'FIFA 16' review -- women finally take their place alongside Messi, Ronaldo
If you like "FIFA" games, you'll like "FIFA 16" a lot. It's really that simple. After a couple of frantic days and lost nights, I've scaled the basic terrain and find myself as satisfied as I'd expect. I've disconnected my work email, shirked family responsibilities, ignored the fundamentals of personal hygiene, neglected or downright forgotten meals and embraced my role as the neighborhood recluse. Surveying the temporary carnage, it was worth it. It didn't take long to get absorbed by the latest game in the mega-successful EA Sports franchise.
The game delivers on the features you've grown accustomed to while subtly tweaking and enhancing the peripherals. Plus the long-overdue addition of women's national teams completes a curiously blind spot in the game's lineage: Finally, the likes of Celia Sasic, Carli Lloyd and Eugenie Le Sommer get the placement they deserve in the virtual world.
Let's get the basics out of the way first. The usual features are there as you've come to expect from the long-running series: all the major leagues (hello, Scottish Premiership!) are included along with all the usual national teams, domestic trophies, club competitions and game modes.
Try your hand at a seemingly infinite career: Follow in the footsteps of Manuel Pellegrini and grind your way to a league title while deriving as little pleasure as possible. Or emulate the path of Harry Kane and work your way from a team's fringe to getting your name tattooed on beer bellies of the hard-core fans. Either road is satisfactory.
You get the interstitial training drills before your games kick off. Dribble around cones, hone your shooting skills or practice two-footed tackling. You get to customize teams and players inside the EA matrix. You get to be the manager (Objective One: Sell Dejan Lovren) or the player (Objective One: Be the best Dejan Lovren you can be). Craft and graft your Ultimate Team and enjoy the spoils of war against online players who are worse than you.
What "FIFA 16" markedly improves is the realism of the in-game physics. Don't get me wrong; it was great in past "FIFA" editions to simply exhaust the "sprint" button and decimate teams with a surge of pace, a well-aimed cross and a thumping header multiple times a game. It was equally satisfying to never miss a slide tackle regardless of my angle, timing or path to the ball. Opponents cowered at my affinity for never misplacing a pass.
But the remodeled player locomotion and AI make it a much more hit-miss proposition, as it is in real life. Defending requires maximum concentration instead of cocky, reckless button-mashing; it's an eerie approximation of how Eliaquim Mangala must have felt during his difficult first season at Manchester City.
Passing also requires more care, both in placement and power. No longer do first-time flicks drift perfectly into a teammates' path unless you master the reworked options. There are specific button sequences for lofted passes or through-balls as before, but with the additions of "Pass With Purpose" (a heavier, quicker pass to find a teammate in space and cue an attack) and a wider range of pass-fakes and dribble options to allow cannier players to breeze toward goal.
It's worth noting, however, that these new features generally work better with higher-rated players/teams within the game. As much as you'd like to take Preston North End to the Premier League with a Pep Guardiola-esque counterattack, it will require plenty of time (and a few new signings) in order to pull it off. Again, realism!
The debut of the women's national teams is also a huge plus. I've spent more time trying to help Steph Houghton and Jill Scott win a national tournament than I have anything else thus far.
FIFA Ultimate Team mode has also undergone a facelift with the "draft" mode allowing you to craft a team of all-stars and compete among friends/other online players, and I think that's where the future of the franchise has always been. The solo modes are addictive and will sustain you until next season but there's nothing sweeter than the rich pageant of online braggadocio.
Some downsides, however, remain. I regret that there's no megalomaniacal owner mode. I think we're at the point in video game realism, particularly in soccer, whereby we should be able to hire and fire managers like Palermo's owner Mauricio Zamparini, sell star players out of spite, set ticket prices at absurd (or generous) levels and openly cheer for the warp-speed evolution of the sport as we know it. It's one thing to tinker with transfer budgets; it's another thing entirely to open up your team's coffers as a personal ATM, sign Bebe and sell half-and-half scarves at the club shop.
Also, as good as the "FIFA" franchise is, I lament that there's no viable challenger to the throne beyond the "Football Manager" series, which focuses almost completely on the areas and nuances that "FIFA" couldn't possibly cover. While some features have seeped across from "FM" to EA Sports in manager mode -- it's now entirely possible to craft a formation and range of forensic in-game player roles so absurd that not even Marcelo Bielsa could imagine it -- there is a need for another contender in this space. The added energy would only inspire EA and others to evolve their games at a faster clip.
Overall, "FIFA 16" delivers what it boasts on the box, presuming it says THIS IS A REALLY GOOD GAME on it somewhere (I haven't checked). The learning curve will surprise you as you grapple with the drastically upgraded player moves and spend your transfer budgets like Florentino Perez after the Real Madrid Christmas party but once you get comfortable, you'll keep playing as I did.
James Tyler is a senior editor for ESPN FC. He can be found on Twitter @JamesTylerESPN.