With the latest instalment in EA Sports' most domineering franchise only a week away, suggesting improvements may seem a little futile. For me, they would be anyway. FIFA is an annual addiction, and as such, my only recourse is to reflect on the ways I vainly hope that this next year won't frustrate me. Here are my primary concerns.
Lesson 1: the AI is broken (and always has been)
Commit the kind of time to a game that scientists dedicate to polar expeditions, and you start to notice patterns. The way defenders always turn to the side of your pursuing player with the most space before clearing, meaning that if you chase them in a straight, central line they will always hoof the ball out of play. The way any corner that doesn't land smack on your player's forehead will always be cleared straight to the opposition's striker. The way you should never use slide tackles, because they're rubbish. Consequently you get a feel, not just for how the AI responds under certain common conditions, but how matches operate as a whole.
The accusation has often been levelled at FIFA that it had some in built capacity for the mischievous upset, not through the facilitation of quick counter attacks or any other measure of player skill, but by sheer arbitrary intervention. I have no doubt that this is the case. Games can start completely differently for no obvious reason. Numerous times I've been beaten outlandishly by a weaker opponent, restarted, and won with consummate ease. Score one goal and the match often swings ridiculously in your favour, where as one conceded can be the death of you. It's a Fisher Price reading of game momentum. I can boot up a managerial campaign one day and breeze through fixtures, then return the next day and struggle to pick up a point. Meanwhile, a team 5-0 and a man down can score one goal and suddenly get the boost to score 2 or 3 more. It's maddening.
More easily identifiable is the end game mechanic, where teams' passing and tackling improves dramatically when they're seeking a last minute winner. If there was any rhyme or reason to these changes - such as were promised in the old sound bites about 'dynamic atmosphere', where performance could be affected by the scoreline, a boost after equalising, or in a big derby - this variety would give FIFA genuine longevity. Too often though, it suddenly feels like Aston Villa have signed ten Lionel Messi's, and stuck Gordon Banks in goal.
Lesson 2: It isn't particularly like real football (and never has been)
If you're going to sap the fun out of a football game in the name of simulation, it should be accurate to the letter. Simulation has always been FIFA's calling card; it's the reason FIFA '16 with its licenses and face scans will continue to dominate Pro Evo, by all accounts now the more enjoyable game.
Part of the stagnation that's allowed Konami to close the gap is in the lack of attention to details that has persisted for years, and are continually sidelined in favour of sales pitch ideas. While real name referees made their bow in FIFA 15, the standard of AI refereeing is still dreadful. Play is regularly stopped for offside when I've already launched a counter attacking pass, or when the attempted attack came to nothing, the ball getting nowhere near the player it was intended for. Back passes and indirect free kicks literally don't exist.
Carding is erratic, with some fouls (perhaps realistically) called totally wrong. Own goals and deflections are almost comically misread, to the point that they're usually called as the opposite of what they should be - deflections are given to the player they hit even when on target, resulting in bizarre own goals where a ball has brushed the defender's leg. Even the goal decision system is inconsistent. You can picture Jonathan Pearce's indignation.
The engine doesn't fair much better. Pace and heading, perpetual points of contention, were both equally broken in their relative dominance and uselessness. Fouls can be very silly, where if you win the ball and lose it again, tripping or hacking at the player straight away isn't given, as it's still part of the window where you won the ball successfully. Hand balls if you turn them on don't discriminate at all, resulting in several penalties a match. This owes a lot to the general clumsiness of players, who regularly hash simple touches with all the balletic grace of QWOP.
In contrast, fine tuning the auto-switching system is a delicate art, as you search for the sweet spot that doesn't switch away from your running player to a static defender completely unprepared to make a tackle, while switching to a player who has the ball directly in front of him, but refuses to run onto it because you aren't controlling him. You wouldn't notice most of these issues in regular play, but when they foul up your reading of the game's patterns, the effect is to replicate FIFA's patented multiplayer rage against the CPU.
Lesson 3: Career mode is dreadful (and always has been)
Tell me I should play Football Manager, I dare you. When you have one hideous, shameful time sink in your life, you scarcely need another one to balance it. I've never played Sports Interactive's title. No doubt I would love it; that's half the worry. But myself and plenty of others are drawn to FIFA's biggest single player option for a simple reason: it lets you actually play. Until FM licenses their match engine, that will always take precedence.
As such, we have to put up with EA's frequently dismal improvements. Pro players can never start a game on the bench, meaning that if your AI manager deems you a bit tired, you miss entire crucial matches. Simulating a game instead of playing it removes all control over substitutions and tactics, and decides the game at random, to the point that players have scored for me while sat on the bench. There is no acknowledgement of reserves or youth sides, and no player interaction or development beyond using them occasionally and hoping the game chooses to let them improve. Academies are poorly implemented, with young players often dreadfully imbalanced. Midfielders can grow to 90+ vision and dribbling with sub 50 pace, making them useless in anything but simulated matches, and clogging up national teams due to a high OVR.
Until a few months ago in the PC version - likely all next-gen versions - your pro player couldn't even receive transfer requests unless you forcibly declared your intention to leave. That's a major bug, completely ignored by EA for the best part of a year while they feverishly complete the next game.
And while club AI has improved beyond FIFA 14 and earlier (where they almost never made transfers), their activity in the market is still scattergun. Liverpool became even more of a running joke in my playthroughs than usual, as they lose Simon Mignolet in goal almost immediately, and seem wholly content to play the inept Brad Jones until he retires. It's like the chaotic end-game in old versions of Civilisation: the programming only vaguely covers any career beyond the playing days of Ronaldo, when every squad devolves into a crock of barely functional 35 year olds.
Lesson 4: None of this matters
These points aren't just moot because they're late. EA knows schmucks like me will keep stumping up cash, and the biggest draw is Ultimate Team. This is where all the energy goes - the form players, the continual tweaking of stats, the sales and market adjustments. I haven't heard anything about a Valve or CCP style in-house economist, but it wouldn't surprise me. UT is an enormous money spinner, as the million pack opening videos on YouTube will attest. It's the working man's Hearthstone; the virtual bookmaker.
I can believe that a considerable amount of time is expended just scouting players and updating their stats and rosters. Yet Sports Interactive have perhaps the world's single most comprehensive scouting network, and they recently released a squad update for Football Manager 15 for free.
Aside from cutting rampant piracy, their aim is to lure a similarly addicted player base to FM 16 with promises of features, fixes and upgrades. EA know that their audience will settle for a game experience that mirrors this next Sky Sports season - all its familiar faces, stadia and brand deals - with a feigned, Stepford Wives perfection. And I'll be right there, playing as Charlton, in the uncanny Valley.
FIFA 16 is out on September 22nd for Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One and PC.