FIFA 19 review: One small step for visuals, one giant leap for gameplay
FIFA 19 opens on the Champions League final
An intro similar to last year’s but, rather than being challenged with overturning the score in the Madrid derby, you are tasked with playing the entire game.
It quickly becomes evident that this is designed to show off the new license acquired by EA Sports. Long gone is the EA Champions Cup, here is the real UEFA Champions League.
Previously one of the few major licenses held by Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series, UEFA’s Champions League and Europa League competitions are now in the FIFA locker - and it’s understandable they’re keen to make the most of them.
Shortly after the pre-match theatrics are over you’ll begin to notice that, from a presentation point of view, not a huge amount has changed from FIFA 18.
Player animations have been altered in some areas but other smaller details, such as close-ups of supporters, are nearly identical, featuring the same fans in the same clothes as last year.
This initial observation will become something of a trend the more you play the game.
From a gameplay perspective, though, FIFA 19 is quite a change from its predecessor.
The pace of the game is notably different from last year. Games are slower and the fundamentals take more time to adjust to.
Passes which seem to be aimed correctly will be easily picked off, shots which appear to have been hit with power may not have the force you were expecting, and breaking clean through on goal will often see all but the fastest players caught by the defence.
In truth, this can be a little annoying at first, but it also teaches you to play a more patient game.
The passing system suggests EA wants fewer breakneck, end-to-end games which veer from one box to another with a single through-ball. Instead it forces you to consider every move, every possession, to keep an eye on all areas of movement, spread the ball quickly and choose your opportunity to shoot or play that crucial through-ball wisely.
It will take time to get used to, but then that is always the case in the next chapter of a much-loved series.
Shooting may take longer to grow accustomed to, however. The new Timed Finishing is a shock to the system at first. Turned on by default, you will balloon simple chances into the stands, and send pathetic shots dribbling towards the corner flag.
Requiring you to hit the shoot button as you normally would before hitting it again as your player’s foot connects with the ball, a successful attempt will leave the goalkeeper with very little chance of making a save. Initial attempts are unlikely to be successful though, and most players will probably switch back to the default system of shooting at first.
Aside from gameplay, FIFA 19 does have some other changes which made headlines in recent months, particularly the new House Rules mode for Kick Off.
The different modes in House Rules - Survival, No Rules, Headers and Volleys, Long Range and First To... - are as fun as one would expect, but given the change of approach to gameplay, will take a little time before you can truly let loose.
One downside to the House Rules mode is that it's confined to offline play. Sure, it’s great to play with your mates in person - and the ability to add player profiles to the game and keep track of your head-to-head records is a plus - but considering the prominence of online play it seems like a missed opportunity and one you'd hope will be rectified before long.
My main issue with FIFA 19 is something I referred to earlier. As you play, whether it’s in Career Mode or Kick Off, you’ll notice cut scenes and animations that are carbon copies of last year’s game. You’ll notice an interface which has barely been changed bar a minor lick of paint, and you’ll notice a game which, on the surface, appears to be a slight upgrade.
Career Mode is, as expected, almost entirely unchanged. The novelty of cut scenes for transfer and contract negotiations is now gone and you’ll find yourself either skipping through them or simply delegating the task to your assistant.
From the off, your choice of appearance for your manager is, again, just as it was before. It's a minor gripe, but for a game of FIFA’s dominance it would have been great to add some extra customisation options. Instead you have the choice of fewer than 15 preset faces and just three outfits.
It has been mooted that locker room cut scenes will appear in Career Mode, but I'm yet to encounter them.
Player progression in Career Mode is also almost identical as last year, and still pretty confusing. Players will improve as they are predetermined to do and it seems there’s little that can be done about it.
These minor flaws are not to say that FIFA 19 is a bad game by any stretch. It definitely isn't. The Journey, for those who enjoy it, is as entertaining as ever, and presented as such. Ultimate Team will also be enjoyed just as much this year as it has been in previous years.
But playing this latest edition, one can’t help but feel that the series has taken half a step forward, that the addition of extra licenses and maintained focus on the ever-popular UT has led them to overlook other areas of the game, areas which will mean little to some, but which would have shown a commitment to improve the game in all respects.
It all combines to provide a package which will delight many, but will leave some fanatics underwhelmed.
In recent years FIFA has made it clear that it is about the big moments and the big names, and in a variety of ways this has led to the series being one of the most comprehensive and polished franchises around.
This year's game is as playable as any other and in time will be no doubt as widely loved, but right now it perhaps feels more like FIFA 18.5 than FIFA 19.