This FIFA 19 review was first published on September 19. It has since been updated with more detailed thoughts, a score, and a second opinion from USgamer EIC Kat Bailey.
Soccer is often all about the moment, the sense of glory and jubilation over a goal or result, but perhaps more often fans and players feel crushing disappointment. When I was 10 years old my Cub Scouts soccer team crashed out of a massive tournament in the semi-final. This would have been memorable enough, but the real scarring moment is how we lost. With the teams tied after what I imagine was an awful, scruffy display of sub-amatuer children's soccer, the game went straight to penalties. Being a leftback at the time, I was more or less safe from having to take a high-pressure shot on goal, or so I thought. 3-3 with one kick left each, the boy set to take our final spot-kick started to cry (as young kids are prone to do when faced with extreme pressure). I was next in line, and you can deduce what happened next. No amount of talk about how the keeper got lucky with his foot or how I was "brave" to take the penalty in the first place will change the fact that I will likely remember that moment for the rest of my life.
Compared to real life soccer and rival video games, EA's FIFA series has been bad at creating these moments and memories. FIFA's high-gloss, showboat version of soccer has been perfect for creating an illusion of reality, but switch the console off and everything I'd done would disappear alongside the power. You could argue that Ultimate Team has created endless memories for players, but not for me. As much as I've enjoyed the mode at times over the years, it's never stayed with me. But I remember where I was when John Terry slipped while taking that penalty in the Champions League final, and I remember shouting the F-word at lunchtime on Christmas Eve, much to the amusement of my family, having conceded a late goal in the Champions League final in Football Manager.
In FIFA 19, EA has finally created a game that has the ingredients to make memories. The importance of getting the Champions League back can't be understated given its prestige in the real world, but it's the moment-to-moment gameplay, the increased sense of control, and the seeming freedom to create that excels the most. In FIFA 19 I feel more connected to my players than I can remember being in a FIFA before. I'm invested, which is a big deal in a franchise that has previously offered little more than throwaway thrills.
On the pitch FIFA 19 is the most exciting the series has been in a long time. FIFA has made huge strides since it was criticized for being "on-rails" and "rigid", but it has never quite managed to offer the fluidity of Konami's PES series (although that game has had its fair share of issues over the years, too). Hardcore PES fanatics will still argue that this is true, but an overhaul to FIFA 19's animations, some neat improvements to first-touch control, and a new timing-based advanced shooting system (that admittedly at first seems like more hassle than it's worth) has resulted in players controlling the ball more naturally and attacks often ending with unique finishes.
Give it a few weeks and no doubt someone will have discovered the "best" way to score goals, but right now I'm enjoying being creative. Depending on your team's setup you can counter at pace, your front four breaking with such speed even the most disciplined defenders will feel the fear, or control the ball in midfield while you wait for the mistake and punish it with a killer ball that splits a previously steadfast defensive unit. All these things have no doubt been said countless times over the years, with one FIFA merging into the next, but I can't remember ever being so impressed by the feel of a FIFA.
Team management during matches has also been improved thanks to the new Dynamic Tactics system. In FIFA 18 you can use the d-pad to alter the playstyle of your team (making them go ultra attacking, for example), but your chosen formation remains the same. In FIFA 19 you can set up five different game plans, each with its own custom formation, tactics, and player instructions. These game plans can then be implemented on the fly while you're playing, so you're able to quickly adjust to how a match is progressing. For someone like me who never really bothered tweaking tactics during matches, this new system completely transforms the management side of FIFA. If you're entering the final five minutes while holding a 1-0 lead, switch to your Ultra Defensive custom game plan to give yourself a better chance of seeing out the game, but Ultra Attacking will give you a better chance of rescuing a seemingly lost cause. How much you want to tweak these game plans is up to you, so if you don't want to tinker too much you can stick with the default settings for each game plan.
