News of a new FIFA game each year is about as surprising as night following day, your first cup of morning tea going cold or Donald Trump sending a tweet that doesn’t make sense. But what always gets the intrigue flowing is just what’s going to be different this time round, what we can look forward to and what might have been learnt from last time. Some years it’s just a few tweaks on the same formula, some years a whole new game mode is added such as the Journey in recent years, or a new license like this iteration’s Champions League license. But quite often it’s the small things; the little changes and alterations which try to hone the action on the pitch to a fine art, matching the polished interface with a perfect game of football.
Because let’s face it, Pro Evo has been the better on-pitch game for a couple of years. FIFA fans would point to the lack of licensing in Konami’s effort, and snigger under their breath at the dated interface and awkward team management, and they’d be right. FIFA looks phenomenal, with each new version adding a tiny bit of new sparkle while maintaining the familiar and surprisingly slow-dating menu system. But when it comes to the actual gameplay you can’t argue against PES, and that remains the case this year, it just depends on what means the most and how you’re planning on playing. Personally, I can easily make a case for owning both, but that’s maybe an article for another time.
What’s clear though is despite loving how PES plays, it’s always FIFA I end up coming back to in the long term. It’s hard to understand exactly why, but I think after the same confusion for several years now I’m starting to figure it out – it’s what I do when I’m playing it. In PES I’ll fire it up, have a few games and then switch off. On FIFA I’ll have a few games of Online Seasons, progress a little in the new chapter of The Journey, then dip into Ultimate Team to lose a couple of online games and muck about with my squads a bit. It’s an experience in itself, and that’s thanks to how easy everything is to find, to navigate through, and to use. It’s a more enjoyable piece of software, and while the actual “game” element might still be slightly behind as an overall package there’s just no contest.
So long-delayed revelations aside, there’s actual new stuff to take in. There are a few new things on the pitch such as improved controlled when collecting the ball, and a more random outcome from 50/50 challenges. The ball seems to ping round a lot more than it did, with passes clipping players more and ending up skewing across the pitch. It’s probably a nudge towards realism, but gets a bit annoying at times. There’s a better flow to the game though, with AI players seemingly more willing to make runs and try and get into good positions in the box. The keepers don’t seem to be as thick as before either, but I might just be imagining that one. The biggest and most obvious update is the European tournaments now being here, complete with its own commentary pairing, and it’s that mode which takes the focus of the opening moment when you first fire up the game.
This year though I’ve also been more into the Ultimate Team mode. I haven’t given this much time in the past couple of games, but it’s certainly far easier to use now than it was before. Changes are easy and straight forward, recommended consumables and auto-picked squads make managing everything a doddle, and there are loads of little objectives you can complete without having to get too engrossed in the longer term challenges. Offline leagues are nice, as are the squad challenges which pit your skills against squads picked by famous people or those from other players. Venture online and you’ll be dropped in against some incredibly good players – my record is currently 1 win to 14 losses – and it’s hard to motivate yourself to keep trying when you come up against a team that has clearly cost a lot of real money to put together. For me the offline modes scratch the itch, but there’s a big challenge awaiting someone who wants to be brave.
Offline modes are well catered for too, with some nice modes to mix up a standard game. Want two goals awarded for a 30-year screamer? Sure thing. Want to try out having a random player removed from your team every time you score? Why not indeed. It’s a really good laugh for a while, and while it won’t do much to keep you there long term it’s great to mix things up a little. There also the staple combination of management and player options, including mammoth careers that span multiple seasons and will keep you going until FIFA 20 alone without needing anything else. The only other thing to note is the 3rd (and maybe final) entry in the Journey’s series, which tells another story of trying to make it big while still somehow not actually being overly amazing or interesting. There are a couple of rewards when you get through it, but I started to skip stuff pretty early on just to get through it, which I don’t think was quite the intention.
But as an overall package, FIFA 19 is probably as good as it’s ever been. I still miss the ability to run away from the ref when he’s trying to send you off (my copy of FIFA 95 still sits in the garage to remind of that) but after 24 years without it I should probably let that one go and accept it’s not coming back. It’s impossible to recommend this over PES from a footballing perspective, but from an overall view looking at everything that you get as part of the FIFA experience, this is as good as you’ll get this year. It’s definitely one you’ll keep coming back to.
Reviewed on PS4