Answers its critics with a glittering display
The wealthiest competition in club football French-kissing the richest name in digital sports was never likely to sit well with more rabid sports gamers. On which note: welcome to FIFA 19. After prising the Champions League licence away from PES, EA’s latest kickabout offers comprehensive implementation of the big boys’ favourite mid-week pursuit. For those openminded enough to look beyond preconceptions, this perceived match made in hell provides numerous heavenly moments.
Before getting to those, let’s make something clear: on-pitch gameplay is paramount. It’s why, for all their presentational excellence, MLB: The Show and NBA 2K have maintained their status at the top of the sports pyramid for close to a decade. Tweaks made to FIFA 19 put it in the same league. Fundamentals such as passing, shooting, and dribbling haven’t been transformed, but from a physical standpoint this is much different from its predecessors.
For instance, pace attributes are lowered across the game, making the on-pitch action more considered. Meanwhile the introduction of contextual 50/50 battles, as players slam into one another to contest loose balls and crosses, instils a sense of physicality befitting elite sportsmen doing battle. There’s still room for zippy passing and balletic dribbling, but those who prefer their football more industrial are catered for too. Indeed, heading is the one fundamental element revolutionised by these changes, with powerful goals off a striker’s bonce and imperious forehead clearances enjoyable like never before.
Those incremental-yet-wholesale improvements on the turf are bolstered by the pizzazz of the Champions League off it. Available as a standalone tournament, or within the reconfigured Kick-off mode, career mode, third instalment of The Journey and/or Ultimate Team, EA cannot be accused of bunging the ball-shaped logo on the box and watching the cash roll in. This colossal licence’s infiltration of said modes brings mixed results – it’s the only major change to career, which is disappointing – but it certainly drums up a vibe of completeness.
Uniqueness, too, partly because of the OTT features that go hand-in-glove with the tournament: players emerging through the makeshift arch as if attending a royal wedding, that glorious operatic theme booming out as they line up. And partly because of a new commentary team in Derek Rae and Lee Dixon. Emphatic in delivery and unconventional in pronunciation thanks to his Scots burr, Rae is a revelation, while Dixon – despite some
“LET’S MAKE SOMETHING CLEAR: ON-PITCH GAMEPLAY IS PARAMOUNT.”
wonky first-timer moments – shows more enthusiasm here than he ever has on ITV Sport. Demonstrating a natural chemistry, the pair make the mode sing.
The CL’s integration into Ultimate Team is understated. There’s sadly no option to use Rae and Dixon, but sports gaming’s best mode doesn’t go untouched. A key new feature is the pack-opening tool that maps everything to a single button or stick nudge: up to transfer list, down to quick sell, i to send all cards to your club. Division Rivals, with weekly rewards for your online performances, are a fantastic supplement to offline Squad Battles, while Squad Building Challenges – in which you submit teams to unlock fresh packs – are one of the most addictive mini-games on PS4 ever. I’ve lost entire evenings to them without playing a match.
A word, too, for The Journey: Champions, the final chapter in Alex Hunter’s interactive story with cameos from Neymar and Kevin de Bruyne, to name two. Once more showcasing likeable characters and the better kind of B-movie writing, it uses that new licence smartly, and the ability to switch between Hunter, sister Kim, and pal Danny Williams at any time creates variety and some fun surprises – such as a passing practice in a hotel corridor. It’s an appropriate sendoff to a fictional character FIFA diehards have become surprisingly attached to. So good, you wonder just how the series will evolve in his absence. Rae and Dixon across all modes would be a start.
It won’t cause diehard PES fans to switch, but FIFA 19 is a fine football sim in its own right.
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Below There are more than 700 teams, with Dinamo Zagreb a newcomer.
Right Goalies are more alert to danger, but still imperfect. (For realism, says EA.)
Above left ‘Player pick’ packs add a degree of choice to Ultimate Team.