FIFA 19 Review (Xbox One)
Further proof that there's more to making a truly great football game than authentic kits and fancy footwork
A New SeasonAnnual sports games are in a pretty awkward place right now. All the other big franchises that release yearly have found ways to keep things fresh – the likes of Call Of Duty and Battlefield tend to hop between timelines to make the reset of a new launch feel tangible and meaningful, while Assassin's Creed moved away from a true annual model to focus on delivering games that felt different to the last, which worked wonders for Origins. But with those few now the last bastions of anything close to an annual release cycle in non-sports games, the prospect of dropping another fifty notes like clockwork every 12 months for roster updates and a few new bullet-point features feels more like a cash grab than ever, not least when almost every yearly sports games has additional microtransactions slapped on top that further inflate the actual cost for anyone who wants to be legitimately competitive in some online modes. Genuine gameplay improvements have suffered from diminishing returns for years now as devs struggle to find new stuff to add, change and improve, and the model feels less and less sustainable in modern gaming with every new release that continues to do things the old way.
That's not to say that there aren't additions to this year's FIFA, and some of them are pretty impressive. The fully licensed Champion's League is perhaps the main event, pickpocketed from PES when Konami's license ran out and it's something that feels more at home here where authenticity is everything. New Kick Off modes are great for mixing things up in multiplayer sessions, while the continuing and still oddly entertaining solo campaign The Journey is still a surprising highlight of the package. But when the most important on-pitch change is having to time your shots for best effect – something good football games have been doing for literally decades – it's pretty clear that all these extra modes and features are simply necessary in lieu of any meaningful gameplay changes remaining to be implemented. No matter what mode you play, gameplay still feels immediately and dangerously familiar, making a premium price tag hard to justify when last year's game's value can already be measured in pennies rather than pounds.
Kitted OutThe Journey is still a surprising highlight of the package
It's a little unfair to tar FIFA 19 with the same brush as almost every other annual update ever, so let's delve a little deeper into what it does offer above and beyond its predecessors. As always, authenticity is king with FIFA and presentation is superb as usual – from the spot-on broadcast-style presentation to minute details like player movement nuances and individual celebrations, there's no truer digital recreation of the full match day experience out there. For many fans, it's this realism that gives FIFA the edge over the mish-mash of football fact and fiction that is PES, so no surprise that EA wants to keep this aspect front and centre. Odd, then, that one of the most entertaining parts of the game is the latest chapter of The Journey: FIFA's original story mode that is way better than it has any right to be. This year's tale offers three different perspectives – original star Alex Hunter enters the upper echelon of sporting talent in the hope of becoming a true icon, while his sister battles for a place on the international squad and his friend struggles to tread water in the top flight. The three individual stories are woven together well and cheesy as much of it may be, it's still thoroughly entertaining, especially for returning players as choices from previous games again carry over into this narrative.
The Journey is great as a one-and-done mode (not unlike a Call Of Duty campaign, for instance – remember those?), but the bread and butter of the series is multiplayer, whether online or with friends locally. Additions to Kick Off mode are particularly interesting for fans of the latter, with unique gameplay options and in-depth stat tracking across all matches great for settling who gets bragging rights at the end of a session. You can give a weaker player a head start of a goal or two, alter scoring rules to have long shots count double, turn off fouls for an old-fashioned free-for-all, set a goal limit rather than playing for the regulation 90, or even try out the cool new Survival mode where scoring a goal results in one of your players leaving the pitch, theoretically evening things out as matches go on but also creating the possibility of rubbing a 4-0 thrashing from a 7-man team in a friend's face. More options are always welcome, and the improved Kick Off suite really plays well to the game's main strength, encouraging lasting competition between folks who play together regularly. If online is more your thing, it's a more familiar array of options, battling for promotion alone or with friends, joining clubs for epic 22-player matches, or losing hours to returning life sponge Ultimate Team.
Close ControlPresentation is superb as usual
While the on-pitch action really doesn't feel like it's changed all that much in the last few years, it's the quality of the series' main rival in this regard that makes things feel even more stodgy and dated than they otherwise might. PES offers a huge degree of player freedom and flexibility out of the box and while FIFA can do that too, it's obscured by dozens of sliders and options that need to be altered to make the game feel less like it's playing itself. Everything being so heavily assisted or even automated is part of the game's accessibility and means anyone can pick up a pad and start enjoying it, but it makes it far less satisfying to pull off amazing plays when you start to notice how little you had to work for them. It can also actively work against you at its worst too, deciding the through ball into space on the wing you wanted would be better as a straight pass to someone on the edge of the box, or pulling players out of position and allowing opponents space to create chances. Finding the right balance and working out which assists you need and which you don't might not be quick or easy, but it's worth doing for anyone who plans to put a lot of time into the game.
In most other aspects too, it's just business as usual for FIFA. Ultimate Team is back (obviously – it prints money for EA), the biggest change here being the disclosure of rates for obtaining rare players from packs in light of the various recent loot box controversies. It all looks about as you'd expect, with the stark exception of the vague 'less than 1%' figure given for the rarest Ones To Watch versions of star players... it's not enough to know whether we're dealing with a 1/101 chance or one in a million, but it might still be enough to dissuade you from splashing out cash on a bunch of packs in the vain hope of pulling one of those black-bordered beauties. And when the game is generally struggling to feel like it justifies its price tag already, the additional monetisation that stinks up Ultimate Team only feels even more grubby and exploitative than it already did.
Really doesn't feel like it's changed all that much
- Superb authenticity
- The Journey is still great
- Good fun in multiplayer
- Player assists are too much
- The usual physics oddities
- Gameplay has changed little
FIFA 19 Review (Xbox One)FIFA 19 is a decent football game, but it's hard to lavish it with much praise beyond that. Despite a few neat little additions, EA seems to have really hit a wall in terms of diminishing returns in the gameplay department and while there's certainly no other game that can deliver an authentic match day experience quite like this, it's hard to see minute gameplay tweaks, an up-to-date roster and a couple of new modes as being anything close to good value for money from a full-price release.
Legions of avid fans instabuying the game day one means the model is unlikely to change any time soon, much as it feels like it really needs to – the series continues to do crazy numbers at retail alone, and we shudder to think how much extra income EA must be making by fleecing players for Ultimate Team packs.
This year's PES plays better but lacks the authenticity and spectacle of FIFA, making it honours even between the two overall and with the choice really boiling down to whether realism or gameplay are more important to you as a player.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £49.99
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