Women are the best thing about FIFA 16

FIFA is two things: an international soccer organization whose staggering corruption collapsed into self-parody earlier this year, and a multi-million-selling series of sports video games made by Electronic Arts. Today we will discuss the latest instance of the latter.

FIFA 16, which came out this week, is pretty much the same thing as FIFA 15. The menus are the same. The controls are the same. The graphics are a little better, with more dynamic lighting and, if I’m not mistaken, slightly shinier balls. Player modeling is more comprehensive; sides like Southampton, the greatest yet somehow most underrated team in the Premier League, now have most of their members replicated with the same level of detail lavished upon the likes of Lionel Messi.

It’s basically the same, though. And really, that’s okay. Association football, or soccer if you like, is a sport that was codified at some point in the 19th century as “The Simplest Game.” We’re pretty good at digitally replicating it by now. Ten years ago, I was playing Pro Evolution Soccer convinced that there wasn’t much more left to be done in simulating the sport. Here we are now, with FIFA having taken the crown somewhere in the interim, and all that’s left to do is incrementally tweak the game each year.

But there's one big difference this time around.

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FIFA 16 has undergone the usual year-to-year tweaks. It plays a slightly tighter game in midfield and defense. It’s not as easy to score by bombing down the wing and charging diagonally into the penalty area, for example. Slide tackling is more effective than before. And the referee now uses that weird new white spray to indicate where defenders should form a wall at free kicks. But it still plays like FIFA.

That’s not the only way to make a soccer game — for a slower, more technical experience, I’ve heard great things about this year’s Pro Evolution Soccer. Within EA’s established style, though, FIFA 16 is just another small step toward the ideal. It’s a minor update that, but for one big addition, would be difficult to recommend to anyone other than hardcore fans who need the updated rosters.

That big addition is this: FIFA 16 is the first entry in the series to feature women’s soccer.

It’s a move that feels overdue, but 2015 is a good year for it nonetheless. The World Cup in Canada catapulted the women’s game to a new level of global prominence, particularly in North America, and the US team’s success will have further helped in what’s arguably FIFA’s biggest untapped market.

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Adding women is a non-trivial technical task. The subtle tweaks mentioned earlier all relate to the engine powering the men’s game, which has benefited from years of evolution based on physics and animations designed for male players. Simply swapping the models out wouldn’t work; EA has had to rethink how FIFA plays to accommodate the women’s game.

Thankfully, it’s a successful implementation. Women’s soccer in FIFA 16 is a touch slower than men’s, but tends toward more open, less predictable play that can turn around quickly. It feels instantly, noticeably different than the men's game, and is often a lot more fun. The visual presentation is fantastic, too, with convincing animation and player models across the board. The realistic hair rendering in particular stands out, which has also benefited more than a few players on the men’s side.

Where EA’s efforts fall short is in content. FIFA 16 only features 12 women’s international teams, and there’s little to do with them except play through a generic tournament or exhibition matches. And of those 12, Japan — the US team’s rival in the last three major tournament finals — is conspicuously missing; the Japanese men’s team is, too, due to licensing issues, but the absence is more strongly felt in the women’s game, where Japan is one of the world’s best sides.

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It might have been unrealistic to expect extensive club team support, or a more comprehensive international game, but what’s there won’t really stand up to long-term appraisal. I play FIFA like my colleague Jamieson plays Destiny — a relaxing, long-term time investment that I can commit to little by little — and without an extensive career mode, no one’s going to be able to do that with women in FIFA 16. Still, it’s by far the freshest addition to this year’s edition, and should prove a strong platform to build on in the future. The real test of EA’s commitment to the women’s game will be FIFA 17.

For now, then, if all you want is a slick, polished, authentic soccer experience, FIFA 16 is right there for you. It may not be much of an improvement on last year, and its one progressive advancement may be couched in caveats, but it exists in the ether nonetheless as a satisfying representation of the beautiful game.