In farming terms, this could be seen as quite a fallow season for the reigning, defending champ of football sims.
Wondering which is this year’s best football game? If you want a comparison between FIFA 16 and PES 2016, you're covered here. I'll be avoiding it as much as possible here, as this is a review of FIFA 16, not PES 2016.
There comes a point where you're old enough and ugly enough to see repeat cycles in the lifespan of certain gaming series. FIFA 16 has released in this, the 22nd year since the franchise first hit on the Mega Drive - and because I've been playing it since day one when I was 10 years old, I'm recognising something here.
FIFA 16 is seemingly at a point where the series (and those making it) don't really know what to do. It's similar to the FIFA 97 era, or the pre-rebirth period before FIFA 08 when the game was outright bad. But this time around, the lack of real direction isn't because FIFA is floundering - it's because the series is at the top of the pile, and has been for more than half a decade now. This means FIFA 16 is an iterative upgrade to last year's game, rather than something that offers any resounding new mechanics or changes to the way you play.
There are a few bullet point features EA wants us all to talk about, but the simple fact is they all feel minor on the pitch, and so hardly worth talking about at all. Defending has more animations, but will still make you feel like you can hardly do anything unless you mastered the clunky tactical defending introduced a few years ago (or switch to legacy defending, obviously).
Pace is less of a win-button, but as a consequence FIFA 16 feels like it has upped the pace of every other player to an irritating degree. You can still outpace leggy defenders, sure, but it's rare to see an above average-paced winger outrun a below average-paced full back. And that feels daft.
But these issues are as minor as the tweaks and updates the game has seen, because the core experience - the actual act of 'playing the football game thing' - is still solid. Great at times. Frustrating at others. But never anywhere near bad.
I've already seen some comments – on my own comparison piece and elsewhere – decrying the addition of women to FIFA 16 as 'pointless', or 'for a small audience', or some such idiocy. To that I say: bunkum. You might not care about the addition of women's international teams to FIFA 16; you might think it's something you won't play, or a feature that will be largely ignored. But the thing here is, your opinion doesn't matter, because if that's your mindset, it's not something that's been made for you.
Freed of this albatross of small-minded oppressors, we can actually see, praise, and highlight flaws with the women's game in FIFA 16. The positives are manifest: more fans of the women's game, be they male or female, will see something of actual interest to them in the game. One of the most popular games in the world has, finally, found a way to open itself up to (potentially) more popularity. And it plays well.
Negatives do pop up, additional to the universal, linked problems of FIFA's mechanics. There's a distinct lack of teams - 16 in total - with no club level competitions offered. You can only take part in friendlies or a tournament, without even leagues thrown in. It's taken 22 years to get to a stage where women are in the game, but the full women’s game is hardly represented in there.
That will certainly change - now they're there, there's little chance they'll be removed, so it's something to build upon. But for now, it's presented as little more than a sideshow and that can't help but disappoint, even with all the positives of the women's game actually featuring.
Still, it's there, it'll attract new players, it's something that offers a wider representation of the wonderful sport of soccerkickball. Lacking it might be, but bad it is most certainly not.
It doesn't surprise me that FIFA 16 is more of a holding pattern than anything else. It's absurdly popular around the world - soon enough the US might wake up to that fact and stop talking about fucking Madden so much - and nobody at EA Sports will want to rock the boat for fear of breaking the formula.
And that formula is, frankly, one very much beholden to the success of captivating card-collector mode, FIFA Ultimate Team. This is EA's cash cow mode, relieving rubes of their hard-earned dollars/pounds/kroner and offering that delicate mix of just enough carrot and not too much stick to make it seem worth spending a few more of your country's coins on it.
I should, and will, note that you can play all of FUT without spending an extra penny. But you'll be grinding like a government grinding mule to earn enough for a pack of cards that's actually worth shelling out for. It’s almost as if it's geared towards tempting you to spend a bit of extra money. Hmm.
But the simple fact is, Ultimate Team is a good mode. It's fun, it's fulfilling, it gives you the chance to build something from nothing - a manner of play which never gets old in sports games (or most RPGs, sandbox games, etc etc). It just makes me wince internally that it's so much of the focus of FIFA these days.
Maybe I'm just old, maybe I'm just getting obsessed over minor issues, things that aren’t even issues to some people. I certainly don't think FIFA would be better if it were still stuck in the 'press C to win' world of the Mega Drive original, nor do I want a return to Motty's awful commentary of FIFA 96. But this brave new world of football simulation strikes me as a move in a less-than-positive direction, focusing more on how a company can make a bit more money than on improving the on-pitch experience.
FIFA 16 is still good, I don't want that to be in question here. It's just hardly an update from last year's game, and that wasn't much of an upgrade over the year before's. Where it can go in the future? I don't know. How can it change in any meaningful fashion? I've no idea. Will people buy it by the million? Absolutely.
And despite my crotchety old man reservations, you'll have a tonne of fun with it. Just don't blame me if you end up flushing £50 extra down the drain on FIFA Points. In fact, let's leave this on a quote from my FIFA 15 review of last year:
"The moment EA starts releasing FIFA's yearly updates as a £15-20 DLC update pack is the moment my recommendations can be loud, proud and out. When they continue as, effectively, DLC packs coming out for three times that price, I get riddled with angst when I tell people they should buy what is, on paper and devoid of context, a very good game."