Annualized sports games can be tough to review. By definition, most are iterative – adding a new mode here or there or making gameplay tweaks that the hardcore fans appreciate but seem minor or inconsequential from the outside. With FIFA 19, EA Sports have made huge strides in both gameplay and presentation, but have dropped the ball in terms of the overall package.
As a casual observer watching this year’s title, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re seeing FIFA 18 – at this point in the console generation, it seems EA Sports have (understandably) begun to reach the boundaries of football game visuals. That said, FIFA 19 truly is the beautiful game, playable in 4K on the Xbox One X and including improved player likenesses from last year’s game along with new stadia.
Once you lace up your boots, the difference is clear. Where FIFA 18 often reverted to a reliance on pace, FIFA 19 makes smart, functional amendments that make it the best version of virtual football that the series has ever been. One big change is that through-balls now feel less guaranteed to create a goal scoring opportunity – in fact, for the first half a dozen games you’ll find yourself spraying the ball out of play at times as you come to grips with it. Give it time though, and you’ll find re-learning to pass the ball incredibly rewarding, opening up new avenues of attack.
In a big step up from last year’s game, full-backs feel more as they do in real life – they’ll help create chances further up the pitch, but will also be caught out of position if you lose possession there. It’s a big step up from FIFA 18’s more static full-backs.
“Active Touch System” is a very fancy way of saying that players will now receive the ball in smart ways, creating space when close to defenders or taking an extra touch when there is time to do so. On its own, this system can produce some stylish animations but when coupled with the new “50/50 Battles”, football has never been more physical. A slightly misplaced pass can be used to your advantage, receiving it with a touch away from the defender, but their increased tactical awareness can still give them a chance to recover.
One of this year’s headline features is “Timed Finishing”, a system by which shots can be enhanced with a second button press as the player’s boot connects with the ball. Time it right, and you’ll strike the ball sweetly, but get it wrong and the ball can embarrassingly bobble off the pitch. It’s a risk worth taking for some spectacular finishes, but scuffing a shot in and claiming you meant it is almost as fun.
As the first year of having wrestled the Champions League licence from “division-rivals” Pro Evolution Soccer, this year’s iteration of FIFA’s presentation is permeated throughout by the top-tier European competition and the Europa League. With authentic broadcast overlays, the traditional theme song and a new Champions League commentary team, EA are going all in.
The Champions League’s long-awaited presence can be felt in every mode of FIFA 19, none more so than in this year’s culmination of The Journey trilogy. “The Journey: Champions” sees players step into the boots of Alex Hunter, as well as Danny Williams and now, Kim Hunter too. Each story offers its own gravitas, but Kim’s more personal story of balancing academic life and a fledgling playing career is the most believable of the three. All three chapters can be played independently, but all are interwoven into one narrative too. Unfortunately, the mode still feels hamstrung by a lack of meaningful gameplay decisions – there are certain no-win or no-lose scenarios where it’s impossible to forge your own path.
Champions League content can be found in Ultimate Team, FIFA’s most popular mode, in the form of new challenges and Team of the Week cards, while legends of the competition have also been added as Icons. Ultimate Team also adds Division Rivals, which matches players with similarly skilled opposition to compete for weekly rewards, while Squad Battles is still as compulsive as ever for those players that prefer to play offline.
Career Mode gets a disappointingly flat upgrade – while the aforementioned licences are now included, outside of more slickly produced menus there have seen little to no changes made. Player career is still disappointingly limited – there is no possibility of starting a match on the bench, and while new training drills have been added, you aren’t able to change positions throughout your career. This feels disappointing considering that cover athlete Cristiano Ronaldo has moved from slick winger to predatory centre forward in his playing career.
Manager career, however, benefits from the more general tactical update found in FIFA 19 – there are so many more tactical decisions to be made now that it can feel overwhelming. Playing to your team’s strength can make all the difference – if you have a pacy front three, do you play on the counter and stock the midfield with hard-tacking types, or do you dictate the tempo of a match with your engine room of passers, looking to slide the ball through to a pacy forward?
For the first time in decades, Kick Off mode has been entirely redesigned. For years solely for playing against friends offline, Kick Off is now a hotbed for friendly rivalries and more varied competition. It all begins with selecting a profile, which will then track your stats. It can be fun to work out where your opponent puts most of their penalties, using that information to pull off a save and record one more win for your team.
Stat-tracking brings some much needed spice to nights in, but House Rule variations are where the real fun lies. The rule sets on offer are all great new additions – one mode sees games play out normally but long shots from outside the box count for double, while the much talked about “Survival” mode sees a random outfield player ejected from the pitch after their team scores. Perhaps most fun of all is “No Rules”, which is as simple as it sounds – no fouls, bookings or offsides. It can lead to hilarious goal-hanging when your centre-forward is ten yards offside when scoring, or your perfect passing move is stopped by a crunching tackle six yards out and nothing is given.
FIFA’s vice-grip on the sports genre continues – FIFA 19 offers something for everyone. From the redesigned Kick Off mode to the Journey’s conclusion, there is a lot of game here. Legacy issues in career mode leave it short of being all it could be, however, which is inexcusable given how deep and rewarding games such as the NBA 2K series have made their career modes. That said, this is as good as FIFA has ever been.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.