FIFA 19 is a great football video game marred by ongoing issues with Ultimate Team.
Blame Ronaldo. The moment I saw the then Real Madrid superstar score that overhead kick against Juventus in the Champions League quarter finals, I knew it would dominate the FIFA 19 experience. It was too high-profile a goal in too high-profile a match for EA Sports to ignore. The fact it was scored by FIFA 19's cover star helped, I'm sure.
Overhead kicks are in vogue. They're down with the kids, and when something in the world of football is down with the kids, EA Sports takes note. FIFA 19 isn't here for the hipsters who fork out for the Bundesliga on BT Sport. Nor is it here for the football historians, those who lament the loss of the good old days of shin-smashers and £150-a-week wages. FIFA 19 is here for the next generation - never the current, always the next. It's here for the Messi and Ronaldo rivalry keyboard warriors, the Neymar shirt-wearers from Peckham and the Paul Pogba dabbers (who have all moved on to the Floss, but hey-ho).
And so, overhead kicks. Yeah, there are a lot of overheads in FIFA 19. Your players want to do them - really want to do them - so much so that they seemingly float in mid-air to force the bicycle kick animation to connect with the ball. Hold on, you're a 55-rated bronze. What are you playing at? All I did was press shoot. Who do you think you are? Ronaldo?
An overhead kick from a corner? Check. An overhead kick from a cross? Check? And now, via the easy-to-pull-off first-touch flick (click in the right stick), an overhead kick from yourself or... why not try a Thierry Henry back against the goal, flick up, turn and volley into the top corner job? That's two button presses right there. Easy!
I don't want to over-egg it. My time online in FIFA Ultimate Team so far has not been littered by overhead kicks. What is worth considering, though, is what their prevalence tell us about the FIFA 19 experience. To my mind, it is this: FIFA 19 is the football game of tricks and flicks and once in a lifetime goals. It is the Hollywood pass of football video games. When pundits say it was like watching PlayStation football, this is what they mean. Was FIFA ever realistic? I'm not sure it was. Rather, it ebbs and flows along the sim axis, the influence of stats such as pace and power nerfed and buffed with each passing year. This year, first touch flicks and overhead kicks are in the lever-pullers' good books. (Oh, and near-post corners. What's that about, EA?)
The upshot is FIFA 19 feels spectacular. Too spectacular? Perhaps. EA has added a new timed finishing mechanic that lets you go for a better shot if you press the shoot button a second time at the moment your player hits the ball. This system is good for shots you think might need some help, but it's not worth the risk for a standard shot you expect to score from. I had wondered whether the timed finishing would increase the skill gap when it comes to shooting, but I've found a good deal of success without it. It's a nice gimmick, but it's no game-changer.
Generally though, it's good news on the pitch. FIFA 19 feels more fluid than FIFA 18. That's a slightly wooly phrase. What I mean to say is, the game flows better and there's a slight feeling of being more in control of the action, rather than some passive observer of an AI-fuelled virtual football match. This is, I think, the result of some new animations that help players control the ball when previously they wouldn't. Players sometimes take the ball nicely in their stride the way Michael Owen did for his incredible solo goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. I've mocked the flick-heavy nature of the new first-touch system, but it actually helps keep things moving. And EA has, clearly, had a look at the ball, which moves about the pitch in a less laser-guided, predetermined manner. FIFA 19's ball is still nowhere near as good as PES 2019's, but it's better than FIFA 18's. A small but noticeable step in the right direction, then.
Pace and power are hugely important to football video games and in concert go a long way to determining the FIFA meta for the year. FIFA 19, pace wise, feels like it's in a sweet spot, with super fast players such as Juventus' Douglas Costa, Manchester City's Leroy Sane and French wonderkid Kylian Mbappe standing out. Admittedly, it can be frustrating when your forwards struggle to outpace defenders they've already shown a clean pair of heels to, but the rubber-banding of previous iterations has been toned down a tad. Generally, the players feel like the move at a realistic speed.
Physical and dribbling are for me the most important stats this year, with a new collisions system and some nice new animations coming into play. When you're bearing down on goal, being able to shrug off a defender feels just as important as outpacing them. With the lofted through ball now wayward, I've found success with the driven cross, which relies on a player working their way into a position to make a cross, and a strong forward to bully their way into a position to finish it. FIFA 19's vision of the perfect footballer is Cristiano Ronaldo, a freak athlete who is immensely strong, fast and has a better shot on him than all of the other footballers put together. Did I mention he's the cover star?
