With FIFA 18 as a solid base, what can EA Sports do this year?
FIFA 18 was the best entry in the long-running football series from EA Sports in recent memory, capitalising on the previous entry's debut on the Frostbite engine to tweak and polish everything and make it a fun game for football fans to enjoy, and since a year has passed we're now waiting for FIFA 19. To give us a glimpse behind the curtain, EA recently invited us to preview the game, and there we could try it out for ourselves and find out what's new this time around.
Champions League and UEFA License
We already knew that the Champions League and other competitions from UEFA (like the Europa League) were heading to FIFA 19, but what we did find out recently is some of the specifics, as the competitions can be played standalone as well as being featured in the career mode, Journey, and more. With all of this we'll get to see full cinematics and the shiny new branding coming with next season's competition, and what's more is that it also brings new commentators Derek Rae and Lee Dixon, who join Martin Tyler and Alan Smith.
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As you can expect, the word 'authenticity' was thrown around a lot, since everything is made to look like the real-world competition, with everything from the competition hub to the draws for the teams giving you that feeling that we're among the elite of European football, and it's easy to tell in-game too. When we played, huge banners adorned the crowd, the iconic anthem was blasting, and everything conspired to give it a distinctly unique and recognisable identity.
Now we're not talking about actually kicking off when you play a match, but rather the Kick Off mode people play when you've got a mate around or just want to sit down and have a quick match. This has been changed significantly this year, with plenty of new ways to play, all of which should help make it more of a fully-formed mode rather than something that's swept to the side, as EA said.
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The first is that you can choose the setting for your match, putting your teams in the Champions League final or any other cup for that matter, but perhaps most interesting are the new House Rules, special game settings that serve as Custom Games of a sort; entertaining departures from traditional football.
An example of this is Survival which sees you lose a player at random every time you score, but there are plenty of other House Rules like no rules (offsides and fouls don't get penalised); headers and volleys; and first to score X amount of goals. If normal football isn't quite tickling your fancy, then, these offer very entertaining alternatives, and from what we've played it's a ton of fun trying these weird and wild game modes that throw up regular curveballs. You can even change settings like adjusting the AI of your teammates to truly customise your experience.
For those who really love to keep track of scores against opponents though, the new profiles should be of particular interest, as by creating a profile in-game linked to your PSN account (for example), you can track how many times you've beaten an opponent, the shots you've had, where they've been from, possession, and a lot more. The best part is you can take this on the go with you by logging into your account on another console, so there's nowhere to hide if your mate keeps battering you.
Active Touch System
We were given a recap of the four new gameplay pillars in London, the first of which is Active Touch, which changes the way players position themselves and how they interact with the ball. For instance, new animations mean players can receive the ball if it's behind them by extending their leg backwards, and stretch for the ball more regularly to receive it, which we noticed increased the fluidity of the game in a major way, as players produced more authentic-looking movements.
This also comes with a few fancy features too, as there are new traps to deploy as well as the ability to disguise first touches like Toni Kroos is known to do. Not only that, but flicking the ball up is easier, as is flicking the ball when it's in the air, and pairing this with new shooting animations makes for a lot more movement options. We found that it felt a bit more arcadey with all these fluid movements and a bizarre tendency for overhead kicks, but it felt more fun as a result of the changes, which is all that matters.
What perhaps impressed us most were the new Dynamic Tactics. Gone is the old method of choosing a preset option from the D-pad and switching from Park the Bus to All-Out Attack - tactical options that EA said players weren't feeling in terms of direct impact on matches - and now we're getting a deep system that is both packed with options and at the same time incredibly easy to utilise.
For example, with the four options available with left or right on the D-pad - Ultra Defensive, Defensive, Attacking, and Ultra Attacking - you can choose very specific tactics for each, even to the point of changing formation; how wide you want the team; and how much pressure they're putting on the ball. This has a direct and significant impact on the match when it changes, and if you tailor your team and tweak each element to your liking, this will perhaps be the most tactically satisfying FIFA in years.
One complaint that we'd have about the current FIFA (which EA shares) is that when you take a heavy touch or lose the ball in any way, the player who lost the ball will often give up and jump over the incoming tackle. 50/50 Battles in FIFA 19 changes that though, as players consistently and aggressively attack the ball even when they might lose it, and you can choose how you want to go for it, be it a tackle or pass etc. Physical abilities and positions dictate who will win of course, and although it gets scrappy it produces a more even experience, with an unpredictable and realistic nature.
How does this work in-game though? Well, it means you're never assured of any ball, regardless of whether you've launched into a tackle or taken a heavy touch, which produces chaotic instances where the ball is bouncing in between feet and legs - in the box during an attack, for example. It always keeps you on your toes and, like we've said, stops that frustration from players not trying to go for the balls they've lost.
Another thing we already knew about was Timed Finishing, as pressing the shoot button just before the boot connects with the ball produces a sweet shot with more accuracy, power, and movement on the ball, and we got a chance to see this in action very clearly in London.
Perhaps the first thing to note is that an indicator appears above your player cursor telling you whether it has been successful - red for no and green for yes - every time you try it, which is very helpful and helps you practice, and we were also pleased to see that hitting the green doesn't always mean a guaranteed goal. It's not overpowered in that way, but as EA put it, it gives that risk vs reward factor when you need a goal late in the game, and should produce some interesting results especially in esports, where the best players can get good at this feature.
FIFA Ultimate Team
With each FIFA in the last two years we've got new additions to Ultimate Team, whether it be Champions in FIFA 17 or Squad Battles in 18, and now in 19 we have Division Rivals. This allows players to compete with players at a similar skill level via Divisions, and you play a certain number of placement matches to get you in your ideal Division off the bat, rather than having to work up from the bottom like before. As creative director Matthew Prior said, nobody likes to get battered by a top division player who's starting off in the lower divisions.
As part of this you compete with players in your Division each week to progress your rank and weekly rewards, with clear criteria on how to get into each Division, and Division Rivals is actually the new way to qualify for the Champs now. You earn Rank, Division, and Champions points as you play, and when you receive your weekly rewards you can choose between earning any one of these three (as well as packs) depending on what your priority is.
There's a brand new pack opening animation as well, along with a new look for basic items, and there are specific items for UEFA competitions too, but perhaps what will interest players most are the legends, as we'll see the likes of Raul, Steven Gerrard, Miroslav Klose, Fabio Cannavaro, Eusebio, Clarence Seedorf, and more in FIFA 19.
As for the actual squads, there's not much to report here other than that the same deep tactics system still applies, and there's an easier system for managing items, as by flicking up and down you can switch between options for items. Up, for instance, takes you to transfer, while flicking down lets you quick sell the item: simple.
Last year we had nothing but praise for FIFA 18, and it seems this year that EA Sports are focusing less on big gameplay overhauls and more about tweaking some elements that weren't quite where they wanted them to be. With tactics looking a lot healthier, the Kick Off mode getting a new lease of life, and promising adjustments to the in-game action, we're looking forward to getting our hands on the full product and finally assessing how well all these pieces work together.