'FIFA 19' Review: Getting Closer To The Beautiful Game

fifa 19
(Photo: EA)

FIFA 19 is one of the best FIFA games in years. A massive improvement over FIFA 17, and a considerable advancement over FIFA 18, FIFA 19 is far from a perfect game, and is still shackled by gameplay inconsistencies and its annual release format, but for the first time since 2016, a new FIFA feels like an appreciable upgrade.

We all know FIFA 17 was arguably the worst FIFA, ever. And while 18 was better, it still felt frustratingly weighed down by the shortcomings of 17. Speed -- explosive players like Leroy Sane, Gareth Bale and Kylian Mbappe -- have defined previous releases to the point that the beautiful game was almost unrecognizable. FIFA 19 addresses this and produces an experience that is the closest thing to simulation yet. Again, FIFA 19 is the best FIFA in years, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its own laundry list of issues.

Gameplay is king. Who cares what features are in career mode or how shiny a Wilfried Zaha UT card is if the actual simulation of soccer is a wad of rubbish. FIFA 19 slows down gameplay and asks players to elevate their tactics beyond holding the sprint button down and playing the crack version of Sarri-ball meets Jose Mourinho’s greatest-ever counter-attack. No, tactics matter more than in previous games. Building up attacks matters more. Determining a team’s tactical weakness matters more. It’s like real soccer, well almost.

fifa 19 neymar
(Photo: EA)

Before lambasting the game for everything it does wrong, how about we give it props for what it does right, or at least better than ever. Remember when you wouldn’t just do give-and-gos and dribble in FIFA? You remember that thing called passing? No? Well, does the word possession ring a bell? Remember why Cesc Fabregras is good? Well, he’s finally relevant again, because passing is the best it has ever been.

Whether it’s playing a long diagonal ball to a winger bombarding down the left side or breaking down defenses with smooth tiki-taka play, passing feels responsive, realistic, and almost always reads exactly who you’re trying to pass to. Is it perfect? No, but neither is David Silva on his best day. There will be an occasional errant pass, but for the most part, passing is reliable and capable of being the cornerstone of your playstyle.

Shooting in the past few FIFA has been a rollercoaster ride. Whether it was the finesse shot of FIFA 16 with accuracy you could bet your house on, the ease of pulling off screaming Charlie Adam-screamers of FIFA 17, or the unpredictability of FIFA 18, shooting has never felt right. But I think EA have finally figured it out, in-part thanks to its new Timed Shooting mechanic that has been added.

Timed Shooting is a simple, but impactful addition. With it, you can generate more power, command more control, but ultimately sprinkle some magic goal dust on your shot by timing a second tap of the shoot button to perfection. Previously it felt utterly random when a wondergoal would manifest. Now, it feels like you earned it. Though a wondergoal isn't the result every time, your shot is always at least improved. And it’s not always straightforward and mindless to do, because the motion for each shot is different, so as the name suggests, you have to actually pay attention and time it.

Shooting is largely balanced. Each shot type, each angle, feels viable, and none feel overpowered. However, the AI, on higher difficulty levels, does seem capable of the extraordinary way too often. For example, earlier today while playing Manchester City as Chelsea, Aguero netted not one, not two, but three bicycle kicks in one game. But okay, Aguero scores goals for breakfast, so I can overlook this. A few games later Vincent Aboubakar hit the most unbelievable bike I’ve ever seen that he can undoubtedly never pull off. This is harder to forgive. Luckily, these freak moments of brilliance for the AI are the exception, not the rule.

fifa
(Photo: EA)

Dribbling continues to feel tight, fluid, and enables players to express flair and magical moments. However, there is the occasional horrible first touch, but given FIFA is a simulation and not an arcade experience, this makes sense, even if it is vexing.

Meanwhile goalkeepers, which often feel overpowered or underpowered, feel pretty balanced in FIFA 19. Further, they react and animate in the most natural way, ever. However, problems still persist. For one, goalkeepers get up off the ground with an urgency of Zlatan Ibrahimovic tracking back. Seriously, goalkeepers sometimes seem to forget they are competing in a London derby, with just how nonchalant they act.

