So, I love football manager games, and I’ve loved playing football games (or soccer for some of you) like FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer since the days of International Superstar Soccer on the Nintendo 64. Add to this my love for CCGs, and you can understand why I had high hopes for FIFA 16 Ultimate Team (Free) since it looked like it combined all three genres in one shiny package. The last FIFA I played on mobile before FIFA 16 UT was FIFA 14, which was the last one to have various other modes (like Quick Match and Season) in addition to the Ultimate Team mode. While I had dabbled a bit in the Ultimate Team mode in FIFA 14, I didn’t really bother much because I simply wanted to play football without messing with menus too much. Still, I actually loaded FIFA 16 UT hoping I would find an interesting CCG (which is what the Ultimate Team really is) on top of what has easily been the best football game on iOS.
However, I was so incredibly mistaken. FIFA 16 UT is easily the disappointment of the year for me, and it’s really sad that EA has turned the best football game on mobile into this shell of a game whose emphasis is either messing around convoluted menus or playing a football game that lacks even those basic features that have been a staple of the FIFA franchise and football games in general for so many years. While FIFA 15 had started the shift from a football game to a menu peruser, in FIFA 16 UT EA has really transformed the franchise into a disappointing mess with no clear direction unless you count milking the football-loving cows. Thanks, EA.
So, what is the Ultimate Team (UT) mode? UT turns the task of building your football team into a CCG where you have to buy packs of players, staff, club items, and consumables to build (according to the game) your own fantasy team. You start the game with a few bronze (basic) players, and you gradually buy or earn packs to get better, silver players and then gold players (there are also rare and common players, just like a CCG). The players you’ll have in your team come from the huge list of 10,000 players from over 500 teams, which in any other mode would be music to football-lovers’ ears because most of us like to play as our favorite team and score goals as our favorite players.
Yet, in the UT mode, this huge variety of players is your downfall as your team’s performance depends to a great degree on the team’s chemistry, how well each player works with the players around him. Since players will get along better if they are from the same country or from the same real-life team, the game’s variety becomes a boomerang that makes building a strong team harder and more expensive. It also makes players attributes less important than their country of origin, a weird move both in terms of gameplay but also in terms of real-life football where the best teams in the world consist of players from all kinds of countries. Players still have the more “traditional" attributes like pace, shooting, passing, dribbling, and so on, but unfortunately chemistry is such an overwhelming factor in team performance that it trumps pretty much all else.
What does the Chemistry mechanic mean for your time playing FIFA 16 UT? While the game purports to let you build “your fantasy team," you’ll actually be hunting for players from the same country and/or same team instead. The developers are so aware of the value of Chemistry that one of the most-expensive packs you can buy will give you a complete Barclays Premiership Club to ensure perfect chemistry. In other words, while the game sells you the dream of building an Ultimate Team, what the mechanics are actually telling you is to have as many players from the same real-life team as possible. And while some might say that this is part of the challenge of building your team, it actually felt more like a way for the game to pressure you into buying more and more packs. You’ll really need to buy lots of packs to find players whose chemistry works well enough to make your team perform well. So, it’s not a stretch to say that if you don’t pour plenty of dollars in EA’s mouth, you won’t have a competitive team because you can be sure many others will feed the beast.
Speaking of the game’s economics, many in our forums have rightly complained about the amount of gold awarded for playing matches versus the cost of packs. If you aren’t planning on throwing plenty of money in this FIFA (money) pit, you’ll have a hard time grinding enough coins to get a decent team going. For instance, if you play an online season, you’ll play 7 matches with each win giving you 3 points and each tie 1 point. If you manage to hit 15 points, you’ll get 200 coins, and at 18 you’ll get 300 (you also get packs of consumables that aren’t worth much anyway). A Single Player Season will give you a bonus of maximum 35 coins, and Single Player Tournaments will give you 1200 coins and a gold consumable pack (no players) after winning 4 games of increasing difficulty. As your level increases, so do the rewards, but they are still woefully short if you are planning on building your Ultimate Team without any real money.
Add to the low rewards the fact that even single player Tournaments you participate in expire after a few days, and you start to see how much grinding you’ll need to do to get decent packs since Gold player packs that get you 2 players cost 3500 coins (or 50 Premium coins). If you want a pack with 3 Gold Rare players, that will set you back 35,000 coins, an astounding number to be honest. Some packs can only be purchased with premium coins (if you want the “best of the best"), which again tilts this primarily-multiplayer game definitely more to the Pay-to-Win side. Truth is, you have to try really hard to see FIFA 16 UT as anything more than EA’s attempt to milk mobile players.
While the various Consumables, which allow you to raise the morale and stamina of your team or heal injuries, are pretty cheap, they definitely are still all about paying to improve your team. And by the way, while the game has a Live Transfer Market (which can save you a bit of money and help you build a team more cheaply), you can only access it if you sign in with your Facebook account, a very peculiar but not surprising decision, especially in the light of the recent article we wrote about Facebook and F2P developers. If you aren’t willing to let EA snoop around your Facebook account or you happen to not even have a Facebook account, you are out of luck and locked out of the only feature that will let you save some money. This is an obnoxious move, even by EA’s standards (and that’s saying something).
