FIFA 20 Review: Defending Shows Glimpse of Future as FUT and Volta Disappoint

Nick Akerman@NakermanFeatured ColumnistSeptember 23, 2019

EA Sports

It's getting more and more difficult to review FIFA each year. These days, the game we play before release usually ends up morphing into something completely different, for better or worse.

Take B/R's initial 8.5/10 score for FIFA 19 and compare it to the re-review verdict of 5.5/10. Two very different games—separated by five months and numerous patches—meant the initial verdict was never going to hold true.

The deepest issues often arise after millions of matches completed by thousands of players, something one pre-release reviewer cannot replicate. As such, this review should be considered FIFA 20's first grading in a year that is likely to be littered with gameplay updates and tweaks.

Much has been made of FIFA 20's slower pace when compared to last year's game. There's a more measured style here, one held together by AI team-mates who consciously hold position in midfield and defence.

Although passing remains simplistic—you won't accidentally hit it to the opposition often—it takes a steadier approach to begin your ascent up the pitch. You may have to recycle possession, pass sideways and take your time to build momentum.

Changes of pace in your passing therefore become key. If the opposition is rigid and tough to break down, sending a runner forward or playing an incisive through ball can carve open space. Through balls have the biggest chance of error, but nail a cutting pass and you'll likely be through on goal.

The acceleration and pace of your forwards is vital. Strikers such as Kylian Mbappe and Marcus Rashford, who can speed away in just a few steps, tear through defences with ease. There's no catching them if you're not switched on and thinking ahead of time. 

If you're used to auto-defending, the emphasis on speed and changes to defence are going to be a shock to the system. For the unaware, auto-defending is where you consciously keep control of your midfield and don't switch to a defender when the opposition attacks, chasing back with the selected midfielder to win possession. 

This was extremely rewarding in recent years, levelling the playing field in an unfair way. On FIFA 19 it can be more difficult to score against someone who puts down their controller than someone who is actively using their defenders. FIFA 20 attempts to eliminate this annoyance by placing an emphasis on positioning and reacting to incoming threats.

Manual defending is certainly more essential here, but there are still problems. Winning a tackle is rarely the end of the battle, as the ball has an unhealthy habit of bouncing back to the opposition. Although it doesn't ping away to the other team like it used to in FIFA 19—there's more of a 50-50 to be had—the issue is frustratingly consistent. Timing your tackles is important, but solid defending is built on positioning and reading scenarios ahead of time.

Switching to the correct defender before danger arises is a key way of stopping opportunities. Player switching isn't always great and can leave you in trouble by picking the wrong defender, but it's encouraging the game is trying to teach players to deal with problems themselves.

Annoyingly, even if you pressure the forward into botching their shot, rebound goals are still rife and can undo your hard work. Normal shots are more likely to cause goalkeepers problems than previous years, so suspiciously placed rebounds that favour the forwards appear too often. 

The prominence of pace is forcing a certain style of play online; notably an extremely deep back line with players dropping back to plug their own half. It will be interesting to see how this trend develops as people get used to the game.

Defenders like Aaron Wan-Bissaka are extremely useful due to their ability to turn and accelerate quickly to snuff out an attack. Less so are physical, yet slow centre-backs who are easy to take out of the game with a couple of quick passes. Manchester United may have spent big on Harry Maguire, but he's unlikely to make it into many teams.

FIFA still struggles to make every player useable. Cult heroes of games gone by—your Ahmed Musa, Seydou Doumbia-type speedsters—are all the rage, even if their overall rating isn't as high as more well-rounded players. 

Defending aficionados will likely testify otherwise, but right now, the game feels slightly too aggressively tuned in favour of forwards. The abolition of auto-defending is a step in the right direction and is likely to amplify the skill gap between good and great players. However, EA needs to ensure the game isn't reduced to endless pace teams, especially as better cards are released on Ultimate Team. 

FUT users haven't got many new features to get excited about. The updated menu system is cumbersome in places, despite smart additions such as being able to quick sell multiple contracts at once. Changing and finding players in squads is clunky, and it just seems to take longer to carry out simple tasks. This was perhaps the one area in which FUT didn't need a drastic change.

Spending is still key if you want to remain competitive. Pay-to-win mechanics are nothing new, but they are becoming more widely discussed in mainstream media, and already at this stage there are huge discrepancies in the quality of teams you'll come up against online. Facing a team that includes multiple icons before the game is fully released is about as demoralising as things can get.

