Thiago drove the ball down the center of the field, hoping to catch the defense on its heels. The technically gifted Spaniard passed to Thomas Müller, but instead of settling it, the Bayern captain let the ball roll through to his teammate, Robert Lewandowski. Müller immediately turned, made a darting run past the back line and chipped a perfectly weighted through ball into the back corner of the net.
It was at that moment that I realized FIFA 19 wasn't just a reskin of its predecessor relying on expanded licenses, a new playlist of catchy global tunes and a game mode based around microtransactions. Sure, those things remain, but in this year's return to the pitch, FIFA feels more realistic, and more responsive, than ever.
On the pitch, FIFA 19 brings crucial gameplay tweaks and much-needed AI enhancements to the painsteaking presentation it's mastered over the years. While FIFA 19 doesn't add much to its variety of game modes, the improved gameplay is enough to recommend the newest release of the most popular sports game franchise of all time.
Presentation: The beautiful game, as beautiful as ever
Three years in, and FIFA looks outstanding on Frostbite, the same game engine that powers the visually breathtaking Battlefield and Battlefront series. The soccer franchise hasn't taken a significant graphical leap this time around, but we have no complaints here; the attention to detail to the "beautiful game" is unparalleled. The pitch looks superb, with outstanding shadows and lighting. Player faces are more realistic than ever, and the loud, chanting crowds will raise the hair on your arms.
However, while varied and informative, play-by-play commentary from Martin Tyler and Alan Smith is starting to grow stale; I recognized many of the same phrases used in previous FIFA installments. The good news is that a new duo — Derek Rae and Lee Dixon — will take the lead on Champions League coverage.
Soccer fanatics will appreciate EA's dedication to making FIFA the most realistic simulation around. To that end, extensive ratings dictate how players behave on the field. For example, a player with a good standing tackle rating will casually grab a ball away from an attacker, and you'll be forced to sub out a player who has a low stamina rating.
Footballers in the top leagues even play like they do in real life. There's something special about seeing Lionel Messi with the ball at his feet, taking microscopic touches to effortlessly float past defenders. Likewise, hulking defenders like Niklas Süle will happily put their massive bodies in front of you to block a shot, or throw in a shoulder to brush you off the ball.
FIFA paid special attention to camera angles this year. Now, when you play out the back from a goal kick, the view is from behind the goalie, and your view doesn't pan left and right like it did before. On the flip side, FIFA 19 still defaults to the awful angle FIFA 18 introduced to indirect kicks.
Another welcome addition is a secondary player indicator. Now, a white triangle denotes which player you'll switch to next, so you don't accidentally change to the wrong player and start running the wrong direction.
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Off the pitch, almost all of the menus in FIFA 19 are identical to those in FIFA 18. A bold light-blue-and-pink color scheme changes things up, as does FIFA's reliably catchy soundtracks. This year, standout artists include Death Cab for Cutie, Gorillaz, Logic and Childish Gambino.
Gameplay: Responsive, unpredictable and fun again
The first few minutes of FIFA 19 may feel familiar, but you'll soon appreciate the subtle changes introduced this year. On the whole, these gameplay tweaks result in the best on-the-pitch experience yet.
Most importantly, players feel more responsive, both on the attacking and defensive ends of the field. Before, EA's approach to creating the most realistic soccer simulation was to reduce the speed of play. While the slower pace had its benefits, it often felt as if the players weren't putting in enough effort. Finally, with FIFA 19, EA has accomplished what it originally set out to do: create a game that not only feels right but is fun to play. Players' movements are more fluid this time around, and I never grew frustrated while waiting for a clunky defender to respond to my controls.
This brings me to balance. In FIFA 18, it was far too easy to pass a through ball to an onrushing Gareth Bale, who could flash past the defense and go one-on-one with the keeper. Speedsters were overpowered, because it took slower players, particularly defenders, ages to turn and accelerate. Capable players could simply weave their way through the back line on to the goal.
Now, with more-responsive players, there's an emphasis on positioning. If you pull your fullback too far up the pitch, you risk allowing a ball to slip through the middle to a winger. Instead, if said defender sprints straight back, they can cut the speedy midfielder off at the touchline before the opponent can move inside to get a shot off. More fluid gameplay also means that when attackers do get open, they don't spend too much time on the ball.
This responsiveness is helped out by what FIFA calls Active Touch, a new animation system that gives you more control over the ball. Now, you can flick a ball up and score a volley, or rainbow kick past a defender. I noticed my players making exceptional efforts to kick, head or chest the ball in whichever way possible. Adding to the unpredictability you find so often in soccer are new ball physics. Deflected passes and shots seem to account for how the ball was struck and where it went off the player, resulting in mayhem in and around the box.
