Hours into my first session with FIFA 19 and dozens of messages have popped up on my Xbox One dashboard from eager fans demanding to know how I have an advance copy of the game. Quietly, I switch profiles, disable the notifications and hear their pleas recede in the void, guilty, despite everything, that I can’t give them a taste of the action. It is a mark of the FIFA brand that every year a devoted fanbase counts down the days to September 28 with barely-contained impatience. And so it is once again that the FIFA brigade rolls into town.
FIFA 19 opens with a match designed to highlight the marquee addition for the year: the Champions League license. Juventus are in the final, and new commentators Derek Rae and Lee Dixon are adding an extra layer of gloss to the pre-match pageantry. A troupe of Champions League mascots unfurl the giant flag and hold it billowing in the wind in the background as the camera pans across cover star Ronaldo, a broad-chested gleaming Adonis, with Neymar on the opposing side sporting a nest of frosted tips atop his head. Half the joy of FIFA is seeing these stars rendered on our screens; as the years whip by the gap between the real thing and the imagined closes. The uncanny valley beckons from the heavens.
Days later and my opinion of the game – one I started formulating the minute the dust had settled on the Juventus match as Ronnie and co. were lifting the enormous trophy – holds steady. FIFA 19 is good. The core experience has benefited from several small tweaks, and while the marketing department might have had a harder time selling this year’s game, make no mistake, it’s a better experience than FIFA 18 or 17 before it.
Really, EA’s continued mission all along has been to make little stick figure avatars appear as if they’re moving organically around a pitch rather than skating across virtual blades of grass, and this year’s verisimilitude makes an immediate impression. There’s a certain weight, a certain solidity that moves from the pitch up through the spine of the controller right into your fingers, producing ah hah moments… a little tingle, like a rush of sugar, when it all clicks and looks right. Your Ronaldos are, as ever, eerily true to life, but I noticed that players like Raheem Sterling are also spot on. Sterling in particular skips around the ground as fleet of foot as a cat, arms at his sides daintily for balance, quite capable of missing a sitter in front of goal – spot on, I think. I went back to FIFA 18 to check whether there was a difference in the way Sterling moved and I’m convinced there is: something about his movements has been accentuated, and across the pitch there is more personality on display from other players too.
Crossing has been nerfed, and obvious through passes are going to get intercepted. Timing an aerial through ball needs split-second precision. My preferred tactic is to drive through the middle by judiciously using sprint and slow dribble to chop and change momentum, keeping defenders off balance. In this sense the game is true to life, because momentum is absolutely everything at the highest levels of football. In other words, it’s no longer possible to rely on pace to jet pack your way to goal, something I feel like I say every year. But this year, it really is true.
You can get creative too. The right stick lets you dink past an onrushing player a la Neymar, meaning you no longer need to take a first touch, and I love the addition of a tactics board you can consult on-the-fly. Switch up your style of play by diving into the menu or using the D-pad in the heat of battle. Wonderfully, it engenders the sense that you’ve got real options on the battlefield – more ways to zip the ball across those blades of grass and into the opposing goal – and that the only limit might be your creativity, your own knowledge of the game. Time will tell how long this illusion lasts, but it’s a step in the right direction.
A step in the wrong direction, then, might be the addition of a new timed shot; by pressing B and then B again, you’re more likely to beat the keeper if you hit the combination at exactly the right moment. But get the timing wrong and you’ll fluff your lines. In principle the idea reminds me of the 2002 FIFA World Cup when flames used to burst from the ball any time a star player took a pop at goal. Shoved in here, it feels like a gimmick, frankly, and a move towards the arbitrary rather than something that’s governed by careful play on the pitch. Besides, it’s never clear when you should be following up your initial shot with the second tap of “B”, and unless you turn on the Trainer, it’s impossible to tell. And why take the risk when there are so many ways to increase your likelihood of scoring, like keeping a shot low, which is now mapped to simultaneously pressing both bumpers?
