Some years, the star of EA Sports’ FIFA series — the feature that commands the most attention, or best describes the game — can be hard to pick out. This is one of those years. The game remains as thrilling and varied as ever in FIFA 19; its only sin seems to be, again, an overindulgence in flashy plays or big moments. Still, there are sins sports video games commit that are far worse than being fun and thrilling. None of the bang-bang headers or bicycle kicks or swiveling volleys made me want to play FIFA 19 any less, for goodness sake.
The game is better than last years, there just aren’t many candidates for why. Offhand, it’s probably the Champions League, which is leveraged in just about everything except Ultimate Team. Professional soccer’s premier tournament is roughly the only differentiator in the career mode; it dominates the story section The Journey: Champions and it even comes with valet announcers (Derek Rae and Lee Dixon, whose high-stakes tone is a nice departure from the comfortably laconic duo of Martin Tyler and Alan Smith).
But the Champions League doesn’t feel like some final piece to the FIFA 19 puzzle (it had been exclusive to Pro Evolution Soccer for 10 years). This is largely because there is so much to do in FIFA 19, making another tournament just another appeal to play even more of the game throughout the year, to maybe focus on another of the myriad offensive and defensive techniques that have refined the gameplay over the past five or six years.
For example, I’m still trying to hone my defensive craft with the tools introduced in FIFA 18, which allow a defender to time a standing tackle. It’s helped tremendously with my worst, noobiest problem of overrunning the play. In fixating on defense, I notice how, this year, my players (and the opposing side’s) anticipate and interfere more, placing a light thumb on the scale both for regaining possession or against maintaining it. It also takes some of the starch out of a pinpoint passing system, which has given FIFA a pinball reputation and made the possession game maddening.
FIFA’s real problem, I’ve come to discover, is in communicating what’s new, how to use it or even why you should. The precision defending was last year’s example; a new timed finishing system somewhat like the active reload minigame in Star Wars Battlefront is this year’s. It’s not like there’s anything calling out this new mechanism before you see that meter show up in the heat of competition, and practicing it in one of the finishing drills doesn’t relate any advice as to where on this meter is the perfect timing window. It’s a letdown from the in-game trainer feature that’s been with the series for the past four years, which has been helpful in onboarding players to some of the controls and skills available to them. At any rate, screw-ups attributable to a mishit on the timed finishing meter were rare (and nailing the timing does not guarantee a goal, which must still be aimed, after all). That’s well and good, but it still raises the question of what the feature really adds.
Another new mechanism is an “active touch system” that likewise has nothing pointing it out to the user. EA has described the feature as something that adds more variety, if not opportunity, to ball movement, possession and challenges. But the game doesn’t really tell you how to trigger these feints, flicks, flip-ups and volleys (except for a single command in the controls menu) or what among them is simply passive and contextually implemented. Fooling around with it on the pitch, I made great use of the “let ball run” tool when the receiver’s back was to the goal; it made for a neat button-hook move, at speed, to leave a defender two steps behind. But then, so did the simple use of the left thumbstick, driving to the corner and then circling back with no modifier to send in a clear and straight-ahead cross.
FIFA as a pursuit or a hobby has taken after skiing, in that you can have a blast with a very basic or beginner’s toolkit, yet there’s always something new to learn or develop, even for the skilled player. The game just sells the accessibility of its sophisticated moves a little short. For example, active touch makes flicking up the ball (from a standstill) very easy: Just click in the right thumbstick. If the dribbler’s back is to the opponent’s goal, he’ll even kick it over his head and be off and charging by flicking the right stick up. Or just hold down the B button and here comes a bicycle kick, even from players who would have no business attempting one. I saw a lot of bicycle kicks off corner kicks, come to think of it, owing to my tendency to whack the shoot button as soon as the ball was on its way. More than one went in, too.
The mode that most consistently drew me back to hone a technique or learn a new one was, again, Ultimate Team. It’s the best introduction to the franchise’s staggering depth of teams, leagues and players from all over the world, which would otherwise go unknown in a career spent with the elite teams of more recognizable leagues. Still, the mode is largely unchanged in what it offers, with the newest addition being the “Division Rivals” section that offers weeklong campaigns against users of similar skill.
I was content to take another fixture in either the seasons mode or the squad battles, especially given the career’s sameness to the past two versions of the game. A set of tactical preferences available in Ultimate Team is also applicable here, but not if the career is for an individual star (as opposed to a manager). These plans instruct the defense on when and how long to pressure the ball, tell off-ball personnel how far away they should be, or how wide the formation should run. I could even give specific instructions to a player. The dynamic tactics were wonderful for playing to my side’s strengths once I became familiar with my personnel. But I missed them dearly in Be a Pro play, where AI teammates’ standard approach makes it tedious to control the created player alone. There’s almost no reason to take on Be a Pro as a single created star this year.
The tactical preferences are also missed in The Journey: Champions, where nearly every match carries a couple of performance expectations (like two assists) that require the user directing all of the team’s efforts at them. Playing as just Alex Hunter, Kim Hunter or Danny Williams, I found myself as likely to be ignored as passed the ball, and found the buildup usually an extra pass too slow. There’s another play variant that’s even less preferable — that’s where I could take control of Alex and his grouping of “mentors,” or Kim and her strike partner on the U.S. Women’s National Team, Alex Morgan. It was more disorienting to me to constantly be aware not only of what player I was controlling, but which ones were available to be switched to.
The Journey: Champions wants you to work on developing these partnerships, but I found that arbitrary teammate-ness bar filling up no matter what. The decision-making and conversation choices in the story mode are likewise illusory. The Journey: Champions is fun in the sense that the user gets to star on two elite teams (Real Madrid and the USWNT) plus a Premier League side of their choosing, with a satisfying if predictable wrapper for the whole thing. But man, is that second chapter a slog, as the characters grind through the group stages of their tournaments (Champions League for Danny and Alex and the Women’s World Cup for Kim).
As to that, while it’s great that event is at last licensed to appear in this game, it’s still not available from the tournaments menu, which is the only mode of play longer than a single game for the women’s teams on the roster. I hope that’s because a full Women’s World Cup mode is coming this spring, as it did for the men in FIFA 18.
FIFA 19’s selling points may be subtle or incremental but, again, that’s because the bedrock of this game has been so deep and so strong, for so long, that its makers can work on nice-to-haves like the first touches, how 50-50 balls are won and lost, more real-life stadiums, or the broadcast presentation for Spain’s La Liga. Or maybe it’s because, having served nearly every need and expectation over the past eight or nine years, that’s all that’s left for them to work on.