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FIFA 20 Review: Big Promises (Mostly) Underdelivered

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It’s one of the world’s most popular video games. What does this year have in store?

After spending the last three years journeying with Alex Hunter and co., EA Sports’ FIFA series returns to the street in this year’s edition. If you’re like me and don’t play any Ultimate Team, the addition of an entirely new game mode as well as promised changes to several other areas of the game that have been unattended to for years was an exciting prospect. Let’s dive right in.

Off the pitch and onto the playground

The first thing that EA wants you to know about this year is Volta Football. Much like when they added women’s football a few years ago, putting a small-sided mode into the game is, at its core, a bit of fan service - particularly if you enjoyed FIFA Street from way back when.

When it works, Volta is brilliant. Handpicking a squad from a major club side like Barcelona or a national team like Brazil and taking them to a professional futsal court or a blacktop with walls is intoxicating.

Bouncing a pass off a chain link fence and into your teammate’s path or playing a ball off the end boards to yourself is wonderful fun, and the game’s controls are just hard enough to make it challenging. Shooting, as you might expect, is difficult - in “rush” games (no goalkeeper) the net is hilariously small, which requires precision not ordinarily needed in regular FIFA games. If you thought you were good at skill moves in the open field, think again - you’ll have to re-teach yourself all the tricks for them to carry over to the hard court.

Unfortunately, the superb gameplay in Volta is held back by the convoluted system surrounding it. There are four ways to play - Kick-Off, World, Story, and League. Inside those are multiple match types, including 3v3 Rush, 4v4, 4v4 Rush, 5v5, and pro futsal.

World, Story, and League are grounded in a confusing progression system, where you can only control a user-created player who starts out at an extremely low overall (frankly unusable). As you guide your avatar and their squad through the ranks of the Volta world, you’ll earn coins and unlock new characteristics on the skill tree and accessories to wear. How this works isn’t clear, but one thing is certain - it is slow.

If you want to use a licensed player like Richarlison or Jadon Sancho, you’ll have to stick with Kick-Off mode. If you want to play a Volta match against one of your friends online, you’re out of luck entirely. EA has created a wonderful concept with great on-field execution, but Volta ultimately falls short of what it could be.

Under-appreciated, but finally addressed

It is the opinion of this author that FIFA’s Pro Clubs mode is the best thing that the game has going. It is the closest approximation to real soccer that I’ve found in a video game, and is by far the best way to play with a group of friends. I like to think I’d know - by the end of FIFA 19, the club I (and another editor here) play on was in the top 200 out of 300,000 or so Xbox One teams in the world.

Given the amount of time spent playing Pro Clubs, then, its flaws were readily apparent. AI defending, constant kit color clashes, superhuman penalty saves by computer goalkeepers, and numerous other things have - I can only assume - kept the mode from being more popular.

The cries of the masses have, at least in part, been heard. Pro club heads can now view their opponent’s kit and change accordingly prior to a match. Your team can practice together (novel concept!). There are tournaments with no rules, and tournaments where volleys or long shots count for more. It is not the complete overhaul some may have been hoping for, but a little TLC has gone a long way.

Well, At Least You Tried

For many, FIFA’s offline career mode is their go-to, and thanks to the success of Ultimate Team has been awkwardly patched over and kept in a dark corner for years. With FIFA 20, gamers were promised big changes. What they got was something quite a bit less.

You can now customize your manager’s avatar in a million different ways. Want to wear a suit like Silva, but have green hair? Sure! How about Pep’s sweater, or Jurgen’s tracksuit? Yep, it’s all there.

From that point, you can then take virtual you into a million different press conferences throughout a season, and your answers will all affect your players’ morale. The trouble is that there is precious little variance in the questions, and you’re at almost no risk of truly dragging down a player’s morale to the point of emergency.

Did EA fix the inability to find a good loan for your young players? No. What about the fixture congestion which ruins your players’ stamina to the point of not being able to play them? Also...no. Player development remains murky and confusing, too.

The reality is that career mode still has its addictive traits, and the game developers know that we can’t quit it. Unfortunately, it seems more and more an afterthought to FUT with each passing year.

Verdict

Despite my feelings about the game’s shortcomings, it certainly isn’t all bad. There was clearly a great deal of thought given to the new speed mechanics and ball physics. On the field, FIFA 20 plays better than ever, once you’ve adjusted to the changes. The trouble is that improvements year to year seem to only happen on the field, which is problematic considering how much of a gamer’s time is spent in the menus.

Nevertheless, I’m sure I’ll spend an inordinate amount of time playing this edition, as usual. There’s something to be said for no matter what changes from year to year, I always come back. Does that say more about EA Sports’ ability to make football games, or me? You decide.

Rating: 6.5/10

FIFA 20 was reviewed using an Xbox One download code provided by EA Sports via Fortyseven Communications

The new game goes on sale on September 27th around the world.