Release Date: Sept. 27, 2019Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, Switch, PCDeveloper: Electronic ArtsPublisher: Electronic ArtsGenre: Soccer simulator
When you’re essentially making the same game every year, you’d think that all the kinks would’ve been ironed out by the time your 27th installment arrived on shop shelves. However, despite offering a lot of familiar fun and a few new ideas, FIFA 20 is a frustrating and imperfect experience.
This frustration is only magnified by the fact that some fans have paid $80 for the Champions Edition, and many more will continue to chuck cash into the game through Ultimate Team microtransactions. For a game that will bring in mountains of revenue, you’d expect it to feel like a glossy, complete product that perfectly represents the beautiful game. Sadly, that isn’t what FIFA 20 is.
In terms of gameplay, the new FIFA comes with the usual sense that some elements of the soccer simulation have been refined while others have been deliberately tweaked to be less effective. Pacy players now feel properly quick, for instance, but scoring from crosses and headers feels nigh-on impossible. The act of positioning your player before diving in for a tackle seems nicely intuitive, but goalkeepers seem to be stupid – they’re regularly punching balls that they easily could’ve caught. This will probably be fixed by an update, but it still rankles for those that are playing at launch.
In an ideal world, every player would feel intelligent (even the goalies) and any sort of tactic would have the potential to be effective. After all, in real-life soccer, anything can happen. But in FIFA, it feels like you have to adopt one very specific playstyle if you want to win. It’s the usual mix of short passing, through-balls, well-timed runs and precise shots that will bring you success. Where is the representation of scrappier, grittier soccer? It’s not here, that’s for sure.
That’s not to say that there isn’t fun to be had. If your main way of playing FIFA is sitting on the sofa with mates or online, the Kick Off mode still packs more ways to freshen up these fixtures than any other soccer sim on the market. The House Rules system now includes two more gimmicks, both of which promise brilliantly silly matches: there’s Mystery Ball, which gives the team in possession special perks that change every time the ball goes out of play. There’s also King of the Hill, which only allows you to score after you’ve kept possession for long enough in a shrinking box that can pop up anywhere on the pitch. In both of these modes, you can also earn the ability to score goals that are worth two or three points on the scoreboard – these multiplied goals can turn the tide of a fixture instantaneously, resulting in some massive scorelines and dramatic moments. Just what you want for those sofa nights.
Likewise, if Ultimate Team is your cup of tea, the mode returns here with all of its usual bells and whistles. It also has 15 new icons, including rap star John Barnes, and the ability to play those new House Rules modes with your FUT squad. There will be those that criticize FUT’s “pay to win” mechanics, which return in force here, but there will also be plenty of people who put in the hours of grinding to earn points and players the old-fashioned way.
Pro Clubs is also back for another go-around, and Career Mode continues to offer endless entertainment for players who don’t love online play. Fully interactive press conferences, which link directly to player morale levels and can help boost your team’s stats, help make Career Mode feel a bit more fleshed-out and play-worthy.
That being said, EA has publicly admitted that there are quite a few bugs that need to be fixed in Career Mode. These issues can cause unlikely situations to happen, such as huge AI-controlled teams being relegated. In fact, whichever mode you’re playing in, you will notice technical bits and bobs that could do with a bit of finessing. When the ball goes flying off the pitch, it sometimes disappears from view (seeming to turn invisible) before it goes out of the frame. There are also points when the wrong logo appears over the replay-accompanying graphics (e.g. the Real Madrid logo popping up during a Premier League game). These are small things, but when people are paying full price for a new game, they are within their rights to expect one that doesn’t have such noticeable flubs.
The biggest new addition is the Volta street soccer mode, which replaces The Journey as the portion of the FIFA franchise that comes with a fully voice-acted storyline. There are pros and cons to this new mode, with the beautifully-rendered street pitches standing out as a massive positive. From the gravel of Shepherd’s Bush, a small pitch next to a kebab shop, to the glamor of a Tokyo rooftop, a snazzy location complete with a DJ, these are really fun places to play. There are also different styles of play to consider, with different street tournaments necessitating different numbers of players – and some of them don’t allow goalies, so you’ll have to defend carefully.
The Volta story stands out as the biggest disappointment, though. After the decision-driven drama of The Journey, this alternative feels totally prescriptive – there are no choices to make, just a simple A-to-B story of a street team on the road to stardom. The voice acting is fine and there are some engaging characters (the female goalie is a particularly likable presence), but the overall feeling is that EA has chucked in some cutscenes between some matches and not really done much else. There are also loads of instances of the player needing to win a whole tournament in order to progress in the story, which becomes quite frustrating – EA did this occasionally in The Journey, but here it is a very regular feature. A branching narrative that could adapt to wins and defeats might have been a bit more interesting and a little less on rails. It certainly would’ve resulted in a less repetitive experience.
The gameplay of Volta is enjoyable enough, seeming like a hefty upgrade to the small-sided training matches that previously graced The Journey. It doesn’t have the fantastical elements or the sense of humor that we previously saw in FIFA Street, but it does provide a new challenge for players. Creating and leveling up your own player is a neat feature, too. But if you choose to exclusively control your avatar, watch out for your AI teammates – they sometimes make very rudimentary errors, which again is very frustrating.
The fact that players from iconic 11-a-side teams can’t be brought into the Volta mode also seems a bit odd – you can play Volta with any team in Kick Off, but you can’t bring your favorite real-life players with you into the dedicated Volta mode. The pool of players in Volta also seems weirdly limited – even in the story mode, you often go up against teams that have the same players as you. Playing online against other people is fun, though, and you can also play offline matches against AI-controlled versions of other people’s teams. And if you defeat them, you can duplicate one of your opponent’s players in your own squad – you can even recruit their custom character, which feels nicely cheeky.
All things considered, though, FIFA 20 isn’t the easiest game to love. The graphics are still great and the core experience remains an enjoyable simulation of soccer, but there are just too many little wrinkles to make the full-whack price tag feel worthwhile. The Volta mode makes a strong case for the game on the whole, especially with its gorgeous new locations, but even this shiny new way to play comes with its foibles. All in all, this entry feels like a bit of a miskick, but it’ll still do the trick for those nights on the sofa with your mates.