After a somewhat disappointing iteration of its annual release last year and a shocking year in the headlines for EA, it’s fair to say that you can see some extra effort has gone into FIFA this year. Several modes, most notably kick-off and ultimate team, have received much needed overhauls, whilst EA’s obligatory tweaks to players physicality/off-the-ball intelligence/physics feel a lot more substantial than in the previous few installments. Whilst EA have left themselves plenty to work on next year, FIFA 19 is certainly a promising sign that they are still capable of innovation.
Let’s start on the pitch, which, for all the new bells and whistles evident in menus, is still the lifeblood of a good football game. There’s some pretty big changes here, the most notable being a real attempt to make player physicality a real factor in games. This is a perennial promise of the FIFA series, but this time it’s really been integrated properly. Strong players are capable of holding off others, and there’s a much meatier, weightier feel to physical battles and to the physics engine overall.
Not only does this breathe life into the Girouds and Andy Carrolls of the world, it goes a long way to compensating for FIFA’s chronic struggle with how powerful a weapon pace is. Don’t get me wrong, pace is still the premium offensive tool in your arsenal, but your defensive ability to wrestle speedsters off the ball is a welcome change, and also encourages you to channel the ball down the flanks for crossing opportunities rather than only down the middle.
There’s a famous saying in games development circles (not that I’m part of any). It says: “given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game.” For a long time, this has been the case in FIFA. Players have always had access to one method of play which is far better than the rest, and, because of every player’s desire to win, the meta has been exploited to exhaustion. FIFA 19, however, adds some genuine nuance to play, resulting in a more varied meta that didn’t feel as cheap and abusable as it sometimes does.
This nuance is added to by a renewed focus on tactics themselves, with in-menu options giving you a lot more options to play with than ever before. The high-press, seven second press and gegenpress have all been integrated, with options to sit deep and counter available as well. The effects of these are really noticeable in game, and allows you to develop your own style and make on-the-fly adjustments in a way you never really could before. It’s certainly no Football Manager–level depth, but it’s a step in the right direction for a game that has ignored the cerebral side of football for too long.
Playing FIFA is still sometimes a frustrating experience. The gameplay, whilst mainly crisp and responsive, can feel very sluggish – especially with Ultimate Team’s enhanced speed – when the ball gets into crowded areas, and the ball does seem to ricochet backs off defenders shins in the attacker’s favour a little too often.
Elsewhere, the Ultimate Team and kick off modes have received some long overdue attention. Kick off, in particular, has a plethora of new options. Kick off will now track the record of your profile against particular opponents, making every so-called friendly feel like part of an extended battle for pride. Also new are a variety of mutator setting, such as “no rules”, in which there are no rules, the self-explanatory “headers and volleys” mode, and a mode in which every goal you or your opponent score sets you back a player.
Unfortunately, these modes seem to come without much adjustment to the match engine, meaning they’re not quite as fun as they sound. No rules mode, in particular, was very underwhelming: a small attacking adjustment was all it took to make free-fire fouling avoidable, and you can only break the rules so far; you cannot, for example, rough the keeper, and throw-ins, corners and kick-offs still happen as they would in a standard game. Consequently, the novelty of this mode and others wore off quite quickly.
Ultimate Team is the other mode which has seen major changes, replacing the old divisions system with a more in-depth ranking system that assigns you a skill rating (I’m not sure how high they go but my mediocre qualifiers left me just over 1000), and pits you against players in the same division based on that skill rating. If you improve your ranking enough, which I failed pitifully to do, you can go up, whilst presumably enough defeats will see you plummet. The end of each week also gives you far more rewards than the end of a season on FIFA 18, although it does make you wait longer. It’s a positive move from EA which balances reward and challenge online constantly, and rewards – even for sheer perseverance – can be huge.
It almost counter-balances Ultimate Team’s persistent tugging on one’s purse strings, although unfortunately the modes predatory instincts are very much alive and well. As has been the case since its inception, there’s an awful lot of tedious resource management for those unwilling to spend at least a couple of quid, and every fast-diminishing resource, be it contracts, fitness or injury, seem to be conspiring to drive you off the pitch and into the open arms of EA’s exorbitantly priced online store.
The journey is another familiar face returning to FIFA. This year, you play as Kim Hunter and Danny Williams (a man who insists on referring to himself in third person as ‘The Williams’) and the returning Alex Hunter. The journey is a pretty sordid affair this time around. The timeline really starts to get a little messy, and EA Sports’ lack of experience in narrative and role-playing games really shows as the two elements clash uncomfortably. This, in addition to some truly awful dialogue and some questionable voice acting, meant The Journey lived up to its name as a long, boring experience, which was not helped by being interspersed with playing FIFA’s notoriously dull AI.
EA must have known that I’d be getting close to my word count by now, and mercifully (for me and the sub-editors), there’s precious little to say about career mode and pro clubs. EA probably know which side their bread is buttered, and have spent minimal effort on these features. There’s really not all that much to say here: some pre-existing bugs have been ironed out, but the main additions are minor and/or cosmetic.
FIFA’s shiny new license is the first thing you’ll notice when you boot up the game. Yes, EA have bagged The Champions League, and oh how they love you to know it. In all seriousness, though, it’s a marquee coup, and adds a little majesty to some of the game’s already operatic atmosphere. Two big steps forward there, but one back for losing Brazil and Croatia in a legal dispute.
Two steps forward, one step back, indeed, is probably a good note on which to leave this review. FIFA has plenty to offer this year, but I can’t help but feel that some new features could have been polished more to make them slightly more compelling. The more conspiratorial, cynical side of me has always felt that each time EA add something new to FIFA, they make sure to leave it with a couple of years of scope to improve, meaning that we never quite get the finished article. Nonetheless, this is an iteration that does enough on the pitch where it really matters and with its major game-modes to out-do its marginally older brother.