Deep in the lockdown times, there was no football. Time, in the way that many of us count it, had stopped. Listless, I bought FIFA 20 to finish the season. When I scored, and the camera shook as it does at Anfield, I actually cried with the joy of it. That was a weird time, obviously, but this is the power that FIFA has at its disposal. If you love football, in whatever hue or flavour, FIFA 22 should be part of your life.
FIFA 22 recreates everything special about a beloved and complex pastime, as well as its greed and superficiality. The game succeeds and fails in the same way the sport does, and nothing encapsulates this like FIFA Ultimate Team. If bypassing the existing league structure like a desperate Spanish Club president and assembling your very own Galácticos is your dream, then FUT delivers: for a price.
Create a team of GOATs by hook—a slow grind—or by crook—real world money that may or may not give you the best players—and then challenge the world, making your chosen stadium look more and more like a neon thunderdome. There are returning greats, seasons, XP, achievements and a new Elite Division for the very best. Every kind of inducement is there. And it's entertaining, but you soon notice that the progress and actual advancement is glacial.
Furthermore, I think it's naïve to think that FUT doesn't come with a cost. It's a loot box economy, and there's a growing body of research that states that there's a verifiable link between loot boxes and problem gambling. That governments are circling on this issue isn't especially notable, as when it comes to videogames there isn't a moral panic they won't exploit. And FUT is not the only loot box game in town, although it is clearly the biggest and most profitable. It's FIFA's reach—with 31 million FIFA 21 players and an age rating of three and up—that makes any deleterious effect significant.
You may love FUT. You may never have spent any extra money—78% of FIFA players don't, and 80% of FIFA players play FUT—but someone is paying your share of EA's $1.62 billion 2020-2021 Ultimate Team income, and if the research data is accurate, it's 5% of those who do who are responsible for 50% of all FUT revenue. If any of those people are paying more than they can afford, that's too many people for me.
Even if I had the patience for the grind, I can't enjoy a "free" service that is bankrolled by a minority who may be vulnerable to the mechanics and presently lack the protections that come with gambling legislation—for example, age limits and advertising regulation in the UK. So, as it functions, I can't recommend FUT. Don't play it.
The score below reflects this, but fortunately FIFA 22 without FUT is vast and largely scrumptious. There's more to Volta, the tricksy street football option with a new bearable story mode and some new hilarious and chaotic party games at the weekend. There's Pro Clubs to play co-op with up to 11 friends. There are the Kick-off quick games, House Rules mode, skill games, dozens of tournaments to replicate and internationals to play. Something, in fact, for everyone, even those for whom the packaging smacks of the defunct European Super League. I'm forty-five hours in and I've barely scratched the surface.
We aren't getting the HyperMotion tech that's appearing on next-gen consoles, and I bristle in principle that it isn't also available for top-spec PC systems—although I didn't notice at first. FIFA games look and feel amazing to play—straddling the space between TV viewer and participant, like you're there doing it, but talented—even if the graphics settings are sparse and on Ultra it can sometimes seem a little fuzzy round the edges.
In this case I was too preoccupied by the slower, and therefore more realistic, pace of the game, to be looking for improved fluidity of movement. It's like running in treacle at first, but you'll adjust, and the goalkeepers are evidently better, at least until the next update and rethink. Once that wore off, it was evident that this was, again, the same game wearing new shirts, with very few tangible tweaks. This is bearable, as it's still way better than Konami's PES successor, eFootball, which I found to be a jerky mess. FIFA 22's flaws, although numerous, remain trifling.
Then there are the two career modes which are finally getting some love after a few years of being largely ignored. The poor relation, Player Career Mode, is getting a welcome upgrade to its systems. Take a youth with potential and play out his career—it's still restricted to the men's game—or give them your face and start them out at your hometown club, using their prodigious skill to make them world-beaters. There's still no story mode, like The Journey, but it's all the better for the narrative being player-created and largely in your own head. There are now skill points and perks, plus a skill tree to develop your player to match your playstyle. You earn XP by fulfilling giant floating objectives, making the whole process less nebulous than it has been.
The new dressing room animations should be horrible, but watching your teenager sat quietly, cradling a man-of-the-match trophy, acknowledging others with a shy nod, is quite beautiful. It may not be so after the hundredth viewing, but it's where you see the stats and understand why you're getting dropped. You'll get a chance at redemption from the bench, as substitutions onto the pitch finally come to the game, along with a functioning and fair transfer system.
You can also create your own club with its own kit, stadium, chants and flags, like the co-op Pro Clubs mode, but it's a painfully walled garden, limited to some garish but unimaginative options. It's difficult to get excited by this cookie-cutter approach. You can't make Richmond FC. I've tried.
Manager Career Mode has likewise received some new bells and whistles, with mixed results. The new negotiation animations make me cringe a bit, but the press conferences that play out like a Telltale adventure work better. It still isn't Football Manager, and nor should it be, but its depth is sufficient to be an enjoyable challenge. However, after your preparations, you still play the game, with no option to just watch. Your skill, or lack thereof, negates all the work you've done. There is a top-down sim, but it's hard to see the patterns develop at speed and simmed games are invariably lost. FIFA can happily play itself, so the insistence on your participation is weird.
The question as to whether this iteration demands your purchase is almost moot. If you've played any FIFA recently, you'll recognise that this is the same game, yet, you'll want those quality-of-life improvements and tiny incremental updates, the new kits and squads. There is no competition if you want to maintain that illusion of reality, as eFootball has a patchy set of club licences, promising much but thus far delivering little. If you're in thrall to FUT you'll want to have the shiniest, newest things and biggest player base. I could name a hundred ways it could be improved. I'd argue we deserve more, and the price feels steep for what sometimes appears to me like generous DLC to a game I own, or a subscription that requires I start from scratch each time. But these are the ways I rationalise it to myself. I am not prepared for the boat to leave without me.
If you're a newbie, and a football fan, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend getting aboard. It's gentle on the easiest difficulty and if you can put off potential maulings on multiplayer until you're ready, the challenge can be raised in bruising yet satisfying steps. Ignore the hoopla and flaws and you can weave a vibrant story of success, survival or failure, because that's what football really is. There is nothing like chipping one in at the near post and wheeling away to the fans behind the goal, like that amazing 7-a-side game you had once, but over and over, brightening decades of real-world humiliation with a trophy, that you, by yourself, have earned, in front of millions.