Keep in mind that FIFA 16 UT is only about the Ultimate Team mode since EA removed all other modes that existed in FIFA 14 and in older games of the franchise. While in FIFA 14 (the last FIFA that had more modes than just the UT one) I could pop into the game and play quick friendlies either with the AI or (more importantly) with online friends, you can’t do any of that in FIFA 16 UT. Great decision business-wise (as UT is a cash-cow), but the lack of all those modes results in a pretty boring football game because you can only play random seasons (with random teams), random tournaments, or random multiplayer seasons. I grew up at a time where playing FIFA was often a social activity because there’s nothing better than playing co-op tournaments with friends or even competing with them. However, in FIFA 16 UT you can only play with random people, which is really a shame.
As you’ve figured out by now, you’ll spend most of your time in FIFA 16 UT navigating menus, and since the menus are a convoluted mess, expect plenty of frustrating moments. For instance, players are almost always presented in a single line instead of a grid, which makes navigating through hundreds of players seriously painful. The Player cards might look pretty, but they can’t fit all the necessary info on them, which means you have to very often slide across various screens of info. In the older FIFA games, you could see and compare players’ attributes very easily; in FIFA 16 UT, looks have dominated convenience and while the Player cards look nice, they are really bad at displaying information. For instance, if you want to see your players’ fitness and morale in the formation screen, you’ll have to switch views. When you do, you can’t see a player’s name, just his info. One view shows the name, another the info, and another his status. How useless is that?
As you’ll see when you look at this review as a whole, I talk about the Ultimate Team part of the game more than the actual football-playing part of the game. Well, that’s because you’ll spend much more time in menus rather than playing football. First, the positives about the actual kicking the ball part of FIFA 16 UT. The player animations have been improved since previous iterations, with the players moving, kicking, and dribbling more smoothly in FIFA 16 UT. EA claims that it has brought console-quality gameplay to take advantage of the increased power of new mobile devices, and the game does play quite smoothly on my newer devices. Still EA forgot to add decent servers to this online-only game because four out of five games I played in this online-only game were plagued by constantly-stuttering players, frame rates that dipped to the single digits, and even lovely moments when my counterattacks failed because the frame rate dropped to 1 fps and my player literally wouldn’t move. Mind you, my wireless connection is very robust, so the issues weren’t on my end.
The controls work fine and you’ll be using the buttons for most of your players’ actions and swipes for corners, penalty kicks, and free kicks. Of course, no one actually tells you about the swiping part unless you go into the help menu and read about it. You can play with a floating joystick, which will promptly get in the way if you are trying to perform a free throw to the left side of the screen (the game thinks you are trying to use the joystick instead of touching to pass to a player). You will also use a few huge buttons (especially on the iPad) of various bright colors which might be pretty responsive, but are also so opaque you won’t be able to see any player on the right flank of your team. Literally, the buttons will often hide the players, and since the game doesn’t offer a radar to show the players’ positions, you’ll often miss out on what’s happening on the one side of the field.
Speaking of the radar, this feature has been present in football games since back in the 90s and for good reason: it let’s you plan your attacks by seeing where your players and the opponents are at any given moment. EA felt you don’t need that anymore, and did away with it. The developers also did away with camera controls, another essential feature that’s been around since forever, and also half-time lengths, with all matches lasting four minutes. You can’t even pick a difficulty setting like in older games of the franchise, you just have to deal with what the game picks for you (usually tournaments have teams of ascending difficulty). I’ve played too many matches where I wasn’t challenged in the slightest. In other words, if you’ve been accustomed to playing FIFA in a certain way in terms of difficulty, half time duration, and camera/zoom angle, well, sorry, you can’t; you’ll have to deal with EA’s one-size-fits-all game.
Overall, the football-playing part of FIFA 16 UT is sorely lacking in customization options and also in tactical options. The only aspect of your team you can change is formation and mentality, nothing else. You can’t even decide who takes a corner kick or a penalty kick. I took a look at FIFA 14 while writing this review, and I was amazed at the depth of tactical options that game had compared to this one. I understand that EA probably tried to make the game more accessible to newer players, but more options never hurt; you just ignore them if you don’t care about them. FIFA 16 UT doesn’t even have player ratings at the end of each match, so you’ll have no idea who’s playing well and who’s not. I could go on about all the really basic features missing from the game, but I think you get the picture. But hey, at least they’ve added goal celebrations for the first time, a feature EA has been trumpeting for months. So, yeah, priorities.
So, I’m sure the very perceptive among you have figured out how disappointed I am with FIFA 16 UT. EA has turned the best football series on the App Store into a game about menus with the occasional basic ball-kicking. You’ll spend much more time going through badly-designed and unecessarily complicated menus than playing football. Where does that leave FIFA 16 UT? Well, if you want to play a CCG, there are much better CCGs out there than this clearly Pay-to-Win game. If you want to manage and build a team, you can go with PES Club Manager (Free) instead since its interface is much better and the whole team performance depends on attributes rather than chemistry. If you’re planning on getting FIFA 16 UT because you missed a good football game on mobile, I hope you still have FIFA 14 on your device because this stripped-down version will only satisfy the die-heart UT fans and no one else. Not all is bad though; you can now celebrate your goals in many different ways.