The new FIFA is finally out for everyone, as EA rolls the series back to the good old days and adds new features like Volta street football.
For those already jaded by the FIFA series, here’s a quick update on what happened last year: FIFA 19 launched and was widely considered a breath of fresh air. It was difficult, the pace felt right, and defending couldn’t just be delegated to the AI. Then EA released a gameplay patch that made us wince at the very thought of the 8/10 score we gave it.
An article a few months later declared the end of this reviewer’s time with FIFA 19 and that has been mostly accurate, aside from the odd dabble on Pro Clubs.
Looking back though, the regret felt over the review is misplaced. At launch FIFA 19 was impressive and it really did feel like progress had been made. By the turn of the year though, it had regressed badly.
So firing up FIFA 20 for the first time was done with trepidation and a promise not to go overboard on the praise. After all, what if everything changed next month?
But that isn’t much of an approach either, so we’ve taken FIFA 20 as it comes. That said, EA has certainly shown more transparency with this FIFA, with a consistent roll-out of Pitch Notes detailing all of the changes the developers want you to know about. It was refreshing.
Earlier this week the development team posted an update regarding patches and what’s to come and it was also encouraging. In amongst an explanation about the gameplay feedback sessions they’d held was this crucial promise: ‘We are being cautious about every change that we are making and we are focused primarily around fixing bugs, not fundamental changes to gameplay.’
This is huge for any player who felt they’d been burned by last year’s patches and something the developers should be held accountable for as FIFA 20 prepares to go through the usual yearly cycle.
So what do we hope the developers leave untouched and what requires immediate attention?
The big headline new feature in this year’s FIFA is Volta football, an updated take on FIFA Street – a fantastic game in its own right – and our immediate impressions are positive.
Some of the voice acting leaves a bit to be desired (has anyone ever used the word ‘panna’ in a sentence?) and there are some cringe moments (Pete, Peter…) but overall the story is engaging enough and gives you a quick intro into the life of a street footballer.
The customisation on offer is also a triumph and something akin to what many hoped EA would bring to Pro Clubs one day. It’s landed in the world of Volta though, and that actually makes much more sense given there really are no rules on what you wear.
Naturally, microtransactions come into the Volta store but there are also tons of items you can unlock as you progress through your career, and they’re neatly linked to on-pitch accomplishments.
On top of that Volta is just a great way to learn the intricacies of FIFA. Some love skill moves, some barely go near them, but in a 3 vs, 3 the prospect of a rainbow flick feels attractive. We found ourselves trying skills we’ve barely gone near in five years, flicking the ball up on a whim and using the new strafe dribble liberally. It’s fun and that’s a theme that runs through FIFA 20. And that’s not something we’ve said about the series in a long time.
Moving back to the grass, there have been a number of gameplay tweaks that stopped us in our tracks. Firstly, and most importantly, are the changes to defending. Drum roll time… it’s actually hard to defend now. If you’re used to just pressuring the ball carrier with the AI you’re going to need to relearn the game, it’s that much of a change.
The ‘skill gap’ which we spoke about so much last year has returned again. How long it stays for we don’t know, and we definitely can’t speculate, but as it stands you have to be patient, clever, and concentrated if you want to get the ball back. Some of the standing block tackles we’ve performed, where you actually emerge with the ball, have left us in shock. It’s totally different to FIFA 19’s collision engine disaster.
Though the speed of the overall game has been reduced, making each contest a more measured encounter, the difference in pace between the quickest forwards and slowest defenders is more discernible than ever. If you overcommit you better hope you’re not up against someone who knows what they’re doing. All the best to you if your opponent has a Kylian Mbappe lurking on the shoulder of the last man.
Despite the above, there are still elements to the gameplay that will require you to learn on the fly. Shooting is tricky. If you’re using a player with a poor weak foot ability, shooting on that foot is as foolish as it sounds and that’s great. It’s also harder to get your shots off even when you feel like you’re in space, giving defenders more of a chance to get a vital block in.
The presentation is as good as ever, with the Champions League fixtures really standing out. The lighting and branding is on point and the commentary team of Derek Rae and Lee Dixon gives those nights under the lights a special feel. That separation from Alan Smith and Martin Tyler is as important as refreshing new lines and sets it apart from the tired cliches you hear in PES.
As has been well-documented now, FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) is an enormous source of revenue for EA Sports leaving us unsurprised that it’s where the majority of their focus now lies. This year saw a few tweaks to the format, with milestones challenges (daily, weekly, seasonal, etc.) added to give players something to aim for when they log in. Rewards vary depending on the amount of XP you acquire but it’s a good way for players who avoid spending money to build their teams.
