FIFA 19 is the series' most daring release in years. It's conscious of where the game is currently at—a developing esport, but also one of the most casually played titles in the world—taking on the challenging task of catering to both audiences.
PES 2019 came out swinging with a strong showing in August, but FIFA 19's reply is ballsier and more progressive than many would have expected.
This is a game of layers, one that can be learned with different intensities depending on your skill set and dedication. The lack of skill gap between average and pro players has slowed FIFA's rise on the competitive scene, with most games being reduced to certain patterns that give a favourable chance of scoring. FIFA 19 looks to tackle this head on with fresh mechanics to learn and take advantage of.
With that said, you could fire up the game every day until FIFA 20 arrives and be just fine without ever using the new Timed Finishing or Active Touch features. You could avoid small, yet significant tweaks to your tactics and still come through getting plenty of wins. But if you want to compete at a high level, you better learn these nuances. EA Sports has opted to separate the good from the great with a hidden depth that will pass many players by without impacting their enjoyment.
Timed Finishing is the standout example of that. The premise is simple; instead of pressing shoot once, you must tap the button again before your player strikes the ball. The second press is visualised by two closing gates which must stop in the green zone to launch a thumping attempt on goal. Land in the red, and you'll spoon the ball into the stands. Time it perfectly and you'll be putting the goalkeeper in trouble.
Most players will get a decent rate of efficiency pretty quick with this method. It's not difficult to find a rhythm, but the real challenge is knowing when to call on it. Timed Finishing is useful from outside the area, or when there's space to blindside the goalkeeper by curling a shot around the nearest defender, but traditional shooting remains sharpest in the box.
The system is situational—everything from who you're controlling to body balance and momentum are taken into account—meaning you'll need to make snap judgments on whether the risk is worth the reward. A perfectly timed shot won't always go in or even hit the target, so it's important not to overindulge. With the overpowered low-driven shot now nerfed, it's timely that FIFA 19 forces players to make a decision every time they're zoning in on goal.
This sense of being able to do more is woven throughout. Players take more touches on the ball, meaning there's greater room for control but also to lose possession. Active Touch is a smart way of calling on players to use reactions in order to escape danger or create space. You'll quickly get used to flicking the ball away from incoming pressure, although it isn't an essential practice.
Passing remains snappy and an inconsequential stat, even if an increasingly intelligent AI system forces you to take greater care of possession. EA Sports isn't trying to compete with the ultra-realism of PES' ball physics and Konami's want for you to carefully consider each pass, but it is adding nooks that will help players define their own style.
A new tactical system amplifies this considerably. FIFA has never been particularly successful at letting players use specific game plans, but this year's iteration makes noticeable improvements. Multiple plans can be set up before a match, allowing you to switch without having to pause the game. Each can feature a unique formation, tactical setup and player instructions, meaning you can seamlessly rejig your side to defend a lead or search for a last-minute winner.
Elements such as your style of play, width and even the amount of players getting into the box for set pieces are visualised to make your decisions easier. For those who want to fully customise everything, game plans are both accessible and complex enough to solve the most difficult conundrums on the pitch.
Being able to halt your opponent's wingers by expanding your width, or taking advantage of a high line by spotting room for the dreaded long ball is a smart way of letting football fans utilise their knowledge. Small tweaks can have a huge impact, even if possession play seems to be the most powerful route to success at launch. Cute passes are likely to eventually pull defenders out of position, but it'll be interesting to see which tactics come to prominence when the game is fully released.
Defending is always a point of contention, particularly as the last couple of seasons have allowed gamers to get away with using minimal effort. The go-to shortcut has been manually switching to a midfielder and chasing back, keeping the defensive line tight and eliminating any gaps that might appear. This takes little thought, and it is one of the areas that was ripe for changing to widen the aforementioned skill gap. Like the new shooting mechanic, FIFA 19 rewards those who can spot tackling opportunities and pounce with perfect timing.
Shoulder-to-shoulder challenges are powerful and largely risk-free, as just putting your body in the way can retrieve possession. Midfield battles now have more than one phase, as there's greater scope for winning the ball back straight away. If you're tackled, you can disrupt your opponent by sticking a foot in, or win an interception by shutting down the passing lanes (something FIFA 19's skill games emphasise).
It's easier to mount attacking pressure than before, especially as the change of momentum between jogging and sprinting is important for skipping away from danger. In fact, acceleration looks to be a pivotal stat this year, as those who are quick off the mark often seem faster than players who boast better pace.
The Ultimate Team community has been widely despondent about many players' pace being downgraded, but in practice it just seems like a change in direction for how speed is measured.
FUT remains familiar territory for anyone who's dabbled with the pack-opening phenomenon before. The key difference this year is Division Rivals, a twist on the Weekend League that aims to keep things competitive for players of all abilities.
The Weekend League's major downfall is it has never catered to those who can't play 40 games across three days each week, so it's good to see EA lower the schedule to 30 matches per week. Alongside Division Rivals, this should make a difference, although this part of the game wasn't available at the time of writing.
Squad Battles is back for a second year in FUT, but this time the difficulty is brutal. In one match on Legendary, I conceded three bicycle kicks—two from Marouane Fellaini and one from Aaron Ramsey—before Fellaini completed his hat-trick with a 30-yard volley. The computer missed one of 10 shots across two matches in a difficulty jump that will need patching in time for release.
The AI isn't quite so sharp when working through the new modes that come under the "House Rules" banner. They don't flick the ball up enough for Headers and Volleys (often picking normal shots), or cause havoc when "No Rules" is being played. Although these matches are fun with a friend, they won't garner much attention from the single-player crowd. Nobody wants to see a cut-back in the "Long Shots" mode.
With new ideas littered throughout, it's disappointing that Season 3 of The Journey is so slow to get going. Alex Hunter is joined by sister Kim and friend Danny Williams in a trio of interweaving storylines that you can experience as you wish. Very little has changed as EA winds up a saga that feels like it couldn't go another year.
Although the drama remains enticing, it's the constant training sessions and low-key matches that show it's time to move on (even if there's a cool introduction). The characters have run their course in what has been a successful experiment, but the same cliched problems with agents and needing to prove oneself underline how there's nowhere else for the series to go. Williams is also the most annoying Englishman in gaming since Assassin's Creed's Shaun Hastings.
Career Mode, too, isn't offering many new ideas to get players excited, even if the UEFA Champions League licensing adds sparkle and is integrated well throughout (although the commentary is PES levels of bad).
Like Konami's series, Career Mode players seem to have taken a backseat as the online cash juggernaut continues to steer EA Sports' main focus and resources.
This is definitely a FIFA to get excited about, though. EA has previous when introducing something game-changing every few years, and additional layers such as Timed Finishing might well be it.
These risks need to be taken if the game is going to progress, both as an esport and something you can casually play with friends. It's going to be hugely interesting to see how the new mechanics develop over a year's worth of play. For now, FIFA 19 might turn out to be the most important since Ultimate Team arrived in 2008.
Game Summary: Gameplay: 8.5/10, Graphics: 9/10, Modes: 8/10, Overall: 8.5/10.