One of the biggest changes for FIFA 19 this year has to do with shooting - and the addition of a skill-based mini-game to give shots some swaz.
The developers at EA Sports have added a risk / reward mechanic to the shooting that lets you go for more power and more accuracy by nailing the timing of a second press of the shoot button. But if you mess it up, your shot will fly into row z.
This is the idea: press the shoot button to shoot, as normal, then time a second press of the shoot button so that you tap the button just as the player connects with the ball. If timed correctly, this adds extra power and accuracy. And it works for every type of shot: normal, volley, header, whatever.
FIFA 19 visualises this in a couple of different ways. With the trainer on, you'll see the shot timing bar above the shooting player, with two white lines moving to the centre of the bar. If you time your button press for when the white bars meet in the middle (the green area) you'll get a power and accuracy boost. If you miss-time the press, your shot is likely to go high and wide - and the game will tell you you've miss-timed the shot, too.
If you have the trainer turned off, the timing is visualised via the triangle that appears above the player you currently control. It'll turn green for success, red if you miss-time the shot.
This mini-game is not binary, so it's not a case of win or lose. There's a sweet-spot where the game considers your shot a success, but there are different levels of success that affect the shot in different ways.
With the possibility of extra power and accuracy, why would you ever shoot normally? Because of the risk / reward element to the mechanic, FIFA creative director Matt Prior told me at EA Play 2018.
"The reason you wouldn't do it is if you want to play it safe, essentially, and just have the traditional system," Prior explained. "It's that risk / reward element. Some of it is the positioning, when you think it makes most sense. Maybe it's a bit of a hit and hope kind of thing, and at that point you're like, okay, I'm going to go for the extra level of power and accuracy, because this is a bit hopeful. Whereas you wouldn't want to use it when you're five yards out in front of an open goal, because why would you at that point?"
Prior said this new shooting mini-game is best used when you're trying an ambitious shot, the kind you expect will miss or won't result in a goal.
"I would use it it's a bit of a hit and hope, or it needs an extra bit of oomph to make it count. That's me personally, because I'm not brilliant about getting it spot on every time, but it's entirely up to the user and how good they feel they are at it. If you've mastered it 100 per cent, which I think very few people will, you could potentially use it all the time if you wanted to."
Playing FIFA 19 at EA Play 2018, I found it tricky to consistently find success with the new shooting system. Sometimes there's not a huge window of opportunity to hit the shoot button a second time before the player takes the shot, so you have to have your wits about you to land the timing. Without the trainer, I used my player's animation as a guide, trying to hit the second press just as my player's boot or head hit the ball. This wasn't easy, and I skied more than a few shots. But, crucially, it is something I can imagine getting better at.
And it's certainly worth getting better at, because you can really feel the difference when you nail the timing. You can get powerful shots that arrow into the top corner from this new mechanic. In one situation, I nailed the timing with a shot from just outside the box with Spurs' superb forward Son Heung-min and the ball flew off his foot like a rocket into the top corner. You get a proper speed boost, and it feels pretty good.
I wondered whether EA Sports' goal with this new shooting mechanic was to increase the skill gap in FIFA 19 after some complained about a lack of a skill gap in FIFA 18. But Prior told me it's more about adding extra control and uniqueness to the gameplay.
"You've got another tool in your arsenal, if you want to use it," he said.
"The pro players will be the key guys who use it, but that's not to say regular players won't. It's not in any way designed to widen the gap between those two types of players. It's just to give another layer of control to the core user."
Here are some other observations from a few hours playing FIFA 19:
The grounded through ball feels much more useful. You're able to ping grounded through balls with a directness and pace similar to the driven pass (which returns for FIFA 19). I found success using the grounded through ball to play in forwards who were running off the shoulder of defenders (forwards seem to do this a lot better in FIFA 19 than in FIFA 18), and from all sorts of interesting areas of the pitch, too.
Crossing has been tweaked again. The crosses felt more direct and less floaty than in FIFA 18, but I initially struggled to use them effectively. On more than one occasion I whipped in a cross that whizzed past my onrushing striker, who lunged to hit the ball in vain. It's early days so it's hard to judge the new crossing, but my first impression is it's a bit more subtle than the one-note crossing in FIFA 18.
The new Active Touch system is a lot of fun. You can now fake trap the ball as it's coming to you. By holding the bumper and clicking the stick one way, your player will look to trap one way, but then you can flick to stick the other way at the last second to have your player trap the ball in that direction instead, which adds a nice mind-game to the flow of passing. (This works against the AI as well, Prior said.)
You can also flick the ball up with the right stick, so you can create wild moments for spectacular volleys. It's pretty easy to flick the ball, whether you're on the ball or it's a first touch. Expect to see a lot of people trying to score goals from flicks when the game comes out.
There's a lot more jostling for the ball. You see players come together while on the chase for a loose ball more often than they do in FIFA 18. These 50/50 battles are calculated based on your reactions as well as player attributes, EA said. Bakayoko for the win again, I suppose.
EA Sports has made good use of the Champions League licence (FIFA 19 has the official Champions League licence now Konami's long-running deal for PES has come to an end). FIFA 19 has all the official branding you'd expect, as well as that anthem. Champions League matches have a new commentary team in Derek Rae and Lee Dixon. (At one point Lee Dixon went off on one about how he loves Juventus because of their kit and the romance of the club before he was mercifully cut-off by Derek Rae's late to the party commentary on some on-pitch action). I expect I'll play FIFA 19 with the sound turned off, as I always do with FIFA. (Does anyone play FIFA with the sound on? I can't imagine why you would.)
Elsewhere, FIFA 19 felt pretty similar to FIFA 18 to me. I didn't notice a huge difference in the pace of the game, and the passing felt instantly familiar. I didn't notice a significant graphical improvement, either, which is a bit troubling. It's not that FIFA 19 looks bad. It looks pretty good, in fact. It's just that the graphics didn't wow me, as they did when I first saw FIFA 18. Perhaps FIFA looks as good as it's going to get on the current generation of consoles and we'll have to wait for the PS5 and whatever Microsoft calls the next Xbox for a meaningful jump in visuals.
In response to my concern about FIFA 19's graphics, Prior said improvements come in the new Champions League integration.
"We set a pretty high bar last year," Prior said of FIFA's graphics, "so we're building on that.
"Part of the whole look is tied to the Champions League and capturing the authentic atmosphere that comes with the Champions League. So we've done a lot of work on the night lighting. We're continually working on improving face scanning. I was playing with City the other day and David Silva's never looked more like David Silva. That's a continual process of improving.
"But one of the key things was capturing that authentic Champions League atmosphere. UEFA have done a really good job in creating a specific feel for the Champions League - that night-time game. If you've been to a Champions League game you'll know it's a bit special, a bit different. Part of the goal is for us to capture that, and we've got a whole new broadcast package. UEFA is actually changing that in the real world, so it's great timing for us. A lot of what we call rendering features, which is basically the graphics, has been put into that as well. But there are other improvements throughout the game as well."
All in all, I had a lot of fun playing FIFA 19 at EA Play 2018. While the addition of the Champions League is pretty much the final piece in the official licensing puzzle for EA Sports, and EA was sensible to make a big splash of it during its media briefing ahead of E3, the new shooting mini-game will get the online warriors most excited - or nervous, depending on your point of view.