NEED TO KNOW
What is it? The latest in EA's annual football sim.
Expect to pay: $60 £55
Developer: EA Sports
Reviewed on: GeForce GTX 1070, 16GB RAM, i5 6500
Multiplayer: Local and online
Link: FIFA 19 official site
It’s often said that football’s a game of cliches. Commentators and pundits are only too happy to lean on a lexicon of well-worn expressions to describe the game, and after two decades of fierce rivalry between FIFA and its perpetual adversary Pro Evolution Soccer, there’s a glossary of cliches just for their relationship. They all ring absolutely true of each series’ latest installments, too: PES is once again superior on the pitch but remains twenty years behind in presentation, while FIFA’s wealth of official licenses and modes will make for a superior overall package.
Those high production values are especially apparent in FIFA 19's story mode, The Journey. This is the concluding chapter of Alex Hunter’s earnest and enjoyable rags-to-riches tale, told once again via a mixture of cutscenes and on-pitch action. This time Alex, his sister Kim, and childhood friend Danny Williams all have deep career paths that can be cycled at will, shedding the previous structure in which Kim’s big break for the US women’s national team was an aside in Alex’s story, for example. The new structure works well, depicting the sport in a broader focus than before, across domestic and international fixtures, and the mens’ and womens’ competitions. I was surprised by how invested I’d become in Danny Williams’ plot arc after all this time. Once he was the comic relief, but now seeing him given a run of first team Premier League football I was genuinely proud for the lad. Naturally I expressed that pride by covering him in the tattoos I’d just unlocked by reaching a certain fame level, and giving him a man-bun.
It’s easy to be sniffy about a story this laden with cheese and predictable twists, but the fact is they’re a function of The Journey’s narrative constraints. It’s a story about a footballer becoming a superstar—would it serve its purpose any better if the script was Sopranos-grade literary brilliance? Having thoroughly enjoyed all three story modes across three FIFA titles, I’d argue not. However you feel about the ongoing Hunter family soap opera, The Journey’s passion for the sport’s every facet is infectious, even if its marketing partnerships with Adidas and Cristiano Ronaldo are a bit heavy handed.
The on-pitch improvements aren’t always easy to spot, but they’re there. Jostling for the ball now feels less like two players locked into a canned animation with a predetermined outcome, and more like a physical simulation of two solid bodies—that’s not to say it’s easier to muscle past defenders en route to goal across the board, but it does mean the strength and speed player stats carry much more meaning in FIFA 19. And that cover star Cristiano Ronaldo feels more like the real, timber-necked Ballon D’Or magnet when you’re controlling him, pushing his way through defensive lines and recovering after being knocked off-balance with an impressive array of context-specific animations. It might not be the stuff of saved replays to see your striker half-stumble into a goalscoring position before the finish, but it sells the drama of the game that bit better.
And when it comes to finishing, a new ‘after-touch’ mechanic introduces some added risk/reward. Tapping the shoot button again, after charging the shot and just as your player kicks the ball, adds a small boost to the shot to increase its chances of finding the net. For those speculative, edge-of-the-area volleys it’s an interesting added option, but FIFA’s generally a game of goals from headers, one-on-ones, and ground passes in front of the six yard box—in those circumstances, the risk of shanking it by messing up the after-touch outweighs the reward of an almost certain goal.
Speaking of that: there’s another time-honoured FIFA cliche to call upon here. The one about the game conspiring to add drama to games, like the AI director in Left 4 Dead. It lurks in every match, wearing an Arsene Wenger XXL body warmer and deciding that now, in the 89th minute, is a great time for Mo Salah to hit the post instead of converting an easy chance, or for the referee to award a penalty based on the merest graze between defender and attacker.
Whether there’s ever been an explicit system that implements these game-changing moments independently of the player’s inputs is anyone’s guess, but if there is a shadowy director behind FIFA 19’s matches, that director is less of a Steven Soderbergh and more of a McG. Many’s the match I’ve lost through an egregious penalty or an inexplicable defensive breakdown as my backline’s caught way too high up the pitch despite being instructed to play ultra-defensively. These are longstanding problems, but they are at least accompanied by deus ex machinas of a happier variety in this game. Overhead kicks, screaming finishes and fortunate deflections crop up more in one match of FIFA 19 than an entire season of Huddersfield Town’s league campaign, and while that might not win EA Sports points for accurate simulation, it does provide a popcorn-crunching brand of entertainment.
Forward momentum is slight but certainly present on the pitch, then. In career mode, the infamous FUT, and multiplayer seasons, there’s much less evidence of progress. Just like last year, they’re all polished up to a mirror-shine, and touches like actually meeting transfer targets in your office, complete with BioWare-style dialogue trees, still impress in career mode. Coaxing global superstars into your lair feels like a real coup, especially if you’re managing Bournemouth, and in that sense it’s the kind of touch you actively miss in other sports games.
However thrilled one might be to sit down with Griezmann and his agent, however, there’s just nothing to get particularly excited about if you plunged 100 hours into career last year—over-familiarity is FIFA’s constant enemy, and its longform modes outside of The Journey feel in need of a major refresh.
But what am I talking about? Because FUT has seen a major change this year, hasn’t it? The odds of finding each card type in a pack have now been disclosed, and they're not pretty. The odds of finding an In-form card (those mega-expensive and highly sought after black cards you see YouTubers self-combusting over in pack opening videos) are less than 1%. How much less is open to speculation, but that figure certainly lays the sheer extent of FUT’s grind bare. It’s long been an excellent mode, and a masterstroke of Skinner Box game design. It’s just a shame you have to commit such a vast financial or time-based investment to be truly competitive.
You can’t ignore FIFA 19’s obvious and sizeable qualities. Depending on your threshold for corniness, you could argue it’s worth it for The Journey Alone, and although PES feels like the more organic, spontaneous and subtle game of football, EA Sports’ latest effort isn’t far behind it. However, the significant new features feel a bit thin on the ground this year, and that shouldn’t be ignored.