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Wot I Think: FIFA 19

Not Messi

For a series that’s been running for over 20 years, it’s no minor statement to say that the latest iteration has brought back the fun. You already know how enormous the series is, you are likely aware of how much it’s become “Sky Sports Presents FIFA” over the years, and you certainly know how much of a heaving beast it is in terms of #content. But what you won’t know yet is just how phenomenal FIFA 19 is, and that’s why you’re reading this review. Thank you.

I want to start in what might be considered a strange place, though, and that’s Kick Off mode. In a similar way to how PES has reintroduced Random Selection Mode (you pick variables and duke it out on the pitch with dream teams), FIFA is embracing how much fun football should be. Short of implementing some kind of proper grass roots program that actually puts the frankly absurd dramas of youth football in the game, where parents shout at everyone that their son is the new Messi, it’s hard to see how much more they more they could put in here.

Newly added House Rules is the star, here. The ability to play custom matches that are based on headers & volleys (for example) is a bloody good laugh. How about goals scored from outside the box counting as two? There’s a mode for that. What about a custom game that sees a goal being punished by the scoring team having a player forcibly ejected from the field. Take that, mate, you’re just too good: get off the field you handsome, meticulously-groomed bastard.

This embracing of the ludicrous is a bit of a masterstroke, and is hammered home with a “no rules” mode. Turning off free-kicks and all fouls is hilarious and becomes a battle for who can best evade career ending tackles. It shouldn’t be so much fun - gleefully sliding all over the pitch trying to hurt your opposition, or deliberately goal-hanging because there’s no offside - but by Christ it’s exceptional.

That aside, what’s important is that the football is better than ever. Passing is crisp, players feel like their real world counterparts, goalkeepers are as brilliant as they should (or shouldn’t) be, and generally it feels like a combination of both simulation and arcade, which is what the very best football games feel like. But that’s not to say there aren’t missteps that need addressing.

For starters, the set pieces are (mostly) awful. Whether it’s a penalty or a free-kick, there’s never a feeling of total control over the ball. Worse still, the dodgy corner system implemented a few years ago is still here, and I really do not understand why EA are persisting with it. It’s as though Andrew Wilson came up with it and they’re too scared to admit he was wrong.

Career Mode needs attention. It’s still entertaining, but a UI upgrade doesn’t quite make up for not changing things up. The daft transfer saga cutscenes (that clearly came about thanks to The Journey) return, remain unvoiced, and look bad. It’s the only real blot on an otherwise flawless visual execution - if you forget the fact the crowds still look rough, of course.

The shooting could still be better, too. It’s not bad, but the new system, which has changed up the how long you need to press the ball command for, is hit and miss. I won’t regurgitate the PR here, but it’s essentially a second button press after you’ve powered the shot up. It takes time to get used to - and football games are notorious for showing their faults over a very long period - but it’s hard to deny that the ball never feels like you’ve wellied it. (For those uninitiated, giving it some welly is a technical term for absolutely smashing it, seriously belting it one, kicking the ball very hard at the goal, or fucking having it, lads.)

Penalties are the worst offender, and while you wouldn’t expect to see one every game, the physical nature of FIFA 19 means you will have penalties that are given in the modern game that you wouldn’t see in the past. It’s impressive, though, how good the animation is. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably into football, so you’ll know going in that your defender won’t be able to out-muscle someone like Lukaku, and you’ll just get rid of the ball if you can get there first. Likewise, a tall striker will win headers and you’ll use that to your advantage. FIFA 19 makes you play football in a way that’s actually based on the type of player you’re using, and that’s incredible.

This year’s game just feels good, but it does veer towards the Premier League style of football. It’s not so easy in the modern game to make a run down the wing and knock it into the box for the big man, and the more intricate, fast-paced passing game that rewards build-up play around the box has never been a better option than this year. Through balls and monstrously fast passing will invite rage online, because defending is more about timing, strength, and reading the ball - FIFA has evolved along with the sport itself. Defending is a more technical art, and there’s an emphasis on attacking play, though defending itself is slightly easier than in last year’s FIFA 18. Ramping up the difficulty will improve AI passing accuracy and punish you accordingly: don’t lose the ball, and move it quickly.

Ultimate Team has had some minor additions, as you’d expect. There are now odds on display, but not prominently so. A button press will bring them up, but all they offer is percentages showing the likelihood of getting a certain type of card. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but these odds certainly show why EA were hesitant to offer them up, because spending money on FIFA points to buy packs with a tiny chance of getting anywhere close to the best players… well, those aren’t good odds.

There’s another concession in that you can swap some Bronze Players for Gold Players in an early Squad Building Challenge, though it’s not repeatable. Most of the other updates are cosmetic, with some easier to navigate UI changes, but nothing about FUT this year will make you love it if you already despise it. Those addicted will find the changes just enough to keep going for another season, especially with Squad Battles continuing to offer a single player FUT option that can, if you’re good enough, reward you handsomely with packs and gold.

Alex Hunter’s “The Journey” (™, probably) returns, this time with three playable characters. While it’s bizarre to be saying that about a football game, you’ve got to commend EA for continuing to make a story that’s engaging enough to pull you through. Most of it is down to the voice acting, which remains excellent throughout, and throwing in some surprises that are genuinely nice moments, but won’t be spoiled here. It’s worth seeing the story through if you’re into Ultimate Team, too, as you get rewards for that mode.

The multi-character arc works, but only just. It feels like it was designed to drag out Hunter’s journey, but it’s nice to play as his best mate or sister, who are both actually more likeable than Alex himself because they’re less in the limelight. There’re still plenty of menial training tasks and objectives to complete in among the Mass Effect-inspired dialogue choices, and there’s still a focus on social media followers, fashion, and earnings (but that’s football, I guess), and the story is still as engaging as the previous entries.

There’s sometimes a feeling that EA is swinging its massive bollocks around. Upon first booting the game you’re met with a match that showcases the Champions League license and it feels like a punch in the nose to Konami. It’s the publisher going “look what we’ve got”, but it’s hard to be angry about it as the atmosphere throughout FIFA 19 is exactly what you’d expect from a game with a huge budget. It’s a bitter pill to swallow knowing that EA is out there clearly throwing cash at brands to secure exclusives, but it’s even harder when they’ve done it well, and make a more enjoyable final product.

Heaving with all that content, and impressing on the pitch where it counts, this is the best FIFA has been in years. I won’t deny I’m more than a little in love with it. The highest praise I can give is that I wasn’t expecting to say that this year. Well played.

This review doesn't include full testing of online play 'cos the PC leaderboards were empty at the time of reviewing

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