Sports titles exist within a bubble that’s strangeness seems at odds with the relative normality of games dealing with athletics. There’s no part of the world unfamiliar with some kind of sport, so there’s nothing inherently weird about a franchise based around them—except for the fact that so few of them change over the years. Whereas other series are lambasted for anything that doesn’t amount to careful, honed perfection or a reinvention of core gameplay, series like FIFA could, if the developer were so inclined, probably just bump up the graphics a little bit, reorder the team rosters, and call it a day.
Don’t worry. FIFA 19 is far from just a small graphical upgrade from its predecessor, although it does shine there, too. What EA has accomplished with this title is nothing short of a collection of the most soccer ever assembled. Everything is soccer even when it isn’t. Have we tried throwing a League Cup at world hunger? Has anyone played soccer to settle international conflict rather than with violence? After playing through a refined The Journey campaign, I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a problem that can’t be solved with a little bit of footy and a sweet highlight real goal.
Don’t Stop Believin’
The Journey was championed by many as the reason FIFA 17 was such a breakout title in a long-standing franchise, and was subsequently something of a disappointment in FIFA 18 when the game mode failed to capitalize on some of the insights gleaned from the first go with the campaign. FIFA 19’s The Journey (subtitled Champions because, if you hadn’t noticed yet, soccer is pretty dramatic) has finally evolved, capturing the essence of a story that many hoped was going to happen last year.
The Journey: Champions returns to Alex Hunter as he begins to grapple with being an international star, eventually landing on legendary La Liga side Real Madrid for the bulk of the story. The game mode also picks up the stories of Danny Williams, Alex’s friend and former clubmate, and Kim Hunter, Alex’s estranged younger sister.
The addition of the other two characters is actually a bit of a sublime touch, as is the nice, simple interweaving of their stories. Each of them has their own problems, and though they are inevitably solved through the miracle known as soccer, they do nicely incorporate a bit of Hollywood feel to them as they are grappled with. It’s also worth congratulating EA for tackling a genuine political issue in one of their sports titles, as Kim Hunter’s campaign to earn her spot on the Women’s World Cup squad for the United States is rife with sexism, especially from sports journalists. Kim is faced with this problem, and takes steps to overcome it and call out the toxic behavior—that’s a welcome and deft touch for a game that’s sponsored by an organization that has campaigns against bullying, racism, and sexism.
The Journey: Champions is genuinely worth picking up FIFA 19 on its own, because it marks what I hope will be an increased focus on having sports franchises tell fun, interesting, and challenging stories. Sports aren’t just played for fun, and FIFA 19 interrogates that while making player choices feel like they matter—match results are acknowledged, and some key choices genuinely alter the story in a way that past iterations of The Journey haven’t featured.
Any Way You Want It
Beyond that single-player campaign, however, are all the trappings one would come to expect from a FIFA title. The gameplay once again focuses on style over substance, although there’s still a sizeable portion of the latter. If you’re a defensive-minded soccer fan, you’ll be a bit disappointed to find out that attacking is still the name of the game in FIFA 19, as scoring breathtaking goals probably sells a lot more copies of a game than a really nice, clean tackle.
Attacking is a lot more tuned this year though, with the addition of a two-touch striking system making finishing a lot more accurate for those who can get it down. The Active Touch System is also, if you’ll pardon the pun, a nice touch—it makes receiving passes a little less mundane and can create space and opportunities as players master skill-specific receptions. The flow of the game has remained untouched, and FIFA 19’s attacking gameplay feels like it is worthy of all the stadiums and fields it has lovingly recreated.
Seriously, though, playing defense-oriented teams is probably only recommended for players of a certain familiarity and skill level. I’m by no means a great sports game player, so it was asking a bit much of me to defend some of the world’s best players with any sort of consistency. Perhaps feeling despair whenever Neymar Jr. is barreling down the pitch toward me is a very accurate simulation of what real defensive backs feel, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
Journey Into The Future
FIFA 19 has also bolstered its Ultimate Team offerings, as the online mode continues to transcend its medium and work its way into the real-life culture of soccer. The introduction of Divisions is the best of the new stuff, creating ranked divisions based on a player’s results and skill level and then having teams battle it out within those divisions for weekly rewards. The intent is to create feelings of rivalries developing, and while my opponents were probably more happy than sad to see me in online pairings, I did begin to develop a sense of how they played and who I wanted to beat the most. Ultimate Team’s new mode works as planned, then.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the game is the fact that EA has finally been able to integrate the UEFA Champions League into FIFA 19, offering new directions for every single mode. Career Mode now fully supports the Europa Cup and Super Cup, which basically means there are somehow even more options for how you can play the game than there were last year, despite the previous year’s number being a staggering amount already.
Want one last example of how deep this game’s customization options are? There’s a House Rules function that changes up how a game of soccer is played. I only explored it a little bit, but a friend and I played a No Rules game that was a lot of fun, although it plays a lot more like gladiator combat than soccer.
At the end of the day, FIFA 19 is yet another crisp, clean, and innovative offering from EA. I’d say that this game is a lot more like FIFA 17 than 18 when it comes to shaking things up, however, which is definitely a good thing. Pushing The Journey even further—perhaps to have entirely different branching storylines based on an initial decision to increase replayability—should be next on the docket for those designing the single player campaign. In the meantime, this is the best soccer offering you’re likely to find and, nitpicking the commitment to flashy goals and attacking formations aside, there’s no reason this can’t be the go-to title for soccer fans for the next year. It’s definitely a must-own for soccer fans and connoisseurs of dramatic sports narratives alike.
FIFA 19 review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro. For more information on scoring please see our review policy.