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FIFA 19 Review: Journey back to childhood | In-depth look at the new features

It’s that time of year again...

I need to make a confession. It’s a confession that will probably irk the football purists among us, but it’s one that I nevertheless must put forward before we move on.

EA Sports’ FIFA series is the predominant reason I’m a football fan today.

Exhale. I feel better.

Growing up in the United States in the early to mid 90s, there were not very many ways to consume European club football. It just was not a product that was on my radar, and so I, like most American boys in those years, watched - and played - hours upon hours of baseball, basketball, and American football.

That all changed when I found a sale copy of FIFA 2001 at my local Office Depot. When that CD-ROM slid into my boxy, loud, Windows 95-ass desktop, I had no idea that my life was about to be set on an irrevocable, football-obsessed course. I’ve owned and played every edition of FIFA since.

You’ll have to forgive me for dramatizing a video game in this way, but the reality is that for this correspondent, FIFA’s release each year is like Christmas Day. It retains sentimental value, I can do things with Everton that aren’t incredibly depressing, and frankly, it’s just fun.

For those reasons and others, I was excited to get my hands on a review copy this year. FIFA finally acquired the licensing rights to the Champions and Europa Leagues, there were new gameplay features to try, and the game’s story mode - the Journey - was set to reach its conclusion.

After spending an unhealthy amount of time with the game on over the last few days, I can happily report that FIFA 19 maintains the series’ high standards in a general sense. The amount of leagues, clubs, and competitions are staggering. The stadiums are beautifully realized, and even serve to give Tottenham fans hope that they, too, might one day play in their own ground, even if it’s just in a video game.

Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano

The game begins to set itself apart from last year’s edition as soon as you load up the new Kick-Off mode. What was once a portion of the game that I tended to ignore completely is now a must-play, and here’s why: you can play a match with no rules.

FIFA has introduced some new wrinkles to its most basic feature, and it’s glorious. Offside? No problem, that goal still counts. Need to violently hack down an attacker before he can get a shot off, even if you’re the last man defending? Not a big deal - go for it, because the referee is here in name only. It’s chaos, and it’s beautiful.

There are other ways to play Kick-Off mode, too. “Survival” means that you have a man sent off each time you score a goal, and presents some very difficult strategic problems. Do you want to score early and defend with a depleted team, or should you let your opponent get a few goals so you can blitz him late on with a multiple man advantage?

(By the way, I can confirm that purposely scoring an own goal does not result in your opponent having a man sent off. Research is important).

There are some other aspects worth trying, like having shots outside the 18 yard box count as 2 goals, or setting up a match to where only volleys and headers count as good goals. You may not be into perverting soccer in this way, but the new Kick-Off features improve the game, and particularly the communal aspect.

If you choose to leave the settings alone and play a regular match, you’ll notice a few things. The biggest one that stood out to me was the change in contested balls and 50/50 challenges. These instances used to feel very random, but some improvements have given the player far more control over these split-second situations.

FIFA says that “user reactions and player attributes determine the outcome for winning loose balls across the pitch. Increased teammate intelligence and spatial awareness means every challenge matters in the fight for possession,” and it’s easy to see. Players like Idrissa Gueye and N’Golo Kante have become just as impactful as they are on the real pitch.

Another new introduction to the series is the Active Touch System, which comes as a huge relief to me. One of the biggest things that keeps me from being better at FIFA is my utter inability to control the ball off a hard pass, long ball, or in tight spaces. You can ask my Pro Clubs buddies - you might as well pick the ball up and hand it to the opposition if I need to bring the ball down and navigate out of trouble.

Thankfully, the new system “fundamentally changes the way you receive and strike the ball, providing closer control, improved fluidity, creativity”, so good news, guys - I’ll be trying more tricks this year.

This review would be incomplete without mentioning The Journey: Champions, because the conclusion of FIFA’s first-ever story mode is extremely well-told, acted, and visualized.

The balance between cut scenes and actual gameplay never leaves you feeling like you want to go back to one or the other, and expanding the story to three fully developed and playable characters (Alex Hunter, Kim Hunter, and Danny Williams) gives the mode more depth. Being able to interact and converse with real-world superstars like Alex Morgan is an added bonus.

This is a spoiler-free zone, but I want to carefully express my exuberance when playing the beginning of this year’s Journey. The game’s prologue takes you back to the 1970s and into a mud-filled, sepia-toned match. It is intoxicating, and I am begging, you, EA - give us a full classic mode with all-time teams from older eras. Please. For the people.

I am a self-professed FIFA Luddite. I don’t like Ultimate Team, and I spent the vast majority of my time in offline career modes, guiding clubs to greater heights as a manager. That’s where I’ve always found the most gratification and enjoyment, but the Journey reeled me in, and it’s going to be a sad day indeed when I finish the story of Alex Hunter and friends. Probably later this weekend, if I’m being honest.

Of course, as is the case with most FIFA editions, it’s not quite all sunshine and rainbows. The game does have its faults.

The new, widely-promoted Timed Finishing system was extremely frustrating, and I found that most of my shots ended up either well wide of the mark or gently rolling into the goalkeeper’s hands. It was difficult to learn, it’s annoying to need the “trainer” feature left on your display, and seems likely to be a feature I’ll leave turned off moving forward.

Elsewhere, while the new Champions League content is tantalizing - the graphics and music will give you chills - the commentary from Derek Rae and Lee Dixon is choppy and confusing.

In theory, it was a fun idea to introduce a second set of announcers for the competition, but I was regularly subjected to lines like “the crowd is going crazy, and quite rightly so - what a finish!” followed immediately by “well, that’s not a very good goal, but they all count the same.” Dixon and Rae are excellent commentators, but have been undone a bit by the game’s prompts and back-end mechanics.

While the Journey is an outstanding bit of gaming and one that I hope EA expands on in future editions of FIFA, there was an area where I was left wanting more. Kim Hunter’s character and story with the United States’ Women’s National Team is a welcome inclusion, but there is something that would make it even better: licensed women’s club teams, and the modes in which to use them.

FIFA took a huge step in the right direction a few years ago when they introduced international women’s teams. The women’s side of the game still feels incomplete, though, and that would be remedied with the ability to play as clubs and players from leagues like the NWSL and WSL. There are hundreds of talented women’s players not represented in FIFA 19, and that’s a shame.

FIFA 19 is a good-to-great game. You won’t find a more aesthetically pleasing sports game, and it’s evident that the developers are taking steps to improve aspects of play on the pitch that were lagging behind, even if the results are a bit hit or miss.

The willingness to get inventive and even silly with Kick-Off Mode was delightful, and the amount of enjoyment I’ll draw from the Journey is surprising. I’ll manually insert Everton into the Champions League standalone mode, round up my friends for another year of Pro Clubs, and generally ignore all the other games in my queue.

It’s not perfect, though, and you may be left with this slightly nagging feeling that if EA Sports would cater just a little bit more to the serious crowd instead of the Ultimate Teamers, you could be left with a better game.

That’s a fairly standard FIFA complaint of mine, though, and so in the end, I can’t be mad. No time. Have to go player another football match without any rules.

Rating: 8.5/10

FIFA 19 was reviewed using an Xbox One download code provided by EA Sports via Fortyseven Communications

The new game goes on sale on September 28th around the world.