FIFA 19 Re-Review: How EA Broke Its Promising Game

Nick Akerman@NakermanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2019

B/R Football

FIFA 19 has had a terrible year. Whether you sink time into Ultimate Team, Career Mode or just play casually with friends, the game has failed players miserably.

EA Sports' title has endured so many problems that much of our positive review from September is no longer applicable. The pre-release code Bleacher Report accessed has continued to change so dramatically that FIFA 19 has lived the life of multiple games.

In our original review, we stated: "It's going to be hugely interesting to see how the new mechanics develop over a year's worth of play." This was meant optimistically. With additions such as timed finishing to explore, FIFA 19 looked to be giving players genuine choices to make when implementing their play style.

It has taken a little over four months for this to come crashing down.

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FIFA always evolves over the course of a year—gameplay will understandably need tweaking after being exposed to millions of matches—but the problems run far deeper this season. New features are broken, updates have failed and player bases have been alienated.

The game's loss of balance has meant players who want to be competitive are reduced to exploiting an overpowered route to goal, with timed finishing and lofted crosses being the main culprits (depending on the patch).

Timed finishing has proved to be one of the worst additions the series has ever seen. The premise is great, and prior to release, it looked as if this would expand the skill gap between average players and those who master the perfect attempt on goal. However, up until the game's seventh patch on Jan. 22, timed finesse shots eliminated the divide altogether.

 

Even the best goalkeepers on the game (think David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois) had little chance of saving a well-timed finesse shot from the edge of the box before this date. All players needed to do was work the ball to the penalty area, turn away from the nearest defender and launch a curled finish into the top corner.

You could see the pattern of play form a mile away, but often there was little chance of stopping the net from bulging. This annoyance was amplified when a badly timed shot—taken by a player who wasn't even facing the right way—nestled into the back of the net.

YouTuber MattHDGamer provided two examples of many:

That's almost four months of FIFA's annual cycle with a broken mechanic in place. The argument could be made to not use it, but then you'd have been putting yourself at a massive disadvantage against everyone who did. EA even included a weekly FUT objective to not score finesse shots in multiple wins. It shouldn't have been a challenge.

The developers tried to lower the efficiency of timed finishing with two patches before the most recent one. Both posts detailed and explained the technical side of the system well, but in reality, they made no difference to ridiculous goals being scored in every match.

Only now has EA managed to tone it down but almost to the point that the risk-reward command isn't worth using anymore. Whereas slightly mistimed shots used to go on target, they are now likely to land closer to the corner flag.

There's also an inconsistency when perfect shots are hit, meaning players have far more control if they steer clear of timed finishing. This isn't the skill gap increasing; it's the developer quietly trying to brush aside a highly promoted mechanic that doesn't work as well as it should.

As a result, many players have switched emphasis to using wingers and playing lofted crosses into an aerial juggernaut like Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The trajectory of the ball is difficult for AI defenders to cut out and isn't something that can be consistently cleared, making it an overly simple route to goal. Chances are almost guaranteed to be made. Frustratingly, players have been forced out wide by the way FIFA 19's defending system has regressed.

Auto-defending remains a huge problem in FIFA. Players who manually chase down possession with a midfielder—leaving their defence intact by not touching them—hold a huge advantage over those who want to actively use their centre-backs. Combined with timed finishing's ineffectiveness and a general feeling of clunkiness since the last patch, it's now a herculean task to break down a defence when it is not being controlled on the edge of the box.

This has been a significant problem since FIFA 17 and is a prominent way in which the skill gap is shortened by allowing players to excel with minimal effort. Oddly enough, FIFA 19 had looked to be on the right path with this, as noted in our review: "[...] FIFA 19 rewards those who can spot tackling opportunities and pounce with perfect timing."

There was a snap to tackles before release. Timing made an impact, and there was a noticeable reward for those who could step out of position to win possession with their defenders. A useable manual defending system would act as an antidote to timed finishing in its current state—you should be able to close space and heavily affect your opposition's attempt—but this has never been the case.

As detailed in a November patch, EA has already made multiple tweaks to try to address the auto-defending problem. In the aforementioned update, blocks from AI-controlled team-mates were weakened, and the distance the ball travels after a successful tackle was increased.

At the time, all this did was expose your goal further and provide the opposition greater space to unleash a timed finesse shot when possession inevitably bounced back to them. Now, the advantage lies with the vacant defenders. The balance continues to swing like a pendulum.

The need to manually defend is also lowered by a player-switching system that can leave teams in trouble. Switching is unresponsive and has a tendency to wait until it's too late in key moments, as highlighted by FIFA pro Daniele "IcePrinsipe" Paolucci:

It's these kind of moments that sum up why it's often better to just chase back without ever switching. Every time you switch player, you risk unwittingly opening yourself up for the opposition to waltz through.

In fact, the most effective switch in FIFA 19 has proved to be manually taking control of your goalkeeper, who could be turned into a virtual Superman even if you misread where a shot was going before the most recent patch.

Stuttgart pro Marlut highlighted the rapid recovery time—which was far greater than an AI goalkeeper's—in this clip:

Goalkeeper movement doesn't take long to learn. Nor does it take long to spot when someone is using it. It's too dramatic to be a sustainable feature; you're either left with an unbeatable wall or someone who is going to let in every shot.

Many attacking scenarios only have one viable part of the goal to aim at (especially if a defender is in front of you), so quite often the goalkeeper will come out on top. Like timed finishing, the idea holds weight, but the execution isn't right. The chasm of getting goalkeeper movement right or wrong is too pronounced.

