Not too long ago, I tried to introduce a friend of mine to FIFA in the hopes of having someone new to play with. I taught him the basic controls, had him play a round against beginner A.I., and just generally tried to ease him into the game. But as he struggled with even basic moves up the pitch, it quickly became obvious that it would take more than an afternoon to get him acclimated to what is generally regarded as the most accessible sports sim around.
This is the problem EA, 2K, SIE San Diego Studio, and every other sports sim developer have to face: How do you get in fresh blood? How do you reach out to people who are hardcore soccer fans but relatively casual gamers?
Answering that question is a big part of FIFA 20. It features some nice updates to both FIFA Ultimate Team and Career Mode, and the gameplay gets a pretty big boost this year. But it's a new mode, Volta, that headlines this year's version.
If you look past the obtuse name (EA took a page from the Vita with this one), Volta is basically an imported version of the old FIFA Street games. Its goal: get new players comfortable enough to play modes like Career Mode and FIFA Ultimate Team, and at some point maybe even replace the latter as FIFA's main monetization engine.
Back in August I called Volta "the missing piece of the puzzle" for FIFA 20, favorably comparing it to World of Chel, which is NHL's own take on casual outdoor sports. I enjoyed its quick pace and large number of features, and I liked the idea of a new story set across the world's outdoor pitches and futsal courts. It felt as if EA was basically dropping a whole new game into FIFA—one that wasn't bedeviled by microtransactions in the same way as FUT.
But now that it's time for the actual FIFA 20 review, I'm a little more ambivalent about it. It's not that the mode is bad per se, I just don't think it's really for me. That might be okay though, because I'm what EA might call a "hardcore" FIFA player, and this is definitely geared toward someone who isn't that.
In Volta you create your own character—both male and female avatars are available—and start them on a journey around the world. Variants include 3v3, 4v4, and 5v5, whether in caged courts or on open floors. Most games take place in small spaces, so the games are extremely fast-paced and feature a lot of scoring. There's also more of an emphasis on razzle dazzle dribbling, a little of which can go a long way toward forcing a 2-on-1 and getting a goal. If you win, you can recruit a player-created character pulled from the cloud and add them to your squad.
It sounds simple, and it mostly is, but it's big enough that you can probably spend a dozen or more hours on Volta alone. It includes cosmetics to unlock, an online seasons mode, and even a full-blown story mode in the vein of The Journey—the trilogy starring Alex Hunter that wrapped last year. It's refreshingly different from the core gameplay, so if you're feeling tired of FUT or career mode, you can always switch over to Volta.
It all sounds pretty great on paper, and I have to say that the actual mode is well-conceived and implemented. It's just that Volta itself is... a little tiring. There's definitely some skill to it, but the rapidfire ping-pong nature of the games can feel arbitrary, as you never know when a ball will bang off a wall and onto an opponent's feet. It's geared toward casual players, so the actual strategy is more or less non-existent. The cosmetics are heavily sponsored athleisure—the sort you would buy for $120 at Lululemon. The story is a heavy-handed take on sexism in sports (not a bad thing necessarily!) mixed with a quest to win the world championship of street football. Its vision of the streets resembles a 90s drug PSA.
No matter how it's ultimately received by fans, Volta is definitely here to stay. EA has clearly invested a ton into the mode, so it's not going to be a one-and-done. Its heavily branded cosmetics point to a new monetization model for the series, suggesting that EA is prepping for the possibility of a post-loot box world. There are no microtransactions right now, but I fully expect a mix of premium cosmetics and sponsorships to arrive at some point in the near future.
As for the old model of monetization—FIFA Ultimate Team—it's a bit under siege now, isn't it? In his FIFA 20 review over at Eurogamer, my colleague and unrepentant Chelsea fan Wesley Yin-Poole criticized EA's failure to "read the room" in continuing to push loot boxes in FUT. Regulatory bodies are closing in, and it seems like every other week that the BBC has the story of some eight-year-old in Cork getting hold of his mum's credit card and dropping 500 quid on FUT packs.
FUT is never not going to be controversial, and the criticism of its predatory gambling model is deserved. But, sigh, I guess this is where I admit that FUT is kind of my mode of choice these days. I like building my team off the market, and I think modes like Squad Battles—in which you battle CPU-controlled teams for big rewards—are really well done. It's the best expression of online play in the game. Oh for a world in which FUT had all of this without the whole predatory monetization element. But I guess that's like wishing for world soccer without all of the corruption.
My queasy fascination with FUT is compounded by FIFA 20's core gameplay actually being really good this year. As always, this is subject to the inevitable balance patch that screws everything up, but I think FIFA has found the right balance with this version. FIFA 20 brings the pace down considerably, putting a greater emphasis on steady build-up and winning one-on-ones. Free kicks and penalties have been revamped, and for my money, great improved; particularly free kicks, which previously featured murky mechanics and a low success rate. Input delay seems like less of a problem this year, making it possible to play some elegant combinations as you work your way up the pitch. It's been an adjustment revamping my tactics from the breakneck pace of previous games, but a welcome one.
FIFA will probably be my sports game of choice this year, even if Volta isn't really doing it for me. It was FIFA that got me into soccer in the first place (and a lifetime of supporting West Ham... goddammit), and every year my appreciation for the sport grows a little more. I'd be lying if I said this has been a sterling generation for the series, as a rickety transition to Frostbite and frustration over a lack of career mode updates have undercut its stronger elements, but FIFA continues to understand better than most the value of a fun and accessible sports game experience.
You can see it in certain elements, like how much easier it is to scout talent in career mode than in a similar game like Madden or NHL. Little minigames between the loading screens also help to get you comfortable with the basic mechanics. My friend may not have been able to master FIFA in an afternoon, but it's still much easier to pick up EA's soccer sim than, say, NBA 2K—a game I'm still not entirely comfortable with.
With a brand new mode in Volta, some much-needed updates to career mode, and overall much-improved gameplay, these qualities shine all the brighter. Hopefully this is a good sign for the future as EA looks ahead to the impending next console generation, and to the transition that will surely be necessary as loot box legislation finally comes to fruition.
FIFA 20 revives the old Street series with a new mode featuring futsal and outdoor soccer, but it's the core gameplay that shines brightest this year, bringing down the pace in a way that feels nuanced and enjoyable. With additional updates to Career Mode and FIFA Ultimate Team, this year's version is easy to recommend to lapsed fans and newcomers alike.