This increased sense of being truly in charge of your on-pitch actions has had a huge impact on how I feel about what I'm doing across the seemingly never-ending string of game modes. I care about my Career Mode save, even though the mode itself is largely the same as what we got last year, absent the addition of Champions League and Europa League branding. Whereas recent FIFAs have relied on manufacturing feels through the contrived moments in The Journey, in FIFA 19 I'm invested in my own story. It's cliche in the extreme, but I am still thinking about the incredible performance my Spurs side put in against Arsenal in the North London derby, scoring an 85th minute winner after a break from a corner. The speed and fluidity in which we broke, along with the incredible looking touch from Kane as he took down a lofted through ball, was on another level from what I've experienced in soccer games before, all wrapped up in EA's slick presentation package.
The way FIFA 19 looks is easy to take for granted, but aside from some well-known players receiving pretty bizarre facial models, this is about as good as I imagine current consoles can manage. Take a look at PES 2019 and you'll see just how fine tuned FIFA's never-ending set of nesting menu screens are. There will be options you'll only discover months after you start playing, having finally taken the time to root around in the depths of the sub menus.
One area in which EA is actively trying to create memories through traditional video game storytelling is The Journey. FIFA 19 offers 'Champions', the final part of the trilogy started in FIFA 17. As much as I enjoyed The Journey when it was introduced, the third time around highlights numerous issues. Although 'Champions' includes three playable "heroes", it largely feels like it has in the previous two games, with the hub screen highlighting which character it recommends you play as. In short, this new mechanic adds little new to the formula. Other new features, such as mentors, simply don't do much to improve what I felt has been lacking in The Journey: the sense of being a legitimate soccer superstar.
Throughout The Journey Champions you'll be taking part in training drills with Alex, Danny, and Kim, on the surface implemented to make you feel like you're a real soccer player, but in reality padding out the story. If you're coming to FIFA 19 having skipped 17 and 18, these sessions might not grate as much as they did for me, but it all feels rather old hat at this point, especially when you do the exact same drills with each player. It doesn't help that performance in these (and warm-up matches) directly influences your chances of making the starting XI, and auto-completing the tasks usually results in poor ratings and the chance of being bumped to the bench.
There are some great moments in The Journey Champions, but more often than not it feels like a British TV soap opera version of a professional soccer player's life rather than the real deal. This is highlighted early on in the story by Danny, Alex's friend. Danny, who in my game has signed for Spurs (a club entering its third successive year in the Champions League, but bizarrely has lower league expectations than Arsenal!), gets a sponsorship deal he's excited about. This isn't with Nike, Gillette, or any number of other huge brands associated with sport, but a chain of some twenty fish and chip shops across the UK. No doubt this is intended to highlight Danny's character, but it comes across as silly in the extreme. Playing for a Premier League club is a dream for kids (and adults) all over the world, and here it feels like a joke.
The silliness is a shame, as there is real potential in a storyline that shows how the relationship between friends and family members is strained when people find fame and fortune. EA doesn't quite pull it off, partly because the storytelling is so bitty, the focus still on playing a lot of soccer. Next year, assuming EA continues with a story mode, I'd like to see less of a grind through training and endless matches, and more time given to developing characters.
The Journey feels like it's run its course in its current form, but off the pitch there have been some excellent quality of life improvements. Kick-Off, the ever-present way to play matches against AI or friends, has been given a host of new options. House Rules is the most fun, letting you choose from five game modifiers. These options, such as Long Range, which makes goals from outside the box count double, and No Rules, which disables offsides, fouls, and bookings, make friendly matches a little more interesting. This, combined with enhanced stat tracking, means there's more reason than ever to play with friends and rivals, rather than online randoms.
FIFA Ultimate Team is EA's cash cow and will be played by millions of people; it has also seen some modest changes. Chief among them is a reworked chemistry system, that makes the impact on player stats clear to see. This, combined with EA detailing exactly how to calculate chemistry, has made this key element of FUT feel less like alchemy and more like science.
