With the World Cup over and the return of the new season still a few weeks away, there’s probably a football-sized hole in your life that no number of YouTube compilations of your team’s new signing can hope to fill.
So while FIFA 19 isn’t expected to be released until late September, by which point Man City will already be about eight points clear at the top of the table anyway, Stuff was lucky enough to be invited to Stamford Bridge for a go on the latest version of EA’s annual soccer sim.
After we realised they couldn’t tell us anything about where Eden Hazard was off to next, we spent two hours getting to grips with the game that’ll dominate your free time for the next 12 months. Here’s what you can expect from FIFA 19...
A league of their own
Arguably FIFA’s biggest signing of the summer is the Champions League licence, which it snapped up for what you have to assume must’ve been a fairly hefty transfer fee from Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series. It was always rather conspicuous by its absence, particularly in Career mode when Europe’s top teams would compete in the euphemistically named Champions Cup.
Now you can take part in the real thing because the competition features in pretty much every mode on FIFA 19: as a standalone tournament, a one-off match, part of The Journey, and, of course, during a Career game. And don’t worry if you’re an an Arsenal fan: the Europa League is also part of the deal.
It’s not just a change of name and a few new logos, EA has hired a new commentary team specifically for European games, although the pairing feels a little bit Europa League if we’re being totally honest. BT Sport’s Derek Rae will take lead vocals, which makes sense considering his employer is the channel that televises the competitions, although he’s not as much of a household name as Martin Tyler or Alan Smith, who both remain on commentary duty for regular games.
Rae is joined on the mic by former Arsenal defender Lee Dixon, who’s probably better known for his punditry than his commentary. That much became clear when, in relation to an Ederson save during one of our games he said “Didn’t he do it well? Well done, boy,” like some sort of cross between Bruce Forsyth and a dog trainer. Still, even if they do take a little bit of getting used to, it’s nice to hear a change after so many years of the same pair monopolising the FIFA microphones.
Let’s get physical
On the pitch EA has attempted to give FIFA 19 a more physical feel, not in terms of making it all about strength, but making sure the players leave everything out there.
A new Active Touch System has been implemented, which gives players more ways of controlling the ball. They’ll stretch and strain to win the ball ahead of the opposition, or use the most suitable part of their body in attempt to get it under control, whether that’s their heel, knee or the outside of their boot.
This already happens occasionally with more skillful players on FIFA 18 but it seems to have been ramped up for the new game and was particularly noticeable when players were trying to stop the ball from running out of play. You can also get them to keep the ball in the air by pressing down on the right stick, so be prepared for online modes to be plagued by tedious show ponies for at least the first few weeks.
They’re also supposed to be more committed to 50/50s, with players unafraid to stick a boot in when trying to win a loose ball. It seems to have given the game more of a feeling of momentum, with midfield scraps being that little bit scrappier. Players collide and lose balance a little more often, giving the play a looser feel. The key will be to making sure matches don’t descend into total hackathons.
The only new addition we didn’t get on with was the Timed Finishing, which is an optional gameplay feature that can turned on and off in the assists menu. When turned on it opens up the possibility to be more clinical with your strikes, simply by timing your connection with each shot.
It works a little bit like the bar-based swing mechanic in golf games but condensed into a fraction of the time. By double tapping the shoot button and getting the timing of the second tap absolutely spot on, your player will connect more sweetly with the shot, increasing the chances of beating the goalkeeper.
In practice, the game’s limited feedback made it difficult to tell what you were doing wrong when you scuffed a shot wide, meaning it just wasn’t worth the risk. Others seemed to be having the problem too, so don’t be surprised to see this tweaked by the time the disc is in your console.
A tactical masterclass
For the past couple of years Pro Evolution Soccer has outdone FIFA when it comes to tactical variation, offering more noticeable ways to try and score goals.
EA hopes to fix this by revamping the dynamic tactics system within the game. Currently you can adjust the attacking mentality of your team using the d-pad but all that really does is change how many players you team commits to each attack.
In FIFA 19 you’ll be able to change other tactical aspects that are tied to each mentality. For example, if you switch to a more attacking mindset your formation could switch to push the wingers higher up the pitch, while the whole team presses the opposition when out of possession. Go more defensive and you could drop an extra player into your midfield and ask the team only to press when a member of the opposition takes a heavy touch.
It’s the kind of thing that’s impossible to assess in the short time we had playing FIFA 19 but if it works as intended, it could make chasing a game or holding on to a lead that bit more interesting.
