Curveballs are usually found in baseball, but EA threw us one with a soccer game anyway. Just when it looked like the year and the “Ultimate Team” tag were both going away during the soft launch for its latest FIFA mobile effort, back came both of them when FIFA 16 Ultimate Team made its global launch.
That’s probably for the best, as Ultimate Team is what this game is all about, and suggesting otherwise is tantamount to intentionally leading fans astray. By now, everyone should know exactly what that mode entails, but just in case, the idea is to start with a relatively modest team of real life soccer players and build it until you can field the Lionel Messis and Cristiano Ronaldos of the world. Success in a variety of leagues and tournaments leads to chances for better players, hopefully leading to an ongoing virtuous cycle of soccer.
No one makes the action on the pitch look quite like EA does. The graphics aren’t console quality, given what the PS4 and Xbox One can now do with player likenesses, but they’re impressive. And since FIFA has licenses with almost every pro league worth mentioning around the world, the number of real uniforms, badges and stadiums you can assign to your Ultimate Team is as impressive as usual.
Last year’s big gameplay feature was the ability to use either virtual controls or gestures to control your team, but this time around, the thumbstick and buttons get top billing. They’re not bad, though early feedback from players suggests that many people aren’t fans of the tap and slide button used to control side tackles.
There’s still a little bit of fine control lacking for simple things like dribbling toward the touch-line with any kind of momentum, but in general, your players will do what you expect them to do. Free kicks and corners stand out as the only areas where you don’t intuitively grasp the controls.
Overall, though, the experience of playing soccer in FIFA 16 Ultimate Team feels much like it did last year. The addition of online seasons is also guaranteed to be a popular one, and the head-to-head matches are smooth, presuming you have enough of a stable internet connection to handle them. Some people have griped about the new Player Exchange system, where you can swap unwanted players or items for the chance at better ones in the kind of gambling that is so popular in all kinds of mobile games right now, but since the auction house is still around, I don’t see an issue with it.
What’s strange, especially for an EA product, is how rough around the edges this game feels. I struggled to connect to Facebook and make it stick to remember my profile, resulting in my receiving three different starter teams the first three times I launched FIFA. Your coin totals and packs won by achievements don’t always update right away, which can be confusing, and when you’re opening packs in the shop, it’s not uncommon for the pack to not visibly appear at all (though it’s still there, and can be opened by tapping where you’re supposed to tap). These are small things, but strange to see from an EA Sports game, where polish is usually in abundant supply.
I feel like we might be at peak FIFA overall, in the sense that it’s a juggernaut franchise and the leading brand in the world’s most popular sport. It would probably need something revolutionary on mobile to take people who aren’t already fans to sit up and take notice, and while the soft launch title suggested we might get it, FIFA 16 Ultimate Team ends up playing it quite safe. Like a Premier League team that is well clear of the relegation zone but no threat for Champions League play, it does what it needs to do to maintain, but nothing more than that.