Neuer and improved.
FIFA’s foundation has always been based on two things: presenting a fun, free-scoring game of football and unparalleled authenticity. FIFA 19 takes a small step forward in terms of the former, adding a handful of gameplay tweaks that refine the well-trodden FIFA formula rather than reinvent it in any significant way, but a huge stride forward with the latter, thanks to the inclusion of the Champions League.
FIFA 19’s gameplay innovation is precision ball control which, when used effectively, creates new openings through subtle movements, body feints and fancy flicks. But for every slick piece of control there is an equal moment of miscontrol as the ball gets away from you. It’s unforgiving at first, resulting in untidy passages of play with balls bouncing off the knees, chests, and heads of supposed top-class professionals. However, once mastered, the free-flowing football (using the right analogue to lead the ball away from you first time) creates some of the game’s most eye-catching moments. Letting the ball run across your body or flicking the ball before hitting a first-time shot adds a new level of satisfaction to attacking play.
Flicking the ball before hitting a first-time shot adds a new level of satisfaction to attacking play.
Similarly, there’s an extra layer to finishing that works much like Gears of War’s active reload mechanic to add a level of risk to any potential goal threat. It’s activated by pressing shoot a second time after powering up a shot, in time with when the player strikes the ball. Get it right and the shot will fizz like a rocket, and although it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a goal it certainly improves your odds. However, get it slightly wrong and the player embarrassingly fumbles the shot. Overall, my experimentation with this system left me feeling that the reward didn’t justify the risk when shooting the traditional way still works so well.
There is welcome authenticity to the way 50/50 battles are now decided, taking into account both of the timing of a tackle and the attributes of the players involved. Consistently coming out second best against stronger opposition can be frustrating, but that reflects real life with greater accuracy than in previous editions. It’s definitely an improvement on the old system because I was able to judge whether to challenge for a loose ball to a better extent.
Elsewhere, passing accuracy is a lot less automatic. While the resulting imprecision takes some getting used to, it’s a rewarding and welcome improvement over the laser-precision passes of FIFA 18. Pace is no longer as easy a route to goal and even a player as quick as Leroy Sané will need to check back on occasion when a chasing fullback catches up to him.
This puts more emphasis on finding and using space properly, rather than relying on a player with 96 sprint speed to glide pass defenders and win you matches. Strength is also now a much more useful tool for winning and keeping possession of the ball, but as a result the agility stat feels slightly sidelined, with some players resembling a Sherman tank when performing tight turns. This slower pace results in a much more robust game of football and, ultimately, a much more authentic one befitting of FIFA 19’s lavish presentation.
The fidelity of that presentation has long been FIFA’s calling card and the addition of the Champions League is welcome, taking away the one licensing bragging right Pro Evolution Soccer always had over perennial rival. All of the pomp and circumstance of Europe’s premier club competition is present and correct. From the instantly recognisable introduction music to the graphic overlays used throughout the season, every aspect of the tournament is recreated perfectly. The level of detail is outstanding and I found myself constantly impressed by how accurate each match setting was.
That authenticity goes beyond the Champions League, too – there are 16 new La Liga stadiums, along with carefully reproduced atmospheres that fill them with life. Each venue genuinely feels different and makes each match a fresh, enjoyable experience. Such is the endeavour of EA’s design team to recreate some of football’s most iconic arenas that they even have managed to fully build Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium before construction on the real thing has been completed in North London.
Each venue genuinely feels different and makes each match a fresh, enjoyable experience.
The players inside the grounds look better than ever also: little details, like beads on sweat on players’ foreheads or the slight rustle of their shirt sleeves on a windy day, add to the atmosphere. They move more fluidly than ever, appearing to sense and react to the ball and the players around them. Defenders will back into opposition forwards to shepherd a ball out of play and will attempt new ways to trap the ball if it comes to them at an awkward angle, making them feel more human as they more naturally adjust to each situation they find themselves in. Players appear to tire slightly more as games go on as well, adding to the realism.
