The beautiful game at its most glorious, and its most grotesque.
I find myself quite cross with FIFA 20. This is a game with meaningful, welcome changes on the pitch. This is a fun football video game made by developers who clearly love football and are well aware of community feedback. But FIFA 20 is also a video game made by a publisher that's seemingly incapable of changing some of the problematic stuff that comes with each and every FIFA game - at a time when the conversation has most certainly changed.
Let's start with the good news. Pace is back. FIFA 19 had an annoying issue where decidedly average defenders would catch up with fast players. Even Chris Smalling could do it. No more. In FIFA 20, fast players really do feel fast. This is very much a good thing, in my book. So much of modern football is about pace and running in behind the defence, and so it is in FIFA 20. I find myself looking for that winger run pretty much every time I work the ball in midfield and, if I can get it to my winger, attacking the box. There's a real sense of immediacy to FIFA 20's gameplay, a staccato rhythm to play that rewards quickness of thought. Pass, pass, pass around the corner then bang! The likes of Mohamed Salah and Kylian Mbappe are devastating in FIFA 20 - as they are in real life.
Speaking of bursts of pace, the new strafe dribbling, dubbed "crab walking" by the FIFA community, returns after a hiatus brought on by its overpowered star turn in FIFA 17. This powerful technique feels particularly useful in the context of FIFA 20 downplaying skill moves (the El Tornado cross auto-goal is a thing of the past). The idea here is to lure the defender in with crab walking then beat them with speed or a skill move. It's fun, satisfying and perhaps ever so slightly too effective. But what's certain is it beats normal left stick dribbling.
Shooting is more clinical, as it had to be. FIFA 19's shooting was unreliable, particularly in one-on-ones. FIFA 20's shooting feels on target. It's perhaps a little by the numbers. Gone are the gravity-defying antics of FIFA 19, thankfully. And while the controversial timed finishing mini-game introduced with FIFA 19 makes it into FIFA 20, it's downplayed - and it's certainly less powerful. All these shooting changes are welcome, but the knock-on effect is there's a slight dullness to the act of putting the ball in the back of the net. Overpowered first-time finesse shots from outside the box are in the bin. The new meta is about working it into the box for a flash finish.
Scoring goals in FIFA 20 is more realistic, I would say, and given FIFA is supposed to be a football simulation, better. Bullets from midfield into strikers, who, by the way, are very good at controlling the ball, are viable. Pass inside, one-two, another one-two, trap, stand-up your defender for a devastating one-on-one, then use that powerful pace stat to burst and, boom, it's one nil. Nice work.
Defending is improved in that player switching tends to work well - although not all the time - and the manual defending encourages you to switch to the player closest to the ball, rather than let the computer do all the dirty work while you use the defensive midfielder to chase the ball down like a headless chicken (I'm looking at you, N'Golo Kanté). The new tackling system, when it works, means fewer instances of the ball ending up with the attacker or one of their teamates after you make a perfectly reasonable challenge.
Speaking of the ball, FIFA 20's isn't great. There's this new bobble thing it does as it travels across the grass, but this feels like an aesthetic effect, something on the surface, so to speak, rather than the result of virtual forces. Despite work done on the physics of FIFA's ball for 20, it remains unconvincing, and looks particularly bland when moving from left to right and right to left. There are a few new arcs, mostly from outside of the foot passes, but FIFA 20's ball struggles, which is a shame.
FIFA 20 looks great, but there are no significant improvements over FIFA 19 that I can see. Some of the player faces are astonishingly realistic. Virtual Paul Pogba, once again, is remarkable. All of Liverpool's players - now officially part of the FIFA family - look incredible. The official licenses add to the authenticity. But FIFA doesn't have the fluidity of its rival, PES. Its animations still feel a little janky and its players still skate across the pitch when they should be grounded upon it.
Overall, though, FIFA 20 plays a fun game of football. Fast players are fast, crafting goals is more realistic than it was in FIFA 19, and the shooting is more reliable. 20 plays a better game than 19. Is it the best football video game ever? No. But it's a good laugh. I enjoy playing it.
Unfortunately, off the pitch, FIFA 20 has made no concession to the current concern around loot boxes, and that worries me.
FIFA Ultimate Team, the game's most popular mode and EA's golden goose, is pay-to-win and, via its loot boxes, a gambling mechanic. Not a surprise mechanic - a gambling mechanic. You can't cash out? Yes you can. Even if you couldn't, FIFA's virtual items carry huge value among the game's community, a value that for some means more than money. FUT normalises gambling for children and exploits them with grubby promotions that suggest highly-coveted cards are only in packs for limited time periods. And, the ultimate crime: with the launch of FIFA 20, once again FUT fans must start from scratch. All the blood, sweat and tears put into FIFA 19 discarded as if it were a right stick flick down quick sell.