The FIFA series needs to reward solid judgment over exploitation of game mechanics. A workable balance is never struck between timed finishing, auto-defending and goalkeeper movement, meaning matches are riddled with unfairness that is hard to justify.

"I've been a FIFA player for as long as I was old enough to play—we're talking Road to World Cup 98 here—but this year, the year of FIFA 19, is the first one in which I have essentially turned my back on the game," B/R's Sam Tighe said.

"I don't want to play it. I don't enjoy it. I haven't played for approximately six weeks. When friends ask for a game online or colleagues ask for a game at work, I give them a flat-out no. It is simply not something I wish to spend my time doing because it is not fun.

LONDON,ENGLAND – JANUARY 21: MoAuba competes for the team Werder Esports in the Gfinity FIFA 19 Global Series, held at the Gfinity Arena on 21 January 2019 in Fulham Broadway, London, United Kingdom (Photo by Joe Brady/MB Media/Getty Images)
MB Media/Getty Images

"This, despite putting at least £100 of my own money into it (game purchase plus FIFA Points). It's no crazy investment, but it is something—one which would usually hook someone into pursuing with the game because they felt they had to. But I had no problems putting the controller down before Christmas and saying to myself 'yeah, I'm not doing that again.'"

Frustration is elevated considerably if you're an Ultimate Team player who doesn't want to spend, as the pay-to-win formula is the worst it's ever been. This isn't a great look when FIFA esports is gaining traction and competitors must use their own teams to qualify for events.

Adding in the fact that Belgian players can no longer purchase FIFA points because they have been outlawed as a result of the nation's gambling rules, and there's real questions as to whether EA's competitive field is designed to reward the best players or those with the biggest bank accounts.

"I feel sorry for FIFA pros," Tighe said. "Unlike me, they can't walk away from a game that just doesn't work. They're literally required to suffer through it, to grind through qualifiers and then go to events which could genuinely be decided by a weird bounce, a glitch or a goalkeeper's decision to let a penalty straight through his legs. Imagine putting thousands of hours into something and being 'rewarded' the way they are."

Casual players might be able to overlook these kinds of issues, especially if they're just enjoying FIFA with friends, but it's important to note anyone who picks the game up has been shortchanged. An undercurrent of other problems run through matches no matter your skill level or dedication.

The kick-off glitch still exists even though it was supposedly patched on FIFA 18. Odd bounces litter each game, frequently giving one player a clear advantage. In real football, how often do you see a striker hit the post, only for the ball to land perfectly back at their feet for a tap-in?

Sometimes, the game is quite clearly working against you, no matter what you do:

An untreated formation glitch continues to ruin matches. For example, strikers and central midfielders have a tendency to switch position, meaning you could be left with N'Golo Kante busting a gut for a late goal and Ibrahimovic defending a lead in the last minute.

This has even been visible in professional tournaments, wherein thousands of dollars are handed out in prize money. It's the equivalent of Call of Duty players being forced to down their weapons and fight with their fists.

These kind of inconsistencies make FIFA 19 a cruel experience. Football is a game of drama and unexpected things happen, but this doesn't translate when strange mechanics overrule control in a video game. Players looking for improvements are given hope these issues will be fixed, and expectations raise when a new patch drops, but reality quickly sets in that it's just offset the balance elsewhere.

While EA's communication has improved with regard to Ultimate Team, the Career Mode fanbase has been left to suffer. In our review, we raised concerns that this area had "taken a backseat" after barely changing in years. Although disappointing, it was perhaps bearable for one more season. However, things quickly got worse.

Shortly after FIFA 19's release, a bug was accidentally patched into Career Mode. This would see developing players in your squad hit with a minus-one to their rating, often after training or when they're in good form. It took months for a fix to be offered. This is massively concerning when you consider newer issues were addressed quicker in Ultimate Team.

Some Reddit users even suggested the bug was a deliberate ploy to push more people towards FUT. There's no denying Ultimate Team gets a greater deal of attention and a quicker response time. Even if it's not intentional, EA offered a clear message with its extended silence. It's time the Career Mode players are properly catered for, as FUT would barely exist if hordes of dedicated single-player gamers didn't buy the product year-on-year before the money-spinning mode was born.

The FIFA community is one of the most vocal in gaming. If there's a problem, EA will know about it. Even so, the FIFA "pattern" is becoming more extreme as the years go by. The product we're sold always takes time to show its true colours, but there never seems to be a satisfactory resolution before the next game arrives.

Like the kick-off glitch and auto-defending appearing across multiple games, once September rolls round the battle begins again. It's undoubtedly tiring for everyone. Evidence on the pitch so often doesn't match communication from EA, furthering the irritation of a community that expects more.

It's frustrating that, in a year in which EA is hosting multiple FIFA esports events across the globe, there isn't greater visibility on what's being done to improve the game for average players.

Aside from top-notch production and huge prize pools, FIFA isn't esports ready, and the entire community is being made to suffer for it. Everyone is united in their desire to have a fair game that rewards players for their time. Priority No. 1 should always be getting the product right.

The reality of this scenario is difficult for players and EA alike. Perhaps the Frostbite engine just isn't cut out to run such a complicated game. Maybe the annual release date elevates problems because there's always something new to deal with.

Right now, FIFA is neither a football sim nor a fun imitation of the sport. We closed our original review with the line, "FIFA 19 might turn out to be the most important since Ultimate Team arrived in 2008." This still holds true, but not for the right reasons.

        

Original review score: Gameplay: 8.5/10, Graphics: 9/10, Modes: 8/10, Overall: 8.5/10

Updated review score: Gameplay: 4/10, Graphics: 9/10, Modes: 4/10, Overall: 5.5/10

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