Interceptions. Sometime in 2008/9, after Spain had won the Euros and Barcelona had embarrassed Manchester United in the Champions League, we all decided that interception was the pinnacle of midfield play. Tackling was out, 4-4-2 was outdated, if you wanted to win at the highest level, you needed to master the art of intercepting passes. So football shuffled around - we sacrificed playing a man up front to flood the midfield with guys who change defence to attack with an interception, Michael Owen got shoved out for Michael Carrick, Pep Guardiola drew a few triangles on a football pitched and convinced us all that Philipp Lahm, one of the greatest full backs the world has ever seen, would be better off being a slight bambi legged defensive midfielder. Our insistence on interceptions changed the way we view, and enjoy football. Now in some ways it’s for the best - there are less cloggers in most top teams dishing out “reducers”, everyone throwing defending in the bin now means more top teams get spanked, providing entertainment for fans of schadenfreude. But in other ways, interceptions has given us new annoyances to football - Arsenal fans talking about how statistically superior their players are, goals that have to be set on fast forward winning Goal of the Month rather than a Yeboah style thunderbolt, Sergio Busquets entire career.
Which brings us to FIFA, which began its emergence as the premier football video game right about 2008/9. FIFA 16 is all about interceptions and midfield battles, and your enjoyment of the game is directly linked to that fact.
When you load of up FIFA 16, you get the impression that this is a game a long time in the making. EA Canada have been incrementally tinkering and tweaking their formula ever since their winning edition of FIFA 09, adding 360 degree dribbling, tactical defending, a more robust physics engine and more to finally nail down their true brand of “FIFA Football”. FIFA 16 feels like a summation of years of work. This year’s big slogan for game is ‘innovation across the pitch’, and your first game on 16 feels dramatically different to the pacier, more arcade-like FIFA 15. Where last year’s game had an over reliance on pace and rapid counter attacks, FIFA 16 has a greater emphasis on build up play in midfield, manipulating space, retaining possession and trying to make those precious interceptions.
When this works, FIFA 16 is positively a dream to play. Improvements in player intelligence and AI means midfield battles are now more heated than ever as you pass, prod and feel out your opposition to achieve dominance. A new driven ground pass feature (think I amped up through ball) has given another option for those trying to the thread the needle, while new ‘off the ball dribbling; (that weird juju Messi & Hazard do where they just coast with the ball inviting to be foul) opens up new options for those who like to dribble. FIFA 16 offers more viable ways to play going forward, and once you get the hang of things, you’ll be enjoying matches with your friends both on and offline. A new ‘FIFA Trainer’ option also works as an onscreen guide, giving you useful context to the game that even FIFA veterans can learn from (for example, when taking a throw in, you can tap Triangle/Y to throw the ball into open space).
That said, it will take time for you to learn to love FIFA 16. Those looking for a fun game to pick up and score golazos may be turned off by FIFA 16s reliance on passing and interceptions, as early matches often devolve into stop-start exercises in torture. The CPU will not hesitate to punish you in Career Mode this year, picking off your lazier pass selections and hoarding possession. Go into FIFA 16 with the same gung ho attitude you approached 15 and you’ll find yourself on the losing end of embarrassing 2-0, 30% possession defeats. Go slow with your approach, pass backwards if nothing’s on, don’t be afraid to switch the play, make sure you use a driven double tap cross rather than its standard cousin. If there’s a current team that best resembles playing FIFA 16, its Van Gaal’s Manchester United - make of that what you will. For some it will be careful possession play built to a philosophy of how football is “meant” to be, for others, it could be a lot of fannying about recycling the ball before a back post cross is on for a scrambled goal.
A healthy dollop of traditional EA sheen helps FIFA 16 just poke its head in front of of the competition, with the addition of women’s national teams making for fun alternative for those sick of the Barcelona-Bayern-Real-Chelsea carousel you find when playing online. Due to the slower game speed of FIFA 16 and quicker deterioration of women player’s stamina, there is an extra onus on building moves from the back midfield and manipulating space on the pitch rather than relying on players’ physical attributes to run through teams.
Ultimate Team remains as addictive as ever, with a new draft system helping address balance between those who want to pay, and those who want to play their way towards a better squad. Career Mode is better this year… but only just. After seeing the incredible offerings given to us by the NBA 2K series, EA truly needs to overhaul the meat of its single player game if it wants to stay ahead of PES next year. Surely we’re due a story mode by now? Would it be so hard to get a narrative going where we play out Zlatan’s best games and try and win him the Champions League?
But that’s a minor quibble for another year. Once again EA Sports have brought out a new FIFA game that’s familiar, yet just different enough to justify spending another forty sheets. More than just a reskin of last year’s game, FIFA 16 is a quality outing in of itself. It’s still the best football game on the market, but that gap is getting ever smaller. Lucky it’s been getting you to work on interceptions then eh?