According to the wise folks of digital football, there's a new king in town. Or rather, an old king who has returned to reclaim his crown. Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 has been receiving rave reviews and with FIFA head honcho Sep Blatter once again making headlines for all the wrong reasons, there's no better time for a changing of the guard.
When a football player uses his or her first touch to trap a long, high cross-field pass, it's not uncommon for an entire stadium packed with people to let out a gasp of astonishment. Commentators remark on the feat, not in their role as hype men for whatever league they're paid to narrate, but because it is actually a remarkable thing.
Football games often make the extraordinary seem routine. Balls stick to players' feet, passes have an uncanny ability to hit their target – moments that should be breathtaking happen so often that you either engage in some autoerotic asphyxiation as your team of impossibly talented gents stroke the ball around the pitch, or you shrug and decide never to be impressed by anything ever again.
Like most sports, football is made up of long periods of control punctuated by mistakes and marvels. FIFA 16, incredibly for a game so slick and concerned with the pomp and circumstance of its licenses, understands that the imperfect moments are as much the heart of the game as the last minute winners and thumping overhead kicks. By trusting in believable ball physics rather than canned animations, and focusing on the timing of tackles and passes, EA have made a game in which a hard-fought 0-0 draw (on a cold blustery Tuesday night in Stoke) can contain almost as much drama and demand as much concentration as a 5-0 cup final victory.
I've been playing two career mode games, one as a player at Bury and another as Bury's manager. This immediately marks me out as an outlier in the FIFA world. Ultimate Team - with online and offline play, unlockable card packs and custom squads – is the main draw, as the menu makes clear, describing it as “FIFA's #1 Mode”. While I can see the appeal of building a team from the ground-up, I find Ultimate Team structurally chaotic and prefer the more comprehensible progression through traditional seasons. I want to play football, not a collectible card game based around football.
Pro Evo's Master League mode is appealing, a singleplayer career mode with a neat approach to squad-building and player development, but I won my first three matches 7-0, 7-1 and 8-0 when I played earlier this week, which was somewhat off-putting. Granted, I was playing as Manchester United, who may well be ludicrously overpowered given that they have a strong squad that is also one of the few licensed for the game, but I want a team of real players AND a challenge so my options are limited.
FIFA's wide range of licenses lets me play with actual teams even in the lower leagues (four English tiers are supported, as opposed to Pro Evo's two) and I'm thoroughly enjoying the beginnings of my journey to the top with Bury. Once I've had time to play more Pro Evo I intend to look at the similarities and differences in greater detail but right now I just want to express how pleasantly surprised I've been by this year's FIFA.
It feels like a football game for me, at least in those career modes. Playing as an individual – the old Be A Pro mode – is the area I've always felt needs more work. Conceptually, it's brilliant; half sport game, half RPG. In practice, it's never quite excelled either on or off the pitch. The NBA 2K series remains the high watermark for that kind of hybrid play, and upcoming 2K16 looks like it'll be do even more work in that quarter, but this is FIFA's best solo offering for a good while.
Partly that's because it plays my kind of football. First touches are often heavy, passes go astray and it takes a great deal of care to shepherd the ball up the field. Long balls over the top are possible, as are lung-bursting runs that leave the defense in a heap, but FIFA 16 loves a good passing triangle. That can lead to some weird repetitive one-twos between players standing side by side, missing the person willing to become the third point of their nascent triangle by making a run up-field, but when everything comes together there's a tension that I feel whenever I watch football but rarely feel in sports games.
My career player is a wingback with responsibilities in defense and attack. Trying to monitor potential routes for opponent through balls, not only marking but anticipating, is nerve-wracking. My Bury minnows just lost in a League Cup game against Newcastle and I spent most of the first half pinned back, trying to stop runs down the right. Not fast enough to keep up with the Newcastle winger, I stayed deep, trying to predict his runs and cut them off before they began. By the start of the second half, 2-0 down, the manager shifted me to a forward position on the left and I managed to help the team pull a goal back by persistently cutting inside and dragging defenders out of position.
Patience is required, playing as an individual. The AI is effective, spotting runs and trying to slip away from markers. And, yes, there are times when an entire match seems to be spent recycling possession like a (slightly) exaggerated parody of Louis Van Gaal's Manchester United but then there are those moments when I send a through ball slicing through the defense and it almost trickles off the toes of a team-mate; he stumbles, momentum nearly carrying him head over heels, but manages to get a shot away from what seems like an impossible angle.
The slow build-up and the potential for a mistake at any point in the process means that those moments of fluid football feel special. They feel earned. And while the rigidity of the systems that work for the AI will no doubt become obvious and increasingly tedious over time, FIFA manages to make a last ditch tackle feel like an accomplishment rather than an inevitable result of good positioning and stat values. It rewards and reacts to pressure high up the pitch, which can force backpasses and errors, and has excellent positional awareness.
What has surprised me more than anything is that this FIFA feels like an honest and accomplished attempt to simulate football, right out of the box. The pace-driven back and forth is gone and in its place, there is a game about teamwork, support and adherence to a given role. Those broad changes are the result of a thousand smaller tweaks and additions, but it all starts with the willingness to embrace mistakes and imperfections. Of course, even as I write this I'm half-expecting everything I like about the game to be patched out in an effort to please the pace-hungry masses who refuse to play as anyone who doesn't have a multimillion dollar underwear sponsorship.
The presentation is the icing on the cake. I love that news from the wider world intrudes on my matches – transfers and score updates from around the league filling dead air when the commentary team have nothing to say about the lack of action in front of them – and I love that players comment on their successes and woes. It's not Football Manager, and that'll probably displace it from my daily routine rather rapidly when it arrives, but there is a sense of important things happening elsewhere.
But it's the action on the pitch that has me hooked. Controlling a ball and making a killer pass – these things aren't easy. They're remarkable and FIFA recognises that. The goal that comes at the end of the move is often the easiest part, if the build-up is particularly well-worked and utilises the whole team. Football is about more than strikers and highlight reels, and now FIFA is too and all the better for it.
Fifa 16 is available now.