Passing is on the pinball side of things. Even mediocre players can pass the ball like Andrés Iniesta in his pomp. Players feel responsive - perhaps overly so, which sounds like a ridiculous thing to complain about for FIFA but it's a feeling that's definitely there. The ball moves extremely quickly on the ground, in contrast to the odd slow float you get for a lofted pass. The quick passing, combined with the fluidity and the flicks and overhead kicks makes FIFA 19 feel more arcadey than the series has in quite a while. I expect some purists will turn their noses up at this, but I see it as a fun throwback. It's quite nice!
FIFA 19 also benefits from one of the best quality of life passes the series has ever seen. It's the little things. On the pitch, it's simple stuff, such as pressing both shoulder buttons and both triggers at the same time to skip a celebration and go straight to the restart, or the addition of a player switch indicator. The new dynamic tactics system is fantastic. Tactics fans get get their hands dirty with all sorts of sliders pre-match, then it's easy to bark instructions to your players during the game. Tactics feel like they have a real impact on the game, too. You'll notice the high press is more prevalent this year - as it is in real football - with players pushing up even at a goal kick. This effectively counters the "park the bus" strategy, which has plagued FIFA for a while now. I'm not a FIFA tactics person, but I can see why they're worth tinkering with this year.
Kick off mode is wonderful in 19, with some brilliant new ways to play that are perfect for local multiplayer. You can play an officially-licensed cup final, such as The FA Cup. Survival mode, which sees a player leave the game every time you score, is a welcome curio and a good shout when you have some football-loving friends around. No rules is a right laugh. It rekindles memories of my childhood kicking off in around the park, it's 25-a-side and before it's dark, there's gonna be a loser and you know the next goal wins. And the new cloud-based stat-tracking is brilliant. I play FIFA all-year-round with Eurogamer guides writer Chris Tapsell, and finally we can use stats to work out who's best (spoiler: why always me?).
Graphically, FIFA 19 looks the part. Some of the player faces - especially those belonging to the really famous players such as Pogba, Neymar and Ronaldo - look astonishingly realistic. Eyes remain an issue - as they do in most video games - but on the whole FIFA 19 looks as good as I expect a football video game can look on the current generation of consoles. The stadium atmosphere varies depending on where you're playing. The officially-licensed Spanish and Italian stadiums look and sound fantastic (EA does a wonderful job with crowd sounds), but some of the unofficial stadiums look flat. The Champions League licence - nabbed from Konami for this year's game - is a welcome addition for FIFA fans, although the commentary is awful. European games are voiced by Derek Rae and Lee Dixon, who do their best with what they're given but sound terrible in-game. They're often behind the play, and you'll notice repeated lines. Martin Tyler and Alan Smith remain for the rest of the game, and neither will be worried by this latest signing.
And it's only fair I mention FIFA's official licenses, which are easy to take for granted. I know gameplay is king, but I really do enjoy playing what looks like an actual Premier League match, with all the official team names, kits and stadiums. FIFA 19 is a show of strength from EA Sports licensing team, with the addition of the Champions League, the Chinese Super League (hey, Hulk's back!) and Serie A, the latter of which arrives just in time for Ronaldo's swansong in Turin. There is some debate over whether FIFA plays a better game of virtual football than its rival, PES. When it comes to licenses, though, EA won the war long ago.
Legacy gameplay problems remain, though. Defenders still have that annoying habit of running away from the ball when you least want them to. Player switching remains a dark art. And every now and then input command buffering will see you blast a shot from the halfway line. And a word on the chip shots. FIFA has always had awful-looking chip shots, and they're just as bad in FIFA 19. PES 2019 has gorgeous chip shots, deft flicks and sumptuous-animated scoops. When FIFA players go for a chip shot it looks like their legs turn into ladles. I suspect we'll have to wait until FIFA hits the next-generation of consoles before ingrained stuff like this is sorted out.