They also couldn’t track a cross to save their life. Goalkeepers in FIFA 19 are terrible at intercepting crosses, and reading a near-post cross vs. a far-post cross. And they shuffle their feet like a dance party at a retirement home. I don’t know how many far-post cross goals I’ve conceded because a goalie refuses to adjust to the play.

And lastly, in the era of ball-playing goalkeepers with excellent ball control and feet, every goalkeeper with the ball plays like Peter Cech’s worst nightmare. Seriously, the amount of terrible first touches and inability to receive and pass with urgency is perhaps the game’s farthest point from simulation. And with the AI’s godly pressing abilities, this issue is only exasperated in offline play.

fifa 19 goalkeeper

You know what is also kinda broken? Crossing. My proof? The other day, Mario Gotze -- with 51 heading accuracy, 58 jumping, and standing at a very average 5’9 -- scored two spectacular headers contested by much bigger players with much better jumping and heading abilities. Crossing isn’t always broken, but it is the one thing I notice that can break as easy as Gary Cahill under a high press.

For one, it feels like any player over 5’7 has the potential to pull out a prime Peter Crouch meets an in-form Edison Cavani. Two, AI marking (which is DRASTICALLY improved from the last game) occasionally will still utterly break on crosses, particularly crosses to the far-post. Three, sometimes defenders refuse to jump, especially when facing the goal with an attacker on their back.

The result is a level of randomness that is a juxtaposition to what is otherwise a pretty realistic sim. Whether it’s defending crosses or attacking with them, my body tends to tense and one eyes closes: bracing to concede another header I could do little about or to erupt in jubilation because I once again scored and there was little I did to earn it.

Meanwhile, corners continue to be the worst part about FIFA. Goalkeepers are once again either plucking balls out of the air like LeBron James or placidly doing nothing. And it continues to feel like a complete and utter die roll.

PETER CROUCH
(Photo: Stoke City)

Lastly, there is the tackling, which has been considerably improved. In FIFA 18, tackling head on without enough momentum was usually a death sentence. More often than not, you got steam rolled no matter what players were involved. Players also way too frequently would stick out a foot like a teenage girl trying to squish a spider, rather than stick in, making the feeling of getting a hearty, crunching tackle almost non-existent.

In FIFA 19, tackling head on is pretty flawless, though sometimes players literally -- and I mean literally -- bounce right off attackers. But for the most part players stick in, and the days of an attacker going through you like you weren’t there are over.

But if you’re tackling from the side, well then you might have an issue. I don’t care if you have Jerome Boateng coming in hot on Christian Atsu, if it’s from the side, there’s a chance your tackle will do nothing. Again, this isn’t the norm, but sometimes I found my players literally incapable of tackling from the side and winning the ball.

What’s more emphasized in tackling -- and on the other side retention and shielding -- than ever before is strength. Playing players who rely on strength has never been very viable in FIFA, but now it is. The strength stat matters and is shown in all aspects of the game, and the same goes for every stat. Good tackelers are good tacklers. Bad tacklers are bad tacklers. In past FIFAs we’ve been spoiled with just being able to do it all with almost all players, that’s not the case anymore, and it’s refreshing and for the better.

fifa 19 tackiling

This is one of the best playing FIFA’s in a long time, and certainly the most realistic. There’s other small qualms I have like refs giving out yellow cards like its candy; goalkeepers still have no clue what to with an uncontested ball heading towards the end line; and sometimes when players should be volleying it they try and head it from 18 yards out. Oh, and why does every loose ball always end up at an attackers feet? Alas, these are just small qualms, and thus are easy to overlook, most of the time.

They are especially easy to overlook when they are balanced with a ton of small touches that go a long way: such as the addition of a random celebration feature, more tactical options (like giving a CDM the option to cover wide or center), and a scoreboard that doesn’t immediate update to give away whether a goal was offsides or not.

fifa 19 chelsea

What’s not easy to overlook is the treatment of career mode. Okay, you added Champions League and Europa League. Or, should I say PES handed it over. But even Europe’s competitions are undermined with bad new commentary (Lee Dixon in particular has bad delivery, and there seems to be a delay bug where sometimes the commentary lags behind what’s going on).

