Now coming into its third year on the current generation of console, you probably know what to expect from FIFA 16. There are relatively few low hanging fruit for EA to grab in terms of tweaking the gameplay, but there’s still that incremental improvement to the game’s core that, while not particularly pronounced or even all that exciting from one year to the next, add up to sizeable differences over time.
That’s the impression I get as we’re told about improvements to the defence, so that they work more as a cohesive unit, which allows EA to add more attack options with dribbling off the ball – as counterintuitive as that sounds – and aiming to make build up play through the midfield more effective. For the novices, there’s then a new FIFA Trainer mode, which highlights potential button presses during a match, as well as more variety in the training mini-games during loading screens.
There are plenty of areas where FIFA can still improve off the pitch however. The most prominent of these has been the burgeoning inclusion of 12 women’s international teams, which ties in nicely with the leap in popularity for the women’s sport after this summer’s World Cup – though the tournament in FIFA 16 isn’t branded as such. Alongside this there’s also the addition of the official Bundesliga broadcast style and stadiums, changes to the career mode which allows you to train players and pre-season tournaments that give purpose to the matches in the off season and can help boost your spending power.
While these are all well and good, it’s FIFA Ultimate Team which has become the real lifeblood of the series, allowing people to indulge in creating their own fantasy team and then pit it against the teams of others online. It has been a major success since its introduction in 2009, and to an extent that maybe even surprised EA.
“We had so much fun playing it, even as the game developers, and I think that’s always a good start point,” said Adam Shaikh, Creative Director on FIFA Ultimate Team. “As I was saying to someone earlier, I’ve been making this game for six year and we still go and play it for fun. I’ve worked on a lot of games in the past where, even if it’s a good game, by the time you’ve got it out of the door, you’re pretty much like, ‘OK, I need to do something else now.'”
“So I think we were always really aware that this was something that was really fun and exciting and deep, and that was one of the things that really drove our early decision making. We needed this to be something people could play the whole time, over the whole year, so that’s what we really focussed on.”
“I don’t think we ever expected it to be as well played as it is right now, but it’s fantastic and it’s brilliant that people are enjoying it as much as they do, but as I say, we always felt that the people that play would really enjoy it.”
However, FUT is a mode that requires you to invest plenty of time or money to create those ideal teams. The addition of loan players has helped to add a certain class to your early teams, but it’s never been an instant pick up and play mode. With the introduction of the Draft mode this year, that’s set to change.
There are some easy parallels to draw between this and the Draft Champions mode in Madden NFL 16, with both letting you quickly assemble a team to play with, but whereas the real world sport of American football has a real drafting system to hire players, it’s more difficult to capture the protracted negotiations of player transfers in football. Instead you’re given a selection of five players to choose from for any position on the pitch and a bunch of additional substitutes to fill out your temporary squad.
For the football fan and the player who’s invested plenty of time into Ultimate Team, there’s the same kind of calls to be made around who’s going to work well, with those from the same league or country having better chemistry. It’s entirely possible that you could spend 20-odd minutes assembling the best possible team, making alterations depending on the substitutes that you get and so on, or you can just hit auto-complete, make one or two changes and get to playing a game.
This hastily constructed team only lasts for a short amount of time, entering you into a four match elimination whereby you try to string together wins for greater rewards. Importantly, you will always get out of it something equivalent to what you paid to buy in – 7500 coins or 300 FUT points, currently – with coins earnt after each match you play and packs when you eventually get knocked out or complete your fourth win.
It’s really FUT distilled into a single game session, and it’s one that I feel makes the mode as a whole all the more accessible. There’s no grinding through matches with teams of bronze players to get started, scrabbling about for contract extensions and the like, but a straightforward hour or so of gameplay with a team.
“We kind of had a whole mix of different things that we were trying to do,” Adam explained. “The original point that we started from, because we’ve actually been thinking of this idea for quite some time, was actually more for very experienced people, where it’s more trying to get something in there where it’s more like a competition and it feels like it shakes everything up. You get to the stage where people know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going, so a new mode where you’re not necessarily going to play it all the time, but you can mix up your experience and try something else.”
“So that’s really where it started from, but we also wanted something that gave people a chance to play with some stuff that they maybe wouldn’t otherwise, whether it’s content they couldn’t get or whether it was stuff they wouldn’t normally choose. […] As we went on, it became more and more obvious that this was also something that was distilling what FUT it, and therefore it was making something for people that were thinking ‘I don’t have time to spend four months playing FUT.'”
With the rise of game streaming, and FIFA certainly a game which has a following, Draft also feels tailor-made for the streaming market, with a clear start and end point to a session and with the potential for a lot of audience interaction along the way. It’s a canny addition.
Adam said, “Again, it was one of those things that wasn’t an initial reason for why we’re doing this, but I mean, as we said in our presentation, we’d just be [playing Draft] and people would just gather and comment and provide opinion. It became very obvious very quickly that this is very watchable, because it was almost like having a football conversation. You’re basically almost saying, ‘I think Suarez is better than Messi,’ and then someone’s going to go, ‘Well you’re nuts!'”
Between the women’s football teams and Draft mode, FIFA 16 has some meaningful new twists on the established formula. At this stage, with the handful of women’s teams playing in a distinct mode to the men, there’s no crossover between them and FUT at large, but there’s almost no doubt that it’s on the list of possible features for the future.
“I think that will very heavily depend on where the feature goes in general,” Adam explained. “With FUT you need a certain breadth of content to make it interesting, so I don’t really know unfortunately. It depends on what happens with that, so if suddenly next year we’ve got 800 teams, then…”