It doesn’t take much to be labelled the resident sportsballs game guy here at NAG. In my case, I once played 14 minutes of football for De Beers Football Club – purely because the Euro 2008 tournament was on the telly, and in my enthusiasm I’d gone out and bought all the kit, and showed up unannounced one evening when I heard they played social football there some nights. The coach reckoned I looked the business, so he gave me a starting position in a match against some men from the Cape Flats with neck tattoos. I’d never played football in my life.
Naturally, I was substituted after 14 minutes of running the wrong way, being endlessly offside, and hoofing the fancy new match ball into a pine forest. The only positive commentary I got was, “Bra, have you ever even played in those boots? They look brand new!” – which I now realise wasn’t positive commentary at all. The upshot of all this is that when EA Sports plops out its yearly sports games, they land on my desk. This time it’s FIFA 19, and I’m secretly delighted, because I’m actually a bit of a fan. And it helps that this year’s entry is startlingly good.
But FIFA 18 was also startlingly good. In fact, it was probably the best FIFA I’d ever played, bolstered by the fact that it was also the first time I became actively involved with this previously foreign FIFA Ultimate Team thing that everyone had been banging on about. As is EA Sports’s way, FIFA 19 is startlingly better in a number of ways – some instantly recognisable and some hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be uncovered by seasoned veterans.
As always, we go into a new FIFA looking forward to those back-of-the-box bullet points. Some are game changers, but for the most part it’s really just a mild reworking of what’s come before. This year, what’s being billed as one of the biggest developments in FIFA 19 is entirely lost on me. You might be entirely enchanted by it, though, so obviously I’m going to get into it for you, but I’m just telling you from the outset that it’s a mere footnote for me in terms of this year’s game. I’m talking about the reimagined Kick Off mode – the starting point for those on-the-couch multiplayer FIFA sessions where you and your friends grab a few beers and thrash the night away.
EA Sports really has done a bit of a number on it this year, in fairness, so if quick-start footy games are your thing, you’re in for a bit of a treat. Adding to the basic game of soccer we’re all used to, you can now select from a few tweaks to the formula to shake things up. One which will probably end up being the most endearing is a mode where each time one team scores a goal, they lose a team member (up to a point), which really flips the balance as you carry on through the match. Clever, I thought. Another sets a goal limit, the winner being the team which hits it first, and yet another gives you more points depending on whether your goal is scored from within the box or from distance. There’s more besides, and EA Sports is very excited about all this. You could be too. But I don’t play FIFA for quick bouts of losing, I play it for the long haul.
The long haul, in this instance, is much the same, but more of it, and better in almost every way. Not better in a way that’s going to make you burn your copy of FIFA 18 and dance around the streets in a Liverpool shirt, but better enough to make a noticeable difference. What’s most important to you? The way it feels? It feels better. A little slower at first (I found myself wondering if the sprint button had perhaps been remapped), but there’s a lot more precision now, more finesse to where you place your passes, and (and this is a big one) a far more solid feeling to the players and how they jostle with one another on the ball. The sluggishness I felt at first lends itself well to a more physical game of football, and a whole slew of new animations make player-on-player interactions seem fluid and believable. Where Madden NFL’s player interactions can come across as canned animations, there is a realness here that goes a long way to making FIFA 19 look like the most authentic on-pitch experience we’ve seen.
I’m not sold on the new obsession with extravagant volleys and overhead kicks, mind you. The first few times you’ll lose your mind with excitement when Johnny Sports hurls himself up and over and sends a bicycle kick scorching into the back of the net, but the sheer volume of these flamboyant manoeuvres means they grow old quickly. Those moves are a beauty to behold though, thunderous goals made even more spectacular thanks to EA Sports’s best-in-class, broadcast-style presentation. We’ve been playing Frostbite-based FIFA for a while, but you can tell that the development team has fully settled into it now – everything from facial modelling, to fabric physics, to the tangible weight of player momentum looks and feels more believable than ever.