I really like playing FUT. Building an ultimate football team and pitting it against those of other players is, fundamentally, a brilliant thing. The menus are better this year, easier to navigate and more intuitive (I particularly like the new radial wheel for dealing with individual cards). You can play inconsequential friendlies with your Ultimate Team, utilising some of the silly modes such as no rules and survival. It's a lot of fun.
But it's shocking, really, that FUT continues with its head buried in the sand. Adding pack probabilities only serves to highlight just how unlikely you are to obtain high quality players. Changes to the way Icons are obtained are welcome, but ignore the issues with loot boxes and, yes, some are only available for a select period of time.
FUT now has a battle pass, and this is where I think FIFA needs to turn over the next few years as loot boxes become untenable. Here, you gain experience points for completing objectives and progress through tiers that unlock a variety of items, including cosmetics (kits, crests, stadium themes, tifos and celebrations), FUT Coin boosts, loan players, packs and, at the end of the line, a quality player for keeps. This battle pass is free and it's a grind I can get behind. I really do hope EA Sports makes the battle pass the focus throughout FIFA 20's life and the series as it transitions onto the PlayStation 5 and the next Xbox.
Indeed, there's a whiff of next-gen FIFA in waiting about FIFA 20. Much-needed improvements have been made to Career Mode, but they're unlikely to convince anyone who was uninterested in previous efforts. Kick Off mode has added a few new off-topic ways to play, including a fun for a bit King of the Hill mode and a Mystery Ball mode that boosts the stats of the players (3X speed boost is proper Benny Hill stuff) when the ball returns from going out of play. All fine and welcome, but novelty at best.
And then there's Volta mode, a kind of FIFA Street mode that has a story, a curious RPG party-gathering mechanic and lets men and women play on the same team for the first time in a FIFA game. The story is not great. You play someone who's joined a street football team that's hell bent on making a splash on the world stage. Disaster strikes as the star player tears his cruciate ligament, sparking a mass exodus. There's a pantomime villain who is also a sexist. You globe trot on a plane and soldier through your journey to stardom and that's about it. I say soldier through because that's how it feels. Volta does a quite criminal thing in that it challenges you to play in knockout tournaments, but if you lose a game you have to start the tournament all over again. Volta is not a fun enough mode that I'm happy to replay nearly an hour just to progress the boring plot.
Volta doesn't work long term, I think, because in FIFA the closer you get to the pitch the worse it gets. FIFA's at its best on a full-sized pitch where your mind sort of fills in the blanks created when players collide, the physics go on strike and animations jolt into place when they realise someone's looking. On a five-a-side pitch, FIFA's gameplay issues are laid bare and the players feel at their most skatey. FIFA is a game full of skill moves, but, 4v4 or 3v3, the lack of granular control over the ball is a real problem.
Outside the story, Volta is about creating a player, leveling them up, spending points in a skill tree (really) and then shopping for clothes. Volta does the role-playing game thing of quality-grading clothes, which is an odd fit. I am not joking when I say you can buy an epic pair of pants. You can get a legendary jacket. I am very much not fussed about all this, but some will be and that's cool. Well, I suspect Volta is not cool in the way middle-aged white men who try to be cool are never cool. But Volta is harmless. You can't pay real-world money on microtransactions for the silly threads. What a thought!
Ending on Ultimate Team feels like the right thing to do. It is the mode that has come to define the FIFA experience. In many ways it's the mode that has come to define EA as a publisher, too. Where is your Ultimate Team, I hear executives ask of the company's thousands of developers across the world. It is a blessing and a curse, the best thing in football video games and the worst.
FIFA 20 is the first Ultimate Team I can remember where everyone knows its number. FIFA's pay-to-win essence, its exploitative loot boxes and grubby promotions went ignored by the specialist press for years because, well, this is FIFA. It's football. It's not Star Wars, or Battlefield, or BioWare. It's the ultimate casual game. The game for chavs.
FIFA 20 is all these things but it's also better than FIFA 19. I've already played loads of games against Eurogamer's second-best FIFA player, Chris Tapsell, and I've had a great laugh. I've scored some screamers. I've lost to added time goals. We've leapt off the sofa at shocking refereeing decisions, missed open goals by Marcus Rashford and magic from Mason Mount. We've picked apart the game, worked out what's changed, what's better and what's worse. We've had bloody good fun. And it's all undermined by corporate greed and a stubborn refusal to do what's right.
A bit like real football, then.