EA does offer a free Battle Pass style route to improving your team, but even at this stage if you're grinding without spending, you're likely lagging behind. The greed is underlined when you consider that many children who get the game on release will be pushed into spending to stay on a level footing for a few weeks.  

FUT has the potential to be one of the best modes in all of gaming, but right now, it remains a Wild West that takes advantage of many players who aren't given the resources to know better. Whether you think EA or gamers are the ones who need to take responsibility, something isn't right here, and it'll reach a tipping point before too long. If you've never been hooked before, you won't be now.

This year's big attempt at finding a new audience is Volta mode. The spiritual successor to FIFA Street is a headline-maker and smart marketing ploy, but the smaller-sided matches amplify the franchise's wider issues. 

Volta is built around a cliched and bland story in which you play as an upcoming street footballer who has to step up when their team's superstar player gets injured. It's less exciting than the worst parts of The Journey and features a script that feels like it was written by a grandparent who is "down with the kids."

Characters are uninteresting and, bizarrely, appear on opposition teams even if they're in your lineup for the same match. In a mode that preaches about individual expression through your outfit and style of play, it's weird that these duplicates also appear wearing exactly the same clothes as your originals.

Volta gameplay is frantic, yet it remains simple and easy to exploit. Skill moves are meant to be key, but the most efficient players will bypass it for sharp passing and instant finishes. This is a mode where you can easily miss an open goal if you overthink a shot, then moments later be backflipping off a wall in celebration after hitting a bicycle kick from far out.

By far the easiest way to score is the chip and volley. As noted in our preview from August, this is a serious problem that needs to be fixed. Chipping the ball to a team-mate in space and firing an instant shot results in too much success, no matter your distance or angle from goal. It's easier than normal long shots or spending ages working the perfect chance.

Auto-defending was overpowered in the preview version of Volta. Leaving a player on the line and tracking back influenced games massively, so it's good to see EA has listened. Manually closing the shooting lanes will halt chances far more regularly than letting the computer block; an animation that often sees your nearest defender step over the ball as it goes in.

Volta falls into the no-man's land of not being a fun FIFA Street throwback, or a particularly entertaining modern take on street football. There's no player caricatures or unstoppable game breakers (the original series' Roy of the Rovers-style special moves). 

Instead there's a loose-playing, surprisingly dull mode that's built around a story that's more cringy than entertaining. It's a bizarre misstep for a company that is so integrated into football culture.

Away from Volta, minor changes to Career Mode will be hard-pushed to excite players who have grown tired of the formula from the last few years. The same interface is used and irritations from seasons past are doubled-down on.

Transfer negotiation cut-scenes remain, but you'll now also take your players out to dinner to discuss new contracts. Cycling through repetitive dialogue just to get an answer is tiresome, especially if you plan to renew a handful of contracts in one go.

Press conferences are slightly more interesting, but like in eFootball Pro Evolution Soccer 20, you'll likely skip them as quickly as possible after going through it a couple of times.

A basic morale system has been added, meaning you can directly make your players happier by giving the right answers, perhaps a snapshot of something more interesting for the future. Right now it's rudimentary and feels like a token gesture from a team who hasn't had many new ideas.

Some odd happenings litter career mode, too. Clubs seem to always prioritise youth players, leaving big names on the bench despite them being fully fit. This could mean Troy Parrott starting over Harry Kane for Tottenham Hotspur in the north London derby, a brave call that would make little sense at this point in time.

Staying with Spurs, their opening transfer window was also remarkably strange. Superstars Kane and Heung-Min Son were sold for huge sums and then replaced by 32-year-old Eibar winger Pedro Leon. The occurrence is even more confusing considering the insistence on youth elsewhere, underlined by a dynamic potential system that can elevate the status of youngsters if they put together good form.

Despite changes on the pitch, FIFA 20 will be overly familiar for FUT and Career Mode players alike. Volta fails to live up to expectations and underlines how FIFA Street should be its own franchise, built on its own engine. It's currently too serious and plain, despite the bright lights and try-hard attempts to be cool.

There are certainly reasons to be optimistic and reasons to be worried at this early stage in FIFA 20's lifecycle. Defending is on the right track and is a step up over FIFA 19. Players still aren't completely rewarded for winning the ball, but those who've overlooked AI assistance in recent years are in a strong position. 

EA must stay down this path and not quickly look to appease those who struggle with the transition. Even so, dependence on pace is a potential sticking point as the year progresses, so any tweaks could have a dramatic affect on how different the final product shapes up when FIFA 21 arrives. 

           

Game Summary: Gameplay: 7.5/10, Graphics: 8/10, Modes: 7/10, Overall: 7.5/10

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