It’s always the same story with FIFA. Almost without fail, each year’s release is preceded by talk of a wonderful new animation system aiming to make the football look even more realistic, new AI designed to rebalance the attacking and/or defensive play, and features like FUT or a story mode have been added – in this case it’s the Europa and Champions League licenses. Tiki follows taka, follows tiki, follows taka.
I’m here to tell you that, actually, this time the gameplay changes really do make a big, tangible difference. Dramatically more flexible Active Touch, more in depth Dynamic Tactics, crunching 50/50 Battles, devilishly tricky Timed Finishing, they all add up to something that feels like a major step forward in the game’s footballing simulation.
But first the Champions League. After UEFA announced a parting of ways from long term licensee Pro Evolution Soccer earlier this year, it was practically inevitable that the Champions League would be the final jewel in the Thanos-esque gauntlet of league and competition licenses that EA have acquired. Alongside the Europa League, it’s being seeded into practically every corner of the game, from the story and career to FUT and beyond, bringing with it all the up to date branding and look and feel of the competition’s presentation.
There’s naturally the standalone competitions which you can play, either taking the authentic teams or adding your favourite team into the mix, and then picking as many of them to be player controlled as you like – you can even do this with multiple players, if you want, and there’s multiple saves to let you have concurrent competitions with different groups of friends.
The menus will still have the same style as have been seen in the last decade of FIFA, albeit more dynamic with embedded video in some places, but what won’t be familiar though is the commentary. While Martin Tyler and Alan Smith are still on hand to provide most of the benign commentary in the game, for the Champions League BT Sports’ Derek Rae and former Arsenal man Lee Dixon add a different flavour to proceedings.
But none of that will really impact the moment-to-moment gameplay. Here it’s the subtle sounding, but surprisingly impactful changes mentioned above. The real standout here is the Active Touch system. Animations have been blended together in even more dynamic ways and player AI adapted so that they’re stretch and contort themselves in different ways to touch the ball. You can get away with more awkward passes, the player might make a diving header in the middle of the pitch to try and get that critical through ball, players will stretch to make a cross or shot.
For the higher end players there’s plenty of new tricks to learn. You can manually trap the ball, disguise your first touch, flick the ball up into the air, or even pull off audacious moves drawn from social media, like flicking the ball down into the ground to bounce it over an opponent.
That wouldn’t matter so much without the 50/50 battles, which tweak the AI to simply go for it in loose ball situations where they would otherwise have backed out. It might end up with a few more fouls, you might win the ball or you might simply ping it to the other team, but the most important visual and subconscious thing is that you know your players will now go for it. It’s another item on the checklist of little annoyances that FIFA 19 is addressing.
The system that’s most likely to catch players out is timed finishing. All of the existing shooting systems remain in place, where you can hold to add more power, but now you can add risk and reward into the mix, tapping a second time just as the ball is hitting your player’s foot or head to add accuracy and power. It applies to all kinds of shots, from headers to crosses and even dribbles, but the timing necessary for each is different, because it depends on when they make contact with the ball. Get the timing wrong and you’ll sky that volley, but get it just right and the keeper will have to pull out something special to make the save – thankfully it’s not a guaranteed goal, but rather something that increases your chances and pushes your shot to the margins.
On a more fundamental level, the overhauled dynamic tactics system will really let you go all in and tweak the positioning, of players and their attitudes. You can rig it to automatically switch from 3 at the back to 5 when going extra defensive, and map this to the D-pad tactics, and an interesting new ‘pressure on heavy touch’ option allows you to conserve your team’s stamina by only pressing up when the other team drop back from the attack, trying to push them into a costly mistake and open up the counter.
Alongside a few additions and changes to the game that I can’t yet talk about, this was easily most engaging and fun FIFA preview event I’ve been to. The new UEFA licenses are pretty much what you’d want and expect from the game, but when you get onto the pitch the various new systems make for a simultaneously more forgiving and deeper game, one that’s more dynamic and more convincing as a game of football.