Shooting has also been reworked in FIFA 19. Timed Finishing is a new mechanic that lets players improve shot accuracy by tapping the shoot button as they are about to kick the ball. The feature adds an interesting layer to shooting, but I found I didn't need it to bury a shot from outside the box. Headers also have more weight to them, with players jumping high in the area and snapping their neck to guide the ball toward the goal. These changes make finishing feel more rewarding than ever.
Improved AI and Dynamic Tactics
AI is, thankfully, largely improved in FIFA 19, particularly in the attacking third. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about FIFA 18 was when an AI-operated teammate stopped a run with acres of space ahead of them. In FIFA 19, players make dangerous runs on their own. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry constantly ran up the flanks as I drove forward with a central midfielder, while players with good positioning rankings, like Thomas Müller, found space behind the defense. Smarter, more responsive AI makes it feel like the game is working with you, not fighting against your play.
Unfortunately, while the AI now makes smarter runs, I still found myself going several goals up when playing FIFA 19 on Ultimate, the new most difficult mode. It's not easy to get motivated about the next game when you know you'll crush your opponent.
FIFA 19 now gives you more control over your team with Dynamic Tactics. Before a game, you can create multiple preset plans that can be changed on the fly during a game. As always, if you're up two goals to none, for example, you can adjust the approach slider to "Ultra defensive."
However, this year, tactics and formations can be assigned for each approach. So, using the previous example, my team could now shift to a 5-4-1 formation, and the wingers would tuck inside. Alternatively, switching to "Ultra attacking" could shift my players into a 3-5-2 formation. These granular tactics allow you to adapt to your opponent and the changing dynamics of a game. Also, this option, along with quick subs, means you don't have to pause to open the menu midgame.
Game modes: Licenses aren't enough
When you first load FIFA 19, you're thrust right into the middle of a Champions League match. A circular UCL banner sits in the center of the field during warm-ups, while the epic UEFA Champions League anthem rings out from the intercom. A ridiculous tifo of Cristiano Ronaldo is draped across a large section of the Juventus crowd, which is going crazy in anticipation of the match.
The presentation of Champions League matches in FIFA 19 is remarkable and, frankly, hard to believe considering this is the first year with official licensing. Clearly, the folks at EA spent their summer integrating the world's premier soccer tournament into FIFA 19, and the results are impeccable.
But apart from the addition of official UEFA Champions League and Europa League tournaments, most game modes in FIFA 19 are practically untouched. Career Mode, which I've personally spent a worrying amount of time playing over the years, is in desperate need of a face-lift. Aside from a few cosmetic changes — it's now easier to navigate different league standings, and the Squad Hub has a new look — nothing has changed. The same goes for Pro Clubs, where you create an individual player and grow them to become a star.
Ultimate Team, the card-based fantasy mode, gains a much-needed Division Mode, so you'll be paired up against players with similar skill levels. Footballing legends like Johan Cruyff will be introduced this year, and live themed content from the Champions League and Europa League will make an appearance. Fortunately, microtransactions haven't trickled their way into other game modes like they have in NBA 2K19.
The fictional character, Alex Hunter, returns for the final installment of FIFA's story mode, The Journey. After a successful stint in the MLS, you will guide the seasoned footballer through European competition, starting at either Atlético Madrid, Bayern or Paris Saint-Germain. At the same time, you'll play as both Kim Hunter for the U.S. women's national team and Danny Williams in the English Premier League. The Journey looks as gorgeous as ever, and with the training sessions, minigames and cutscenes, I always felt engaged.
The biggest changes off the pitch were made to Kick-Off — that's right, the classic mode for playing individual games with friends or AI. There are five new match types this year: UEFA Champions League (no surprise here), Best of Series (a best-out-of-three-or-five-game tourney), Home and Away (a two-legged fixture), Cup Finals and House Rules. House Rules is the most intriguing addition. It lets you play arcade-style games under a unique set of rules, like games where you score more points for goals scored outside the box, or a survival mode where a team loses a player every time they score.
Bottom Line: The best FIFA yet (on the pitch)
On the surface, FIFA 19 looks and feels like a reskin of last year's release, but some subtle, intelligent gameplay tweaks result in the best on-pitch experience yet. Players feel more responsive, new ball mechanics capture the unpredictability of the sport and improved AI finally makes smart runs off the ball. Official Champions League licensing is a major addition, and tweaks to Kick-Off mode add intrigue to friendly rivalries.
Unfortunately, the same care wasn't given to other game modes. Career Mode and Pro Clubs are in desperate need of attention, and they feel stale compared with the cash-grabbing Ultimate Team. And, while the presentation is gorgeous, FIFA 19 looks almost identical to FIFA 18.
Still, FIFA 19 captures the magic of the sport better than ever with balanced, responsive gameplay that puts this latest title head and shoulders above its predecessor.
Credit: EA Sports