FIFA 20 is in a difficult position. Over the past year, EA Sports has engaged with the community and continuously asked for feedback in order to improve on FIFA 19. While admirable, this leaves the next release with nowhere to hide.
Even casual players will understand the typical FIFA pattern by now. EA retunes on an annual basis, often undoing the work from the previous season with its latest update. One year, the game may be too fast or tailored towards average forwards who dominate with pace. The next, boosts given to defending and strength have been known to swing the balance too far in the opposite direction.
An update in kits, transfers and everything cosmetic means the year-on-year release will always sell by default. However, FIFA 20 has intensified its own spotlight by calling on the community for feedback and fresh ideas.
B/R Football recently got hands-on with the upcoming title—both traditional 11 vs. 11 gameplay and the new Volta mode—and first impressions are slightly concerning. Considering FIFA 19 players have endured a year of irritation, made up of severely unbalanced mechanics, exploits and regular patches, it's important to address these issues ahead of the September 27 release date.
The most immediately noticeable difference in FIFA 20 is the slower gameplay. Passes don't snap together as well, and there's more emphasis on recycling possession to create space. You have time to plan your route forward, but it's tougher to sustain momentum. This is a more composed game when in possession, but it doesn't take long for things to unravel off the ball.
EA producer Sam Rivera presented a number of new features before the hands-on, headlined with the deliberate slowing of pace. Intelligent player movement was also front and centre, and while it looked impressive, wild inconsistencies makes FIFA 20 a frustrating experience in its early state.
Teams are designed to consciously work as a unit, maintaining a structured formation and using greater intelligence to track runs or close space. With one-on-one battles amplified, it's important your players are in position to face down the man in possession.
The new controlled tackling system gives you a greater chance of retaining the ball if you time your challenge well. On FIFA 19, successfully performing a tackle often saw the ball bounce back to the opposition, making commitment to the challenge futile. The tweak aims to stop players relying on AI defending and the irritating act of switching off defenders and chasing back with a midfielder.
For a few years, it's been too easy to win games by barely controlling your back line, even in FIFA's growing esports scene. Ironically, EA has looked to tackle this, but the results are mixed. Words like "realistic" were thrown about in the presentation—seemingly a synonym for "slower"—but the game currently doesn't match the ambition of the developers.
Quite often, the retuned AI actually left the team more exposed. Playing as Liverpool—arguably the most effective high-pressing team in the world—was a constant guessing game of what my team were going to do.
At one point, while I was in control of left-back Andy Robertson, Sadio Mane was busting a gut to try to win the ball from the opposition's winger as he entered the final third. I was closer to the ball and more likely to win possession, but Mane just kept sprinting back.
When I did win the ball, there was no counter-attacking outlet as Mane ended up deeper than my defender's position, rendering an attacking move down the left wing useless. The intention behind Mane's run was clear, but the execution was off.
Similarly, things in midfield were difficult to follow. Fabinho and Jordan Henderson were easily waltzed through, often remaining motionless until the other team were already bearing down on goal. There was no effective tracking and no indication that smarter technology was at play.
Arguably the worst annoyance came after a shot in my penalty area. A strange goalkeeper animation saw him parry the ball into play and then run in the opposite direction as the ball dropped for the striker to finish.
The closest defender looked at the incoming forward and decided not to move. Despite both my AI-controlled players being favourites to win the ball, the lingering sense of injustice that plagues the series resurfaced.
One of FIFA's worst traits over the past few years has been the AI's incompetence allowing unfair events to unfold, and it seems no different here. Under extreme scrutiny—when thousands of users are playing—the AI's lack of decisive action is likely to become an issue. The slower nature of each match makes the problems stand out clearer than before.
This extends to another of FIFA 20's big tweaks, which is the suggestion that pacy forwards will no longer be unrealistically caught by defenders who'd never catch them in real life. While it's obvious there's now a speed difference between the two, physical attributes significantly counteract the change.
Strong centre-backs seem readily equipped to deal with the likes of Raheem Sterling or Kylian Mbappe, whose best means of winning individual battles comes by knocking the ball past the defender. With skill moves toned down slightly, smarts bursts of speed and changes of direction are useful ways of beating an opponent.