For me, last year's introduction of FUT Squad Battles completely changed the way I tackled Ultimate Team and got me playing the mode properly for the first time in years. They're back and FUT will once again be my go-to mode to play when wondering what to do with a few spare minutes in an evening, but it's the Weekend League and the associated modes that will be the big draw for most players. While FIFA 18's Weekend League was lucrative, it was incredibly gruelling and somewhat impenetrable for all but the most hardcore, EA has changed things up this year to give more players a chance to compete.
FUT Division Rivals sees you taking part in placement matches, which essentially determine how good at FIFA you are and which division to place you in. Once you're in a division you play matches during the week to build your Skill Rating, with excellent performances potentially leading to moving up to a tougher division. While Division Rivals is its own mode, complete with its own rewards, it also lets you earn points for Weekend League Qualification. You can also now decide when to use your points, so you don't have to enter the Weekend League if you're not going to have time, saving your hard-earned points from going to waste. Playing in the Weekend League is still time consuming, but in FIFA 19 you earn qualification points for a future Weekend League while taking part in the current one, too. Ultimate Team can feel rather overwhelming if you're not pumping at least 20 hours a week into it, but EA has clearly taken feedback onboard and its solution is a good one.
There has been valid noise in recent months about FIFA Ultimate Team's pack buying, and whether or not it is indeed gambling. What's for sure is that FUT is absolutely a mode in which money matters. Throw enough real world dollars into the game and you'll build up a great squad. It is possible to grind out FIFA Coins to buy packs or attempt to land bargains on the marketplace (if a bargain still exists in FUT any more), but you just know that other players are taking the easier, but more expensive route. I'm often torn about Ultimate Team. I love opening packs, getting that short thrill as I dream of packing a Neymar or Ronaldo, only to quickly come crashing back down when I get another bunch of completely average squad players. I'm not going to spend real money on it ever again, but the desire to grind out coins to spend is still real. I'm just not sure the mode, as Pay to Win as it is, should exist in a $60 game.
I like FIFA 19 a lot. There are clearly still issues, both new and old (I've seen goalkeepers behave like drunk toddlers when trying to save scuffed shots, defenders can still sort of just stop moving, and for some reason everyone is doing overhead kicks), but I'm having a lot of fun and there is a desire to keep playing—not only FUT, but Career Mode, which is something I've largely ignored for years. FIFA, a game on a strict single-year dev cycle, is more or less the same game year to year with maybe five or ten percent of newness sprinkled into the mix. The key to FIFA 19's success is just how much of a difference that seasoning has made.
The key difference in FIFA 19 is how much better it flows. As Tom describes, it's pure delight to launch a counterattack and see how your players effortlessly fill the proper gaps and get forward through the defense. Overlapping runs are definitely a thing this year—enough so that I've hesitated to have my fullbacks always come back on defense as I have in past versions. I feel like I'm playing 10 percent better in FIFA 19, which I suspect has a lot to do with the reduced input delay and smoother, faster gameplay.
That alone makes this year's version worth a look. The improved action on the field necessarily makes Career mode, Ultimate Team, and The Journey (I guess) that much more interesting. Like Tom, I've been spending the bulk of my time in FUT, grinding Squad Battles and occasionally taking on human opponents. FIFA's heart and soul is its head-to-head multiplayer, which is what makes this update so critical.
Career mode fans probably won't be too happy with this version. Outside of the new UEFA Champions League and Europa League branding, it's basically the same as last year. The Journey, as Tom describes above, likewise feels tired, and has probably run its course at this point. As usual, FUT is where the action is. With the newly-added ability to save your Weekend League tokens for when you're ready, it's much easier to take FUT's competition at your own pace.
In that respect, some may find this year's version disappointing. But on the pitch, at least, FIFA appears to have regained the tight, free-flowing gameplay of previous years. And that is the crucial step forward this series needs.
FIFA 19's headline new feature, the Champions League, adds to an already slick and fine tuned package, but it's the subtle gameplay tweaks that have made EA's latest such a big success. On the pitch FIFA offers more control than ever before, finally making for a game that isn't just about showing off to mates.