The margins for improvement are slim though. It’s a stunning game, especially up close, but if you’ve played a lot of FIFA 18, you’re not going to be left breathless this year. This has always been the concern for annual updates like this – the quest to make people pay another R1,000 for a game which isn’t dramatically different to the previous one. You need something to shout about in your marketing material, something to make people consider dropping a grand for what could otherwise have been handled via a sizeable patch. FIFA 19 has that something in the form of the addition of what is arguably the most prestigious club football tournament in the world: the UEFA Champions League.
This is where anyone who doesn’t care much for football loses interest. But if you’re a fan, the inclusion of the UEFA Champions League is important. It’s important to football fans, and it’s clearly important to EA Sports, so much so that the developer has dripped UEFA Champions League flavour all over the game. Right from the moment you fire up FIFA 19, before you even have a chance to admire the slightly reworked and more fluid user interface, or enjoyed a bit of the painfully trendy soundtrack, you’re rammed straight into a UEFA Champions League final match as an hors d’oeuvre. EA Sports has a particularly big flag to wave here because, until now, the UEFA Champions League has been the sole property of Konami’s PES football franchise. PES? Yes, the one with the blindingly good ball physics, but also the awkward Monchester Untitled and Tottenman Thotspur licensing issues. EA Sports threw more money at the suits behind the UEFA Champions League this time, so, yes, it’s a Big Thing. Also, I’m going to call it the UCL from here on, okay, because I’m getting carpal tunnel syndrome here from typing it over and over.
FIFA 19’s obsession with the UCL filters through most aspects of the game, from branding across gameplay modes to the inclusion of an all-new commentary team for UCL matches, who are a bit crap, but it’s most strongly implemented with the Journey story mode. This year’s narrative (spoilers ahead) brings an end to the story, and much of the final chapter of this final chapter is based on UCL action. If you’re sad to know that the Journey is coming to an end, you might not be by the time you’ve trudged your way through this one – the tale has now been split across three characters, which is fine (except that I hate it), but your play time is artificially padded with training drills and, excuse me if I’m being cynical now, just too many matches. By the time you (spoiler, I think? Is it? It’s pretty obvious, I reckon?) lift the trophy, you’ll be glad it’s over.
But the Journey is really just a nice wayward path to follow for those with a penchant for narrative and solitude. The heart of FIFA lies in its gluttonous buffet of ways to play. Leagues, tournaments, online face-offs, careers to be forged, all that. And FIFA Ultimate Team. This… well, I don’t even really want to talk about this. In the interests of brevity, I’ll just say that FIFA Ultimate Team is very much the same as it was last year, except that it’s been streamlined significantly, a boon for anyone dipping into for the first time this year. Your first time can be daunting, but the menu systems are now more intuitive, better explained, and make for a less confusing experience this time around. This is important, because when you’re perpetually on the cusp of accidentally making real-money purchases, things need to be clear and well defined.
Ah, those real-money purchases. People around Europe are going especially wobbly about them. Apparently buying blind packs of cards, hoping to score a Messi or a Modric, for real money, is gambling and should be regulated as such. I’m not going to wade in on the debate. Am I? I’m on the verge of getting into it but actually, no, I’m not. Personally, as a grown-up, I love the excitement that comes with buying a new pack of cards, and the fanfare that comes with a top-tier player being revealed. It warms me in a deep place. But I’m an adult, and I have my own credit card with which to
buy food, pay for electricity, put petrol in my car buy virtual packs of digital footballers. Then again, in my first FIFA 19 FUT online match, I was torn to pieces, 5-0, by a stranger who had clearly cashed in their pension to buy their team. They almost scored with their goalkeeper. And that annoyed me, because I realised I would either have to grind hard to earn enough in-game currency to be at that level, or cough up the real cash. And then I realised that it’s okay. I don’t have to beat everyone. And if I don’t like it, I can play one of the many other modes available here, and then I can, for the lack of a more dignified turn of phrase, shut my mouth and enjoy the game.
Which I did.
I enjoyed it very much.