In Oliver Stone’s melodramatic film Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino says that American football is a “game of inches.” That same mindset can be applied to EA’s approach to FIFA 19 as the changes made are definitely best measured in inches. Though the company continues to deliver a worthwhile soccer game with enough modes and features to keep you busy until next year, it doesn’t feel like an essential addition to the series.
For the third and final year in a row, FIFA 19 brings back The Journey — a story-focused campaign mode starring the young English prodigy, Alex Hunter. Hunter now plays for the German club Bayern Munich and is well on his way to becoming a superstar, but the pressures of fame have left both his personal and familial relationships in tatters.
His coaches and managers have not taken too kindly to the media attention he’s receiving so in order to silence the naysayers, he must continue to perform on the field while also trying to maintain his relationships.
Given the plot we’ve seen thus far, we were hoping for a definitive conclusion that resulted in Alex Hunter becoming the soccer star, but instead, FIFA 19 made the bizarre decision of featuring him in only a third of the story.
His friend Danny Williams and half-sister Kim Hunter – both of whom appeared in last year’s The Journey – are now given equal billing, and we get a look into their own tumultuous careers. Kim Hunter’s new role on the U.S. Women’s National Team leads to some exciting moments, but it’s actually Williams who ends up feeling like the protagonist of The Journey. With the most complete story and clearest growth, Williams no longer feels like the butt of jokes, though it does come at the expense of closure for Hunter.
It’s certainly more ambitious than last year’s mode, but FIFA 19’s The Journey suffers from pacing problems.
FIFA 19’s The Journey is certainly more ambitious than last year’s mode but it does suffer from pacing problems caused entirely by its ambition. At nearly any point in the story, you can switch between Alex, Kim, or Danny. The game does suggest switching to specific players as you progress, especially prior to a big game.
Taking the recommended path often shifts the focus away from the other characters and it might be an hour or more before the story comes back to them. Any anticipation you might have felt about the upcoming match is lost, and since the stories only directly intertwine a few times, progression tends to halt and lurch forward.
It’s a shame because even though The Journey lacks focus, it delivers some of the most emotionally impactful and well-acted moments we’ve seen from FIFA in years. During one of Danny’s lowest points, Chris Walters gives off an aura of frustration and hopelessness far beyond what we’d expect from an actor in a soccer game’s story mode, and even real athletes like Alex Morgan are believable in their roles.
If it ain’t broke…
Even if the story were terrible, it wouldn’t impact the terrific soccer gameplay FIFA 19 once again delivers. Dribbling, crossing, and defending still feel as excellent as ever, regardless of the mode you happen to be in. Initially, shots seem to have a very small window between goals and crazy-high misses, but eventually, controls feel more comfortable and you can routinely knock the ball into the back of the net. This is especially rewarding in modes like The Journey or Career, where you can choose to control one player for the whole game. It feels almost too good calling for a perfect pass to set up a game-winning goal.
Dribbling, crossing, and defending still feel as excellent as ever.
What doesn’t feel as great though, is the new Timed Finishing system. It’s supposed to provide more control over your shot with a second button press, but given the crazy amount of on-screen activity happening all at once, it proves to be far too difficult to regularly (and properly) time your shots. Most of our attempts at this resulted in a ball that gingerly rolled toward the keeper.
Another new feature in FIFA 19 is the Play as Mentors option. This lets you control Alex Hunter and a few of his close teammates in lieu of the whole club. It almost sounds like a neat idea, but it immediately gave us a headache. Trying to keep track of one player is hard enough, and keeping track of an entire team is harder, but keeping track of only some players is hectic and unrewarding. There’s still plenty of opportunities to meet up with the mentor players if you choose to control Alex alone, so overall, it feels like an unnecessary addition purely to tout something new.
The star of FIFA 19 – and all of EA Sports’ yearly releases – remains to be Ultimate Team. This addictive mode effortlessly keeps you playing for hours on end. Initially, you’re given a meager roster of players with little chemistry or skill but winning a few matches quickly rewards your squad with booster packs containing better players to flesh out your starting lineup. The coins needed to buy more card packs and purchase players from the transfer market are earned from winning your league’s matches, completing specific challenges, and performing well on the pitch.
The rate at which you earn them gives you the flexibility to swap out a player or two on your squad after every match early on, and it doesn’t take long before you have a formidable club capable of battling it out in the always-changing Squad Battles mode. Of course, if you’re too impatient to build up teams, you can fork over real money for additional packs, but thankfully, it doesn’t feel necessary.
There are some lingering issues in Ultimate Team, though. The squad-building interface remains a bit of a mess, making it more difficult than it should be to add someone to your active squad. Applying consumable items to your players also takes too long, and how frequently you do it really hampers your ability to jump back into playing soccer.
The cards are a gamble
As with all of EA’s Ultimate Team-enabled games, there are microtransactions in FIFA 19. However, if you don’t want to pay real money to get card packs, you can earn in-game currency to buy them. Deciding not to purchase card packs doesn’t necessarily feel like you’re missing out, especially when you aren’t guaranteed to get your money’s worth. We never felt inclined to spend cash during our time with the game, though there is something inherently icky about giving players who pay up potential advantages.
Yes, FIFA 19 is largely the same game you got last year, especially if you don’t care about the campaign mode, The Journey. That said, it reliably delivers the excellent soccer simulation fans are looking for. While the new features don’t compliment what’s already there, they also don’t hinder an otherwise solid experience. Those who start playing FIFA 19 will find it very difficult to stop.
Is there a better alternative?
No, FIFA 18 may offer a similar experience, but only FIFA 19 brings a conclusion to The Journey.
How long will it last?
The Journey takes several hours to complete but you can play the remaining modes indefinitely.
Should you buy it?
Yes, but people only interested in playing occasionally will be fine with last year’s game.