to the line of a pass. This is best exhibited by defenders, who will anticipate square and diagonal passes played across the back four far better than ever, actively cutting them out and then stepping in to midfield. It looks and feels great when it happens and it drastically reduces the amount of cheap and aimless passes your opponents can get away with when a pass wasn't really "on".
But by far the best thing for me was the overall cohesion of the team as a defensive unit. They keep a better shape, they're more compact and when attacks break down, your team fill back in to space very efficiently indeed. When you play a one-two in FIFA 15, once the player moving forward starts his run, that's it, he's off. Even if the move breaks down a pass later, he keeps on going. In FIFA 16, the second possession switches, players filter back in quickly, choosing the most dangerous space to fill first. After years of helplessly watching empty midfield chasms, it was both a delight, and a relief to see this new system working well. You no longer feel alone out there on the pitch in terms of defensive intelligence, with your team mates finally able to come to your aid in times of need.
Jockeying has changed too, not mechanically, but in the way it behaves. In FIFA 15 if you jockey slightly left and your opponent goes right, there's instantly five yards of separation between you. It's way too sensitive, and it's really easy to overshoot the position you were actually aiming for as the defender. That's all been smoothed out in FIFA 16 by allowing defenders to turn tighter per frame, meaning you can now position with greater accuracy, and react at more acute angles from jockey positions. Jockeying should by definition provide defenders with a position of strength and high agility against oncoming attackers (that's why they do it after all) and in this FIFA 16 build it's probably the best I've seen in terms of 1v1's feeling like an even duel.
But because creating space and chances with FIFA's new defensive AI, is noticeably harder. To do it effectively you need to be able to break that added discipline by injecting pace in to your passing. Which is where FIFA's new Passing With Purpose comes in. Now, when you pass and hold the R1 modifier, it will add extra venom to your ground passes. So if there's a tight corridor you want to pass through, you can do it but, it's very much a risk reward based system. The R1 pass comes in very hot meaning heavy touches from the receiver are common place, especially in tight areas. You'll need to use it carefully, but when you do fire in a pass to say Messi and it just sticks, it feels amazing. It's also very useful tool for switching the play without having to endure a slow, floating long pass. Another added bonus.
I'm a big fan of the new crossing as well, because it adds a whole new dimension to the way the ball behaves when swung towards the 18 yard box. In FIFA 15 crosses were determined by logic which affectively tried to land the ball directly on a players head. Which is why you see so many standing jump headers in the box. In FIFA 16 that restriction is lifted, with crosses now aimed more at space for players to attack. What it adds is a greater variety of headed chances and goals, but also a lot more danger. The extra whip added to the shape of crosses means that even when your defender is comfortably clearing his lines, there's still a sense of uncertainty, purely because of that extra pace on the delivery.
In terms of reinvention of the attacking formula though, by far the most interesting change in FIFA 16 is "No Touch Dribbling". This is really tough to explain, but it's sort of exactly what it says on the tin. For comparison, in FIFA 15 if you want to turn right, you have to move the ball to the right also. As soon as you change the analogue stick direction, the ball changes with you. No Touch Dribbling releases that, allowing you to move your body without altering the balls direction of travel. At first, I didn't really "get it" but there are actually a lot of neat applications for it.
One example being me coming out of defence with Marcelo at left back, but I'd hit a dead end around half way and needed to pass backwards. In FIFA 15, you'd need to take at least two dribble touches to turn your player 360 degrees, or you'd have to play a reverse pass or back-heel. With No Touch Dribbling you can (while the ball is still rolling) move around to the side of the ball to simply pass backwards from a more natural body position. It sounds almost too simple, like "so what", but I'm really intrigued to see how the community use this feature when it's out in the wild. It's certainly going to require some time and experimentation to get the best from it.
Game speed is always a major talking point for new FIFA titles and FIFA 16 (you'll hopefully be pleased to hear) is noticeably slower than its predecessor, even on the "Normal" setting. I asked Aaron Mchardy (Lead Gameplay Producer) if that was by design, and his response was a resounding "Yes". Jog and sprint speeds are slower, acceleration curves are slower, passing is slower, but crucially the game has kept it's sharpness in motion. But FIFA 16 isn't just about unilaterally slowing things down, this is part of a much wider plan to allow the intricacies of the engine to become more prominent, and impact-full to the end user. Many of the neat subtleties now on show in abundance were probably there in previous FIFA's, but they were undoubtedly shrouded by the reliance of pace and strength to create excitement within the engine. As it turns out, just being able to play good football trumps those previous FIFA themes significantly.
EA hammered home to us all day long that what they wanted from FIFA 16's gameplay above all else, was "balance, balance and more balance". They felt previous FIFA's had one particularly efficient tactic which was adopted on mass by us all in the name of simply winning. They were pretty clear that FIFA 16 was the end of that, and based on my time with it so far, they're closer than they've ever been to harmonising those all important football fundamentals, in combination with the edge of your seat moments that make FIFA well... FIFA.
What does that all culminate in, in terms of the way FIFA 16 plays? Quite a lot actually. FIFA 15 as we know is based mostly on counter-attack action a bit like basketball and as a result you spend a lot of your time chasing people up and down the pitch. In FIFA 16 the game is played much more in front of you, than behind you. More often than not if your CDM has the ball on half way, he's looking at two banks of four who are set, organised and ready to defend. This creates footballing opportunities which are historically very different to FIFA's past. You'll actually get time to knock the ball around in midfield, manoeuvring the opposition over 5 or 6 passes, instead of in a solitary pace fuelled burst. It's methodical, deliberate, and it flows a whole lot more like real football.