The first thing you’ll notice about FIFA 16 is that it’s harder to score goals. Messi may be on the box art again, but the latest edition of this best-selling football sim focuses on defence.

In previous games it was fairly easy to draw out opposition players, creating space in behind for an attacker to occupy and a pass to be played into. FIFA 16’s teams, however, have been watching Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid and now hold their shape much more stubbornly.

The result is a game that’s more realistic and tactics-driven than ever before. Especially if you fancy yourself as an armchair Mourinho.

Precision play is required

Striking the back of the net in FIFA 16 often requires some neat, one-touch passing and smart running to break through the lines. Thankfully, EA has provided a new weapon to aid this: a driven ground pass, executed by holding R1/RB when you press the standard pass button. This plays the ball with much more force, making it harder for the opposition to intercept but also harder for the receiver to control, particularly on the turn or under pressure.

This added risk means it’s a tool that you’ll have to learn when and when not to deploy, but it can be incredibly effective in and around the box (© Andy Townsend). Fire a low pass into a strong centre-forward with his back to goal and you can attempt to turn and shoot, or lay it off to a supporting player as he breaks into the box.

And it’s useful down the other end of the pitch, too. It allows you to up the urgency when passing the ball between your back four, or play out quickly from the back in an attempt to catch the opposition off guard.

Defenders of the turf

And you’ll need it, because teams in FIFA 16 don’t give you long on the ball. During testing we played on World Class difficulty and found that opposition defenders did a good job of closing down the man in possession and cutting off passing lanes. That means intelligent movement and passes into space are key. Attempt to play the ball over the top and unless you’ve managed to get the defenders running towards their own goal the ball will often be headed back where it came from.

Even if you do skirmish through towards the enemy's sticks there’s still work to be done. FIFA 16’s goalies all seem to have spent the summer training with Manuel Neuer - they’re often off their lines quicker than you can say ‘sweeper keeper’. These begloved folk have also been given a touch more life; they’ll bounce the ball before kicking it out, or thrust the ball out in front of them if a particularly powerful shot forces them to step back across their goal line.

No parking

That said, this isn’t a bus-parking simulator; it works the other way too. Opposition teams move the ball quickly, so you’ll have to be smart with your pressing if you want to force them into making an error that could lead to turning over possession. No wonder EA has added a Guardiola-style Rondo drill to the pre-match mini-games – those are the piggy-in-the-middle warm-ups you see Bayern and Barca doing at breathtaking speed on the pitch before kick-off.

And it’s one worth practicing, because the computer-controlled players do seem a little more prone to making errors under pressure than they used to, misplacing passes or letting the ball get away from them if it’s delivered with a little too much zeal. Being braver with slide tackles is certainly rewarded but sloppiness is easily punished.

Off the pace

All of this moves the focus away from pace, which, over the course of the year, FIFA 15 did reveal itself to be a little obsessed with. The game disproportionately rewarded nippier players and punished, well, pretty much everyone else.

Pace and power are still as important as they are at the top of the real game – you only have to look at the physique Gareth Bale has developed since moving to Real Madrid for evidence of that – but it’s now a lot harder for players to get away from their markers in a one-on-one foot race.

Faster, more skillful players can now use no-touch dribbling to get past their markers instead, which involves holding L1/LB to literally stop touching the ball, tempting the defender into trying to take it off them before bursting away into space. At least, that’s the theory. To begin with you’ll often just surrender possession but when you get it right it works brilliantly, allowing you to get half a yard on a man without resorting to extravagant tricks or flicks.

The female of the species

Arguably the biggest addition to FIFA 16 is the women’s teams, although they’ve been added in such a fashion that you’d almost miss them if you didn’t know they were there. Only 12 national sides are included and you can only take charge of them in three game modes: online friendlies, offline tournaments and standard exhibition matches. That’s pretty stingy in comparison to what the men get. 

