It’s often tough to review annual sports franchises. A roster update here a fresh lick of paint there all add up to an incremental improvement that makes it hard to recommend to all but the staunchest of supporters. But not with FIFA 19. Some slight stagnation be damned, this is one of the most transformative entries into EA’s soccer sim in nearly a decade.
When you go to boot up FIFA 19 for the time, you’ll likely be shocked. Physical battles in the middle of the park actually feel physical, balls bobble about, and shots are shanked rather than hit with picture-perfect accuracy. It feels like a different game entirely thanks to two key new features in Timed Finishing and the new Active Touch system. Far be it from me to unabashedly gush over these features but, after playing with them, it’s nigh-on impossible to go back to any other soccer game, FIFA or otherwise after getting to grips with them.
Shooting now takes a combination of precise movement, player positioning and, yes, timing to ensure you’ll be hitting the back of the net. Players are no longer tied to seemingly pre-determined goals from certain angles or mindful of no-go areas for attackers. Within my first few games, I had cracked in a rasping volley from 25 yards that not only looked great, but would’ve been practically impossible to pull off last year. This is how sports games should improve; a quiet evolution rather than sweeping revolution.
But it’s not a quick fix and instantly-gratifying mechanic, and it’s not a dazzling feature that’ll grab headlines or appear on the back of boxes. What it is, however, is something you’re going to need to sit down, play, and fail and fail again with over the course of a few hours to really appreciate its brilliance.
FIFA 19 Review: Keep Active
The new Active Touch system, too, while not as revelatory as Timed Finishing, brings with it a certain amount of panache to the gameplay. Less-technically sound players will struggle whereas finally the likes of Lionel Messi can really shine thanks to a considerable catalog of shimmies, feints, fakes, and anything else you wish to pull out of your locker with a flick of the right stick. With it comes an almost playful FIFA Street-esque quality to proceedings, one where you’re encouraged to take on and humiliate a player rather than outright rely on passive ping pong-style passes as was the case in previous years.
Of course, I can’t talk about FIFA 19 without its big marquee signing. Stolen from under the noses of PES 2019, the Champions League and Europa League licenses are back in the series for the first time since 2007. Unfortunately, it’s rarely afforded the pomp and circumstance given to it by Konami, though it being a late-in-the-day inclusion (the license was snapped up in June) means you can ignore some of its shortcomings. New commentary, provided by Derek Rae and Lee Dixon, often doesn’t stray from safe territory, but it’s a good framework to work on for next season and, all in all, it’s great to see all of the major world soccer licenses back under one banner.
But as EA giveth, EA taketh away. That’s right: this year we say goodbye to Alex Hunter and company as Journey 3: The Champions gives us a solid, if unspectacular ride off into the sunset. Compared to Longshot, its Madden equivalent, the Journey threequel rarely hits the narrative highs of the NFL rags-to-riches story, but the addition this year of Alex’s Premier League pal Danny Williams and, crucially, a fuller, more complete role for his half-sister Kim means the 15 or so hours are fast-paced enough and the gameplay scenarios never tend to get too tiresome to trudge through.
Plus, without hyperbole (or spoilers), the opening minutes of FIFA 19’s Journey has one of the most fantastic cameos I’ve ever witnessed, in a sports game or otherwise. Kudos to EA for getting the mechanics of that worked out and, if you do know what I’m talking about, try not to spoil it for others.
FIFA 19 Review: Survive (If I Let You)
EA has also given the spotlight back to a concept sorely missing from many a multiplayer game: couch co-op. There’s everything from Survival Mode, where a team must lose a player if they score a goal, to No Rules (self-explanatory), and Headers and Volleys in the new offline Kick Off collection. You can even tweak the rules and starting scores on a whim to spice things up.
It’ll allow many a group of friends to hearken back to the good ol’ days of playing FIFA, kicking back with a few beers and a pizza. EA should be applauded for catering to such a minute, nostalgic-fueled audience. If only the same could be said for other aspects of the game.
That’s right. It’s not all perfect. Career Mode is still the same as it ever was. Sure, there’s the introduction of the Champions League to add an extra dimension to a season, but there’s still no co-op option (a feature that Madden has had for years now), no real risks or rewards when it comes to managing like you get in the Football Manager series, and it’s even rivaling PES in the stale stakes.
Of course, there’s also the banal player interactions every single week until the inevitable heat death of the universe or the mode reaches its 30-season limit, whichever comes sooner. It’s just not good enough. That, when coupled with the lack of changes to the ever-popular Pro Clubs mode will really pain some players, especially when the microtransaction-heavy Ultimate Team gets lavished with all the attention every single week for 50-plus weeks after release.
It’s reached a point where it’s almost inexcusable, and provides more fodder for the naysayers who brush sports titles off as a pointless purchase year-after-year. No matter how great the new core gameplay is, EA must do better next year when it comes to these two cornerstones, lest part of their base audience bolts for good.
FIFA 19 Review: Live for the Weekend (League)
Speaking of Ultimate Team, it’s still churning out the tried-and-tested (and wildly addictive) formula that hasn’t failed it up until now. It does, however, come with a brand-new addition in the shape of Division Rivals. Division Rivals fuses the traditional Ultimate Team seasons and the Weekend League into one.
This means you never have to outright commit to 40 games across a single weekend, nor are you going to be matched with players wildly above or below your skill level. It’s a smartly tweaked system and one that, again, preaches evolution rather than revolution, which makes it a darned shame that EA Vancouver is so intent on making Career Mode and Pro Clubs stand on its haunches.
But, for the majority of players—those who aren’t going to put all their stock in Career Mode and Pro Clubs—this is going to be an engaging experience. I’m at the point where I can’t wait for others to play the game, as this is going to bring about the watercooler and playground talk that’s been missing from the series because it is just so different. The highs and lows of football are all here, and EA has pulled out (most of) the stops to provide a unique, utterly gleeful soccer game that leaves room for improvement but also serves as a new career best for the FIFA series.
FIFA 19 was reviewed on PS4 via a digital code provided by the publisher.