You can turn the new shooting mechanic off and to FIFA 19‘s credit, it’s a hugely customizable beast, with options to tinker to your heart’s content. That extends to the bread and butter Kick Off mode, where you either face off against the AI (Beginner, Amateur, Semi-Pro, Professional, World Class or Legendary) or share the TV with friends. Champions League fixtures, Cup Finals and a Best of Series join traditional exhibition matches. Then there’s “House Rules”, which lets you do weird things like disable offsides, or enforce goals only from headers and volleys, or forfeit a player every time you score. Hardly worth shouting about, though EA has slapped a gleaming badge that says “NEW” on Kick Off this year.
Career mode – my long-time favorite – is largely unchanged. Disappointing, given I had read reports in August that live press conferences and a wardrobe for your manager were on the table. The new stuff largely revolves the pagentry of the Champions League; oh, you’ll find a new song any time you make a face-to-face transfer too. It plays on a loop; it’s haunting and quite horrible. One last thing: Career mode has inherited the “Extreme” difficulty previously reserved for FUT. Presumably it’ll appear in Kick Off as a FIFA 20 update.
The majority of you don’t care about Career mode and why should you? You’re likely that new breed of player reared on FIFA Ultimate Team. Much has been made of this moreish beast. It lures players in, asking that they assemble a squad of ragtag players with the carrot of making it on to the FIFA leaderboard. To get new players you open packs, like virtual Pokemon cards, or those comic book Marvel trading cards I used to love. This, the virtual sporting equivalent, similarly involves real money. It’s possible to assemble a good squad never paying real cash at all, but fast-tracking or guaranteeing success is an ever-present temptation, and FUT has grown so enormous that full-blown careers on YouTube revolve around playing matches to an adoring audience.
As you’d expect from a money-spinner, FUT caters to every kind of FIFA player with modes for relaxed players (Squad Battles), midlevel devotees (Division Rivals, which is like Online Seasons) and full blown addicts (FUT Champions). In the end, FUT is a thing of calculated beauty; a lottery in which you are the gambler and EA is the casino. You’ll win a few times but ultimately the chips are in EA’s favor. Why do so many people bother?
Ultimately I’ve got nothing against FUT and people can do with their money as they please; moreover, parents should read up on the game if they start noticing chunks of money disappearing from their bank balance. It’s not EA’s job to water down a commercial product succeeding in a capitalist environment. If people can’t get enough of it it’s their problem. What I do dislike is my sneaking suspicion that EA is spending so much time worrying about this money-spinner that they’re eventually going to stop worrying about the legacy modes, like Career. There are a huge number of fans who buy FIFA yearly to play against their friends, or to unwind after a long day of work, and are not solely invested in making it on to a leaderboard. I, for one, want something that works as well offline as on.
Based on 19’s performance, the weather is set fair for now, and solitary gamers can dive into The Journey once again, the story mode that puts you in the shoes – boots – of Alex Hunter, his sister Kim, and his goofy best friend Danny Williams. What was an exciting addition to FIFA 17 and a necessary part of FIFA 18 has lost some of its spark the third time around, even if the graphics are more jaw-dropping than ever. Texture-work on faces – especially skin – is fantastic, and you have to applaud the effort here, even if it’s hard to escape the feeling that FIFA 20 should probably rejig the formula. How about a character you create from scratch?
With its licensing deals and it’s growing suite of content and it’s little additions, EA is building a brand that can’t be matched. I haven’t even talked about the new menus which load in lighting fast time, or the fact you can cut straight to kick-off after a goal by holding down both bumpers and triggers. Little things like this actually make a difference, and FIFA 19 is incredibly and impressively streamlined. The extra fat has been liposuctioned from its gameplay and added to all the areas where it needs it: new modes, new ways to play, new options in the heat of battle. In short, there’s content galore here, and with the Champions League license in the bag, long-time rival Pro Evolution Soccer is more and more resembling a quaint curio that you gawk at from the sidelines. It’s down to personal taste which of the two you prefer on the pitch, but the reality is that football is the sideshow here: FIFA 19 is the brand that all the kids want, and the one you really need to be playing.
This review is based on the Xbox One X version of the game. A copy was provided by Electronic Arts.