The problem for those players though is it’s still a mode geared towards extracting cash from you. You’ll find yourself lagging badly behind your rivals if you’re not ripping packs, which we know is a bad look.
But this is the accepted state of play with FUT and you can still get plenty of hours of enjoyment out of it so long as you’re not planning on going pro.
Squad Builder Challenges are still the backbone of FUT but this year EA has made an important and vital change to how they’re served to you. Instead of having a limited number of games each day for a week (encouraging daily gaming), you can now play all your games in a day or two – perfect for the more casual player who might have a spare four hours one evening.
Being able to rattle through your weeks’ games in a night or two means more rewards and therefore faster progress in building your team. It’s a very good move and shows EA do listen to their consumers.
The biggest bug we (and others) have encountered so far is the balancing of the goalkeepers. Keepers are always tough to get right but at the moment they’re parrying far too many shots back out into danger and we’re getting punished by it.
Then you have player switching, something that is admittedly also difficult to get right, and can often come down to personal preference. The problem is that it feels too random. We found it increasingly difficult to know which player we’d switch onto during games, which given the increased difficulty of defending made life quite unpleasant early on.
Crossing is hard, which usually we’d welcome but we’ve only scored a handful of headed goals and it feels as if their effectiveness has been reduced too drastically.
Career mode, as expected, has received the bare minimum of updates – the case for the last couple of years – and a further nail in its coffin. It needs some love, not necessarily a total overhaul, but even half the level of depth Football Manager provides would be a giant step in the right direction.
Then there are the little things that we’ve noticed. Ultimate Team is mostly a pleasure to get familiar with but the decision to change the interface in the squads screen, when you change formations, is bizarre. Currently you’re unable to see the chemistry links when you flick between formations, something surely no-one called for.
The menus in general look good but there are too many steps in a lot of modes – Ultimate Team in particular. They’re not as easy to navigate as we’d like, which is understandable given the level of depth in FUT, but still a grievance.
It’s harsh to place the graphics in ‘the bad’ as they’re not literally ‘bad’ but side-by-side comparisons to PES 2020 player models show how far short EA is falling at the moment. Granted the body shapes look more realistic but face models are nowhere close to the competition.
As good as Volta is, it’s a crying shame EA doesn’t allow you to compete online against others. This isn’t a surprise, as they said all along it wouldn’t be an option, but we’re left hoping it’ll be introduced later in the game’s cycle, if not in the next gen FIFA 21.
On-pitch the overhaul to free-kicks has good intentions – it was a little too easy to score in the last couple of FIFAs, but we did feel the changes are a little overwhelming and possibly too contrived. It may grow on us but it will take time to learn what works and what doesn’t. Still, it’s nice to see some evolution.
We’ve put Pro Clubs in the ‘nearly’ section because even though there are precious few updates to a mode that has a cult following, it feels dramatically improved by the overall gameplay improvements.
With tackling firmly back in the meta that should translate to fewer frustrating ping pong goals against you, when you should by all rights have come away with the ball. With the pace of the game slowed down you’re able to build more flowing moves and it feels much more satisfying working as a team.
That said, it is still missing deeper customisation options, with only new haircuts and running styles added, and sadly no option to add tattoos to your player. One day maybe.
After being burned last year by the initial launch of FIFA, and the subsequent gameplay patch that ruined the game, we’re reluctant to go too overboard with this years’ edition.
However, it’s undeniable that EA have made big strides and the game in its current state really is a treat to play.
FIFA 20 has managed to find the balance between realism and fun. Although the game doesn’t look or play quite as true to life as PES 2020 does, it makes up for it in enjoyment. This is a game that will have you punching the air when a slick passing move results in a goal; it’s a game that feels incredibly satisfying when you jockey the opposition into a trap and make a perfectly timed tackle.
It’s also a game that rewards clever tactical decisions. If the opposition overcommits you can actually kill them on the break with pace and incisive passing and dribbling. Shooting is just about tough enough to feel like you’ve earned a goal and combining the lot leaves you satisfied at the end of 90 minutes.
It may all come crashing down after the first patch but for now we can confidently say FIFA 20 is one of the best releases in years.
FIFA 20 review summary
In Short: It isn’t a masterpiece but it’s a massive improvement on FIFA 19, with a sprinkling of new features – Volta in particular – that should lay the foundations for the series’ future.
Pros: Defending is hard, Volta is fun, the gameplay is much more balanced, and pace matters again.
Cons: Ultimate Team is still too pay-to-win, goalkeeping and player switching needs work, and career mode has been neglected again.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch*, and PC
Developer: EA Vancouver and EA Romania
Release Date: 27th September 2019
Age Rating: 3
*Legacy Edition only
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