The UEFA competitions also bring with them two new commentators, Derek Rae and Lee Dixon. Although neither will give much of a tactical insight, it is always a bonus to have an extra pair of voices as an alternative to Alan Smith’s monotone drawl. The new licenses have been woven into every game mode possible too: the Champions League (and its little brother, the Europa League) can be played as part of the career mode, with former also found in the Kick-Off menu, with each stage available to play separately. Integration with Ultimate Team in the form of live content updates is promised, but at this stage it is unclear whether this will be any more than some in-form FUT cards.
FIFA’s Kick-Off mode has been long stagnant, offering little other than standard exhibition matches, but this year it has undergone a substantial overhaul with nine new game modes available. The most memorable can be found in the House Rules section, which is FIFA’s answer to Overwatch’s Arcade. These match types introduce new rule subsets to the core 90-minute match experience and do so to varying levels of success. Some are ripped straight from the playground, such as my beloved Headers & Volleys, while others bring a more anarchic edge to the beautiful game, like No Rules mode. With no offsides, fouls, or bookings enabled, this quickly descends into chaos and there’s no denying it’s a whole lot of fun.
Latching onto the current battle royale zeitgeist, the most enjoyable of these new additions is Survival Mode. In short, it consists of players being randomly ejected from your team after you score a goal, theoretically giving the trailing team the advantage. The different tactical approaches you can take to these matches due to its evolving nature give it much more depth than others. Going attack heavy at the beginning leaves you at a disadvantage later on, with reduced numbers and dwindling stamina all having an effect. Should you play it safe and try to nick a goal at the end, thus keeping all 11 players on the field as long as possible? I played numerous matches against both other players and the CPU and did not find myself tiring of it at all.
House Rules is a welcome breath of fresh air that contrasts against what the traditional matches continue to do so well.
These new modes go some way to restoring some of the quirkiness that has since diminished over the two decades since FIFA ’97 briefly introduced indoor football. House Rules is a welcome breath of fresh air that contrasts against what the traditional matches continue to do so well. True, it’s unlikely many of the modes will hold much appeal in the months after release, especially because they’re exclusively (and bafflingly) available offline, but they’re a welcome addition, especially considering both Career Mode and Pro Clubs remain virtually untouched.
Ultimate Team, is also fairly unchanged this time around, controversial microtransactions included. The only addition of note is Division Rivals, a mode that allows you to compete against others of an equivalent skill level for weekly rewards. It provides more structure to how best spend your time in FUT, but doesn’t really add a great deal. The Journey returns once again, now in its third (and final?) year of Alex Hunter’s story, with a 16 hour campaign that’s more soap opera, than Sopranos.
The Journey: Champions tells three separate storylines – one for each of the three protagonists – as they tackle their own challenges. Alex, the ‘Galactico,’ is adjusting to stardom in Madrid; his teenage sister Kim’s battling between being a World Cup star and finishing her schoolwork; and Danny Williams, a parody of a Premier League footballer who is at odds with the people that surround him. In particular, his estranged brother who is a twirly moustache away from being a pastiche of a 1920s Hollywood villain.
This story – which can be played as one complete interwoven narrative or split into three separate threads – is bookended by some of the most compelling scenes in any of The Journey modes, but suffers from a second chapter that’s way too bloated and would have benefitted from fewer laborious training drills and post-match interview sequences, which are frankly painful to watch. I found myself crying out for some variety, and especially disappointed that none of the new House Rules modes found their way into the mix.
The Journey is a heavily scripted story hidden behind a thin veil of choice, both on and off the pitch.
Disappointingly, choices you make seem without consequence, with key decisions having little impact. One such choice I had to make was how “The Williams” should represent his new sponsor, a fictional fish and chip shop chain called McMillan’s. A photoshoot or a radio advert? It’s a so-called ‘monumental decision’ that I never saw any repercussions of along the way.
In truth, it’s a heavily scripted story hidden behind a thin veil of choice, both on and off the pitch. The start is promising but falls into the pitfalls of ox-bow lake-style storytelling. Ultimately everyone will play a very similar campaign resulting in a couple of different end scenarios and even having a poolside life lesson from Neymar feels like a slog.