The glitz and glamour of the Champions League has come to FIFA, and EA have done everything in their power to make sure you know. The opening match the very first time you play the game features Juventus (because Ronaldo’s the cover boy again) against PSG (because… Neymar?) in the final, replete with unskippable match intro unless you want to quit the match entirely. Whatever you decide – I stuck it out so Ol’ Ronny could make it 3-2 in extra time to win – you’ll see the tournament sprinkled everywhere through the game. It’s in career, it’s on the main menu, it will filter through to Ultimate Team’s weekly player picks, and it’s at the heart of the story in The Journey.
This year’s footballing action is generally an evolution over FIFA 18, but that’s almost always the way with a yearly sports series. The biggest difference comes from the new Active Touch system, which adds more flexibility to how player AI will try to make contact with the ball. It’s at its most noticeable when you see an acrobatic scissor kicks in the middle of the pitch in response to your button presses demanding that they try and smash it through to a winger, but it’s there in many more subtle instances as well and helps makes the game just feel that little more natural and fluid.
You also have a more physical feel when fighting for the ball, as players go for those 50/50 battle much more often, putting themselves on the line to win the ball even when likely to lose, while the right stick gives you more freedom and options with flicks and traps – honestly, I’m an old fashioned pass and move kind of guy, often to my detriment.
When through on goal, you can also try for a new risk-reward Timed Finishing system, adding an extra layer of precise timing that just improves your accuracy and power by a fraction. It’s really a high end technique and one that brings far more risk than it offers reliable reward compared to a well timed pass and through ball.
I love a good single player story regardless of the genre, and for those that don’t care for FUT, The Journey has been a great foray into the world of interactive storytelling by EA. this year marks the conclusion of Alex Hunter’s story, his whirlwind first two years as a pro footballer having gone from Premier League to lower league to Major League (Soccer), back to Europe and now to Real Madrid to make use of that shiny new Champions League license and win the biggest yearly prize in football. Meanwhile his friend Danny Williams is chasing the same as a hopeful regular at Hunter’s first club and Alex’s sister Kim Hunter is going for World Cup glory with the US national team. Weirdly, it’s only ‘The Williams’ that really gets to feel like the underdog because of this, though Kim has to put up with clumsy attempts to highlight the way women’s football is often viewed.
The story’s dramatic cutscenes are well produced and give you various points to respond in brash, neutral or cool and collected ways to certain questions and decisions. It’s a shame that a lot of these can feel a bit throwaway and the interwoven story can feel a bit disjointed. As Alex gets a new agent’s team, we don’t see him slip into loving the smell of his own farts, we suddenly get his mum flipping out at how much he’s changed. It doesn’t help that you’re jumping back and forth between characters and points in time, as well as taking on a mixture of dull but mercifully short training mini-games between the full length football matches. All the way, they don’t really sound like footballers, though I do have a soft spot for Danny’s cheeky chappy persona.
Those matches can now be played with a new twist, giving you control of your main character at that point and one or more mentors that can boost your stats if you build an affinity with them. For Kim it’s Alex Morgan, but for Alex it’s half of Real Madrid… half of the team. When playing as the full team, you’re playing a weird game of trying to get your character the crucial through ball, or have them trying to set up the assists, but with the mentor system, you’re weirdly trying to win the game with only half your team, playing with a select few predominantly up the middle of the pitch. Pass it to Bale? Turns out he’s an AI and you’re at the mercy of his programming. Maybe he’s just not the mentoring type?
You’ve got the usual array of manager mode, MyPro, the obligatory Champions League mode, but on the much less serious side of things, an overhauled Kick Off mode just injects a dose of fun that the series have been lacking for far too long. Sure, there’s always been rivalry and tension when playing, both online and offline, but that typically leads to someone feeling like they were robbed by a goal line scramble or lucky rebound. There’s a few different modes tucked in here that break up the rules of the game, with headers and volleys a playground favourite, long range goals scoring double, the ‘so weird it works’ Survival mode, and of course the ‘FIFA does Speedball’ of No Rules mode. The latter in particular leads to hooting laughter as you send players hacking into each other and sauntering through while clearly offside.
But try to pull that foul play in a FUT match and you’ve got a card coming to you. Of course, that’s the real money spinner for EA, built around the questionably legal randomisation of FUT packs and microtransactions. Thankfully, unlike the worst offenders, FUT is a mode unto itself and can easily be ignored. If you do tuck into it, it’s very generous to start with, so long as you can put up with running through the same kinds of introductory tasks and challenges as last year.
What we’ve really seen over the past few years is FUT evolve from a day in, day out multiplayer mode into a weekly endeavour, culminating in a weekend championship and rewards that come from it. To cater to that cadence, EA have thrown out the standard Online Seasons mode in favour of Division Rivals, taking five initial matches to give you a divisional placing, with each game after that bumping you up or down incrementally. In theory it should lead to more even matches, but as the game has gone live, it’s all to easy to be thrown to the wolves who have spent real money to build a team of superstars.
You can compete without spending a penny, either grinding to earn coins for FUT packs, taking part in the many online and offline sub-modes, or taking in the weekly rewards from Division Rivals which threw eight or nine gold players my way, albeit untradeable ones. Even so, you lose the feeling of fairness when playing and what you suspect are paying players, and the matchmaking doesn’t seem to do enough to pair you up with similarly levelled players, in my opinion. Cynics might suspect it’s intentionally to dangle the carrot of microtransactions in front of you…
FIFA 19 feels like the culmination of the last few years of FIFA games, and not just from the conclusion of The Journey’s interwoven story. The Champions League gives EA the opportunity to show their presentation skills and bed in a new commentary partnership, a shakeup for the main online set up of Ultimate Team, and the surprisingly fun new Kick Off mode. Some new ideas don’t quite come together, but there’s a reason why FIFA is the biggest game in town.
Version tested: PlayStation 4
Also available on Xbox One, PC and (in different form) Nintendo Switch