Defenders still have the power of recovery, and while they may not be as quick as before, holding the player back and going shoulder-to-shoulder is often enough. Each match felt in favour of the defending side—especially in the aerial battle—but perhaps it will take a longer session with the game to unlock the attacking potential of the world's top stars.
The dribbling attribute has the biggest impact on speed with the ball, so pace and acceleration won't solely dictate which players are most lethal with the ball at their feet. Hopefully this allows players like Isco and Luka Modric to become more useful than they've been in previous seasons.
There are other smart yet subtle tweaks that make a difference when you're moving forward. You can now change the direction of your pass at the last second with a deliberate shifting of weight, completely taking defenders out of the game if you time it well.
Players can also receive the ball more effectively while sprinting, maintaining the speed of an attack and building the momentum needed to break down the defence. It's these little moments when FIFA 20 shines best at this stage.
Passes hit bobbles on the pitch and can spin out of control, but it doesn't affect gameplay too much. However, the physics of the ball take on greater prominence during set-pieces, which have been reworked to give players more variety.
Both penalties and free-kicks are going to take time to get used to. The aiming reticle for penalties is sensitive and reacts to small touches of the stick, meaning your attempts on goal have the potential to go spectacularly wrong.
Free-kicks also aim for variety, with whip playing a huge part. EA wants players to be able to replicate goals like Lionel Messi's in the UEFA Champions League semi-final against Liverpool. Aiming well wide of the goal is now key if you're adding spin, although the angle becomes tighter if you opt for a knuckleball shot. There's room to experiment and mix things up.
It's impossible to deny EA is carefully thinking about how to evolve its series. With graphics and presentation largely remaining the same, it's under-the-bonnet work that will make a difference.
Although there's a handful of neat additions, AI inconsistencies are glaring and will feel the wrath of many if they aren't improved upon release. It's difficult to draw many conclusions from a few hours with 11 vs. 11, but it's not an instantly fun experience. This is something amplified by Volta.
EA's decision to bring back street football is a crowd-pleaser and will interest anyone who enjoyed the FIFA Street series. Volta isn't about caricatures and ridiculous gamebreaker shots, though; this closely resembles the realistic FIFA Street reboot from 2012.
Matches are breathless. This mode has been brought in to lower the entry barrier for new players, although it's simultaneously designed so that veterans of FIFA's main series don't have to relearn anything.
Volta acts as an accelerated version of the 11 vs. 11 game. Flair passes are simple and skill moves are easy to perform, although they aren't essential for winning matches. In fact, it seemed considerably easier to recycle possession with short passes and wait for a shooting opportunity than to try to destroy your opponent with tricks.
Pitches vary in size and style, with Tokyo's high-tech vibrancy contrasting nicely alongside London's urban scene. Commentators are regional, and although the Japanese announcer fits nicely, using AFTV's Troopz is sure to irritate plenty of players on the English stage.
While entertaining, Volta has a few issues that need to be fixed. Players feel slightly slippery and not completely in control of the ball, more akin to FIFA 19 than this year's updated gameplay. Most worryingly, AI defending is extremely overpowered.
Our defending massively improved when leaving a man on the line and switching to someone else to chase down. Using the player nearest the goal felt unnecessarily exposing, as the automatic block from the AI proved consistently effective. Long, lunging tackles are common as there's no sliding option, and it's quite easy to continually hack away at your opponent's ankles to win the ball.
Small goals mean it's far tougher to finish simple chances. It often seemed safer to walk the ball in than shoot into an empty net, although that is likely down to a lack of familiarity with the mode. At entry level, goals in Volta never seemed guaranteed from positions you'd expect to finish from.
However, it only took a handful of matches to work out an overpowered route to success by using a chipped pass and volley. Suddenly, every angle on any area of the pitch became a potential goalscoring position. The success rate was almost game-breaking. We tested in multiplayer and across multiple difficulties, so this will need to be looked at ahead of release.
On first play, FIFA 20 features a handful of interesting ideas that aren't quite firing correctly. There's evidence the community is being listened to, but at this point you have to wonder whether FIFA needs a complete rework—Frostbite and all—to truly change.
There are reasons to be cautious, reasons to be optimistic and a nagging sense that it's going to be another busy year for EA's feedback team.