NEED TO KNOW
What is it? The latest in EA’s long-running licensed soccer sim series.
Expect to pay £55, Steam
Developer EA Vancouver
Publisher EA Sports
Reviewed on i5 6500, RTX 2080 TI, 16GB RAM
Multiplayer? Up to 22 players
Link Official site
Imagine having lived a life in which you’ve only ever seen football played through the prism of FIFA, then happening to catch Match of the Day on telly one fateful Saturday night. What is this, you’d ask yourself, trembling and wide-eyed. Goals scored from situations besides counterattacks? Successful long balls? Players pressing in the opposition half? It’d be like eavesdropping on a broadcast from some mad alien world. And it would really suck the fun out of your next game of FIFA.
The problem isn’t that FIFA 20, like so many of its predecessors, doesn’t play very much like a real game of football. That’s a necessary evil of cramming 90 minutes of the real game into a digestible 10 minutes you can control with a gamepad. The problem is that FIFA 20’s quasi-football simply isn’t very enjoyable.
EA Vancouver certainly couldn’t be accused of rolling out the same product year-on-year, however. There are substantial new chunks of content in this year’s game, Volta football being the headline act on a bill including new House Rules for FUT and friendly matches, revamped set-pieces and a defending overhaul. And once again it’s all bundled into one of the slickest presentation packages in the medium, visually and audibly almost like-for-like with a Sky Sports broadcast on the pitch, and dripping with satisfying detail in every menu screen. You only need to open a FUT pack and witness the subsequent jamboree of fireworks and on-pitch ceremony to appreciate how finely crafted the FIFA 20 ecosystem is.
Of the new class, Volta asserts itself as the star. With Alex Hunter’s Journey now at its conclusion, it picks up the narrative duties with a tale about a young streetball player called Revy with a dream, numerous bickering team-mates, and a wholly unsurprising series of setbacks and triumphs to navigate on the way to establishing his or herself as the best bloody Volta player in the world.
You can play the kind of meat-and-potatoes pass and shoot football that’d have Sean Dyche nodding stoically here if you wish, but really these 3v3, 4v4 and 5v5 games are about skill and self-expression: hold down both triggers on a pad and your player will auto-skill their way around like a 17-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, all dropped shoulders and cocky sidesteps. Any right analog stick moves you’ve committed to muscle memory are deeply handy here, and in smaller pitches with fewer players the shot direction control’s fully manual, so you can take real pride in the (rare) ones that go in. The story won’t keep anyone up at night with its twists, nor convince anyone that this is how human beings talk to each other, but it’s a means to an end, and that end is a gratifyingly different flavour of football.
Back in the realm of 11-a-side football though, the flicks and cheeky foot-rolls are shoulder-barged out of the way, and an over-familiar style of football resumes play for another year. The quality of animation remains impressive, whether it’s in ugly squabbles or audacious overhead kicks. But this year more than any previously, FIFA’s players feel tangibly locked to 8-way movement grids, not least because old adversary eFootball PES 2020 does such a great job of freeing its athletes from them by comparison.
That rigidity means it’s a very prescribed style of football that prevails; death by counterattack, a perpetual drill of slotting a through ball to the lad with the highest pace stat and finesse-shotting the subsequent one-on-one. Defenders are now much less automated when you’re in control of them and the standing tackle has a rangier strong tackle variant when you hold it, so in this sense FIFA 20 presents new scoring opportunities. But running through on goal because your online opponent ballsed up the special combination of jockeying, tracking, sprinting and tackling needed to press players now doesn’t make you feel very much like Killian Mbappe.
And that’s all the more frustrating because in so many ways, FIFA 20 is engaging. It holds your attention, invites you to imagine being in possession of a full squad of black FUT cards, and gets you plotting your journey from here to there in microscopic detail thanks to new Season Objectives. It rewards your grind with various currencies, trinkets, customisation options and doodads, and makes you feel like you’re part of an online footballing microcosm. In that regard, it’s decades ahead of PES and its comparatively low-rent MyClub.
But you’re kidding yourself. Because however invested you become, however much enjoyment you take from competency and victory, however many times you watch that replay back of the Volta goal you scored by flicking it backwards over a defender, losing another with an elastico and backheeling it into the net (at least double figures now), FIFA 20’s biggest failing is in producing an enjoyable football match.