Still, it’s an inclusion that should be applauded and it’s clear that EA has taken it seriously, rather than just making 11 more feminine Andy Carrolls for each side. The women’s game is slightly less physical and the opposition doesn’t press so intensively. It feels a little more like last year’s game, but considering the 5-star review we gave that, that’s not meant as a criticism. 

Bizarrely, the women are treated as a country on the team select screen, so while no man is an island, apparently that’s not necessarily the case for the opposite sex. Oh and it’s not possible to play as men versus women, because that’s not how football works. You wouldn’t buy Forza 6 and expect to race against a hovercraft, would you?

Momentum, mo’ problems

So what else is new? FIFA isn’t really a game that lends itself to showing off fancy lighting effects or breathtaking vistas, so graphically it’s much the same. Where you will notice an improvement is with the way the players move. You get a greater sense of their weight and momentum, something that’s been part of the last few FIFA titles but probably feels more lifelike here than ever before. If you attempt a pass while off balance it’s likely to fall short, while trying to play a pass on the turn may also affect its accuracy.

More skillful players appear to have slightly greater control over the ball. Rotate the left stick and you can really see David Silva shift the position of the ball with the outside of his boot. Defenders also move more realistically and are less likely to win the ball in the air if they turn their back on it, meaning positioning is crucial to dealing with danger. Sometimes it’s better to drop off and protect the space than challenge for every single ball.

Players might be more agile now but they also deal with danger more pragmatically, taking the safe option when in doubt and clearing a ball into touch rather than risking it falling to an opposition player in a dangerous area.

Foam party

There are other minor tweaks to the way the game plays. Referees now play advantage more intelligently – although we did have one of them blow up for a penalty just as the ball was headed in off the bar, which is the opposite – and they also get to deploy the magic ref spray (or ‘felony foam’ as Twitter’s @USAsoccerguy would call it) for free-kicks around the box.

EA has also tinkered with the way the indicators above the players’ heads work, so they’ll get smaller and change colour to warn you that they’re starting to lag and a substitution might be a good idea, while beginners can choose to turn on the Trainer, which displays gameplay tips next to the player when you receive the ball, although we found that by the time you’d managed to read them you’d been dispossessed anyway.

Cosmetic surgery

There are also changes to the way some game modes work – although these are largely cosmetic.

Career Mode has had a very minor facelift, the only real difference to the format being the introduction of those pointless pre-season friendly tournaments that Premier League teams try to make out actually mean something. In the game they do offer some prize money, which could be crucial to lower league teams. More importantly you can now make more than three substitutions in a non-competitive game, allowing you to rotate your squad before getting down to business.

It’s hardly Football Manager but you can also choose players to take part in up to five practice drills per in-game week in order to improve their stats. They’re the same as the ones you get while waiting for the game to load, so while It’s a nice way of giving the illusion of player development, before long you’ll get bored and allow the game to simulate them instead.

Fifa 16 verdict

While casual players will always accuse each new FIFA game of just updating the database, those of us who play it religiously notice the subtle differences. This year’s are perhaps more subtle than usual but this general tune-up does the job it’s meant to.

It sometimes makes playing FIFA more frustrating, but as a result it’s more rewarding when things click and you pull off a neat passing move to scythe through an opposition’s back four.

If the thought of patient build-up play puts you off, then PES 2016 might be the game for you – and that’s not a compromise; it’s a genuine contender for the first time in years. For hardcore FIFA fans, though, there’s enough in 16 to keep you occupied. And by the time you’ve finally mastered it, it’ll be time to do it all over again.

*Due to time constraints we haven’t been able to fully explore the changes made to Ultimate Team. We’ll update this review as soon as we have.

Stuff says... 

Fifa 16 review

It's the most realistic FIFA ever - and for us that makes it the best footie game out there
Good Stuff 
Absorbing, rewarding gameplay
Vastly improved defending
Felony foam
Bad Stuff 
Not a huge leap from last year