And beyond the allure of that awesome Champions League music, career mode is largely untouched, and that’s inexcusable. Unrealistic transfers still splurge out every window, there’s incorrect rosters, and just lack of substance in off the pitch content. I’m not suggesting FIFA needs to be Football Manger, but I’d appreciate it if they attempted to craft a realistic manager or player experience to accompany their realistic sports sim. At this point, if I had to describe career mode with one word it would be: stale.

Career mode being treated like Mourinho treats Luke Shaw is somewhat less glaring thanks to the new custom rules and survival mode in Kick Off. Seriously, who ever came up with survival mode and custom rules, give a raise and a promotion, because that’s the type of creativity that needs to be injected into FIFA.

Customizing a match to have no rules, such as no fouls and no offsides, gives the game a more arcadey feel and is great to enjoy after a stressful match of breaking down Burnley on Legendary or to play with friends for a more casual and mirthful experience.

Meanwhile, survival mode -- where each time you score you lose a player -- is not only a nice notch in the belt of variation, but it makes playing with less skilled players more enjoyable as the mode naturally balances out play across different player skills.

There’s also cloud-based stat-tracking that provides more insight into gameplay specifics and the ability to play cup games and finals. Neither of these are game changing additions, but they further pad out a mode EA forgot existed for a little bit.

fifa 19
(Photo: EA)

If new kick-off options makes the increasingly threadbare career mode easier to stomach, The Journey just makes me want to throw it back up. The Journey is a good idea, in some theoretical universe where EA dedicates the proper time and resources to it, but in reality, it’s insipid. I honestly don’t get who this mode is for, and who plays it.

Sure, The Journey is a good tutorial, but pitching it as a story mode feels like a stretch. Luckily, it’s the end of Alex Hunter and Danny Williams’ tale, and hopefully EA puts to bed this mode and uses the saved resources on career mode. The story is bad, the dialogue is even worse, and I’m tired of running drills. I just don’t get what the vision was for this mode. How am I ever supposed to care about these characters and their stories when it’s obvious even EA doesn’t care about them.

And then there’s Ultimate Team. And if you didn’t know FUT makes EA Chinese League wages- type money, you will once you get your hands on FIFA 19, because it’s clear as day that it’s EA’s breadwinner.

FUT is better than in previous years, but if you haven’t been sucked in by it in the past, there’s nothing new to suck you in this time around other than perhaps the Division Rivals mode, a competitive offering for the less hardcore (think of it as in-between Squad Battles and FUT champions).

Meanwhile, the excruciating grind of Weekend League is a little less likely to make you hate playing FIFA, as it is now only 30 games rather than 40. For many FUT players, this will still be too much, but for the hardcore fans down to pound out some Weekend League, this will be very welcomed news.

You can also now see the depressing odds of card packs, as well as other smaller refinements, such as an improvement in clarity of team chemistry. Again, if you’re a FUT junkie, you will appreciate some of these finer changes, but if you aren’t drinking that card pack juice, then there’s really nothing to see here.

fifa 19 jerseys

Opening a card pack is a blissful visual stimulus few things can match, though the game’s graphic fidelity sure gives it a run for its money. Chugging on the Frostbite engine, FIFA continues to look great, but also feel great.

Sure, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba look uncannily real, but it’s the flash and detail around them that’s impressive. While the generic stadiums continue to feel a little flat, the fully licensed and detailed stadiums -- such as the premier league stadiums -- are brought to life with an incredible eye for detail and meticulous sound work. The singing of Annfield, the realization of Old Trafford, it all goes a long way in selling not only an immersive experience, but earning the right to be called a simulation game.

Another massive improvement that can’t be understated is the improvement made to the collisions system and animation. The jank of past FIFAs is not nearly as prevalent, and the new animations make sure the game in motion looks as good as the game static. I just wish there was some more real player faces, because players without them really do stick out awkwardly next to players whose faces were scanned into the game. And I also want to take this time to condemn EA for what they did to poor Alex Witsel, who looks like he escaped a prototype of FIFA 11.

fifa 19 stadium

FIFA 19 isn’t just FIFA 18, but refined, it’s a considerable upgrade. An upgrade a little obsessed with overhead kicks, but an upgrade nonetheless. It still is far from perfect, but for the first time in a few years, it feels like it’s heading in the right direction. Now, just add the Russian League back, please.

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ComicBook's Score: 4/5

DISCLAIMER: a (PlayStation 4) copy of the game was provided by the publisher.