And now, we come to Ultimate Team, FIFA's most popular mode, its biggest money-spinner and, for me, the game at its most fascinating. FUT remains a deeply problematic experience, but it's one I cannot tear myself away from. Amid the furore over loot boxes, pay-to-win accusations and child gambling concern, FUT is relentlessly compelling. The appeal is clear: building a team you've grinded for then using it online to beat other players is right up my personality type. Fussing with team chemistry, which, thankfully, is more transparent this year, boosting stats with special cards and hunting down special versions of my favourite players is more than a joy - it's an all-year-round obsession. Packing a superstar, a Ones to Watch card or a Team of the Week player is a genuine thrill. I feel like I should apologise for liking opening packs in FUT, but the truth is I don't just like it, I love it. There's a reason EA makes billions from selling the packs. I'm part of the problem.
EA Sports deserves credit for improving FUT significantly this year. Squad Battles remains a great option for time-starved players who want to get stuck into FUT and earn good rewards but don't have the time or inclination to play competitive multiplayer online. The new Division Rivals mode, which is a sort of mid-core offering sandwiched between Squad Battles and FUT Champions, is a great twist on online seasons, and EA Sports has been smart in plugging it into the Weekend League qualification process. Speaking of the Weekend League, EA has made FUT's most hardcore mode more accessible and less gruelling, which as someone who has reported on the impact it has had on some players' well-being, is a welcome change. In FUT Champions in FIFA 19, you have the option to play up to 30 games during each Weekend League, down from 40. This reduces the total amount of time required to complete matches in the Weekend League by 25 per cent. Those who take FIFA really seriously have rejoiced at this news. It's a big deal.
FUT is brilliant, but it is also soul-destroying and it is also grim. While EA now discloses pack odds, FUT is by definition a pay-to-win experience. You can grind out FUT Coins by playing the market and fussing over Squad Building Challenges, and I've seen some astonishing FUT 18 squads built by players who haven't spent a penny. But the fact remains you can pay for a chance at better players in FUT. The only way FUT could be more pay-to-win is if you could drop £50 on Ronaldo direct (via third-party websites, you kind of can).
Is buying card packs gambling? As I've said before, I go back and forth on the answer. Sometimes I think, well, it's just like buying football stickers. Of course it's not gambling. Then, usually when I'm desperate for one more hit, I find myself convinced it is. The thing is, if I'm not sure, then how must children rationalise it? Kids make up an enormous portion of the FIFA audience and as a parent, I'm not sure I want my kids to get stuck into FIFA Ultimate Team. I am worried it would teach them how to gamble. FIFA 19, like FIFA 18, does nothing to calm my fears.
FUT is built around encouraging players to buy more packs, whether that's with earnt FUT Coins or with real-world money. It is exploitative and it is a huge amount of fun. As I enjoy the satisfaction that comes from creating a world-class FUT squad, I worry about how I got there. FUT is not a black and white issue. It is a murky business, one operated with a fine-tooth comb by the revenue generators at EA Sports who crunch the data and watch the numbers go up with each perfectly-timed promotion. Team of the Week cards, Ones to Watch cards, Ultimate Scream cards... every week there's some new incentive to buy packs because standard cards are never enough.
FUT makes it difficult to make some sweeping judgement about FIFA 19. For so many players all that awesome stuff about the new kick off mode, the terrible but charming The Journey story campaign and, well, anything outside FUT really, may as well not exist. Sometimes you wonder whether even the developers know anything outside FUT exists. (Career mode is once again the black sheep of the FIFA family, a mode that benefits from the Champions League licence has little else that's new to shout about this year.)
What I can say is that I think FIFA 19 is an excellent game with some problems. Gameplay wise, I think it's a marked improvement over FIFA 18. I love the new modes, the new quality of life touches and even tiny changes such as being able to quickly sort cards you get from packs (yep, I'm that invested in FUT that the latter is a selling point for me). FUT 19 will probably end up my most-played video game experience of the next 12 months. And yet so much about it troubles me.
The FIFA 19 experience, then, is the video game modern football deserves. It is jumping and screaming at Slab-Head's smashing header in the quarter-finals of a World Cup held in a country with an abysmal human rights record. And it is allowing your jaw to drop at Cristiano Ronaldo's overhead kick against Juventus in the quarter finals of the Champions League despite the fact he agreed to pay a fine of close to £17m over tax charges.
Football fans are a fickle lot, after all.