Kick, kick, kick, kick...
With multiplayer gaming more online-focused than ever, EA has given FIFA 19’s standard Kick-Off mode a bit of a makeover.
Previously its one-off friendlies existed in total isolation, lacking any real competitive edge beyond 90 mins. If you played a series of them against a friend or in a group, you had to keep overall score yourselves. Well that’s all about to change.
Players can now set up Kick-Off profiles that exist independently of the console’s user accounts. Before each match you tell the game whose hands each controller is in and it’ll keep an overall tally of games won and lost, complete with a whole suite of stats concerning how each person plays, so your opponents can see exactly how much you rely on that speedy winger. These Kick-Off profiles can be linked to PSN accounts, so you can access them on multiple consoles and always have your stats available.
If you have multiple skill levels in your group there’s also a new handicap system that allows you to give certain players a head start, plus you can now also adjust the AI level of each team’s AI-controlled players, so less gifted players can be given a Legendary goalkeeper, while better ones have to put up with Amateur-standard teammates.
If that doesn’t add enough of a competitive edge for you, EA has been inspired by the popularity of online shooters and added some quirky new game modes. If you’ve always thought football could benefit from adding an extra ball or making the goals bigger as the game goes on, the new House Rules mode might just be for you. Purists, look away now.
You get five options: Survival, Long Range, Headers & Volleys, First To..., and No Rules.
No Rules does exactly what it says on the tin, with no fouls or offsides, so anything goes. It’s oddly difficult to switch to that mindset when playing and the novelty will probably wear off fairly quickly but it’s certainly fun to hack down your opponent when they’re through on goal, before booting the ball up to your goal-hanging striker to put into the net. Why’s there a ref on the pitch, though?
If you’re looking for slightly more structure to your game, First To… allows you to set a goals target of between 1 and 3 with, you guessed it, the first player to reach it declared the winner. There’s still a 90-minute time limit, with extra time and penalties if required, so fortunately there’s no chance of these games going on all night if you and your opponent are particularly evenly matched.
Long Range awards two goals every time you score from outside the box (and just the usual one inside), while Headers & Volleys is the classic playground game that restricts all goals scored to either method. Put the ball in the net any other way and it’ll be disallowed.
But Survival looks like being the most compelling of all the new modes. Every time you score a randomly selected player is ejected from your team, as if they’ve been sent off. It can only happen a maximum of three times during a game and your goalkeeper is exempt, but not only does it make things more interesting on-the-fly, it adds an intriguing tactical element to matches: do you play as normal and hope to hold on if you end up a man or three down, or do you keep things tight until the end before going all out, in the hope of minimising the impact of being outnumbered?
Just like a normal game you can adjust your formation and make substitutions to compensate for your missing players, but there’s only so much you can do with eight men on the pitch. When you’re into your third hour of playing traditional exhibition matches against mates, Survival mode could really reinvigorate your games night.
You can't spell Ultimate without Team
As the most popular mode in FIFA - and the one that surely makes EA the most cash - Ultimate Team tends to stay broadly the same each year, with only minor tweaks to avoid upsetting hardcore FUT players. FIFA 19 is no different, although the online competitions have been tweaked to make them more evenly matched from the outset.
Division Rivals replaces Seasons as the standard online competition, with a new assessment stage at the beginning to determine with tier you should start in. That should save you slogging your way through the bottom divisions beating all comers 8-0, or stop said thrashings happening to you. Do well enough and you’ll earn the right to compete in FUT Champions tournaments at the weekend.
If that’s a bit beyond your talent, a new Champions Channel allows you to watch recordings of games the pros have played, with virtual gamepads displayed on screen to show you what buttons they were pressing in order to pull off each insane skill move, so you can go away and completely fail to replicate it.
There’ll also be 10 new FUT Icons to hope you find when you open one of your packs, including Johan Cruyff, Miroslav Klose, Raul, Clarence Seedorf and Eusebio. Just one question, EA: where’s Gareth Southgate?
FIFA is a game where subtle differences can have a real impact on how the game plays, but they often take a while to reveal themselves, so a two-hour session with FIFA 19 can only tell you so much.
Early impressions are good, though, with the new Active Touch System and 50/50 Battles making games feel looser, while the new Kick-Off modes could really revolutionise the way you play when you get together for a FIFA night with your mates.
We’ll have to wait until September to find out whether that carries over into the full game but either way, this is a subtle evolution of the FIFA style, not a rip-it-up-and-start-again revolution.