The release of a new FIFA has become a yearly tradition for football fans everywhere. The evenings start to get darker, the temperature starts to drop, the weather gets worse, and before you know it the postman drops a copy of FIFA through your letterbox. It always seems to arrive at the perfect time of year; the new season is in its infancy and the state of the weather has put you in the mood for closing your curtains, locking your door, sticking the heating on, and sitting in front of your console of choice. The tradition of FIFA’s release always follows the same pattern – we all get excited for it, there are countless social media posts about it on release day (usually other halves showing off how cool they are with their “beers in the fridge, pizza is ordered” notes), we all rush home to play it, and then we all moan that it’s the same every year.
It’s a fair complaint to make, but let’s be honest, there is only so much you can change in a football game, especially when last years version already plays a pretty decent game of football. Of course, that raises the point that we don’t need a new game every year, which is true, but it’s an absolute cash cow for EA and we keep buying it because we all want the newest, shiniest, current trend. We can’t help ourselves. We could all make a stand and absolutely refuse to buy it, but we won’t, because we can’t resist the lure of the “current” version. Are we allowing ourselves to be exploited? Probably. Will it stop us? Absolutely not. So, what should we expect from a new FIFA?
On the pitch, I always expect a new FIFA to build on what the last iteration did right and make further improvements, and I think FIFA 20 has succeeded in that regard. FIFA 20 plays a noticeably slower game of football than its predecessor, with the ball moving around the pitch at a much more controlled pace rather than being fizzed from one end to the other. Some people won’t be fans of this, as it gives the game a much less arcadey (and some will argue, fun) feel, steering the game more towards a simulation approach, but I’m a fan of that. I’ve found that it encourages slow build up play much more, forcing you to keep possession and knock the ball about a bit until somebody steps out of position and allows you to create an opening.
Pace is also in a much better place than in last years version, where EA toned it down to the point where pacey strikers would be caught by notoriously slow centre halves. That doesn’t happen now, if you play a killer through ball to put Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang through on goal and he has Harry Maguire trying to catch him then there will only be one winner. You still can’t just breeze past people with ease like you could a couple of years ago, thanks in part to the extra emphasis that EA put on player strength last year, but making clever runs and performing incise passes to fashion yourself a chance will no longer get taken away from you by forces out of your control. It’s in a good place. The free kick system has also been overhauled for this years version. You now get a visible target on your screen to aim where you want to put the ball, and then you can use the right stick while your player runs up to add whatever curl to the ball that you want. It takes a lot of practise to get used to it, and it’s a system that in theory gives you more control over your set piece and more flexibility to do exactly what you want, but in practise I’ve found it to be more fiddly and less user-friendly than the previous system. I’m not a fan.
Other than that and a couple of other slight tweaks, you would be forgiven for thinking that you were playing FIFA 19, it is that similar. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, I was a big fan of how FIFA 19 handled on the pitch, and FIFA 20 keeps its ancestors good points and improves on its shortfalls; pace is in a better place, overhead kicks aren’t as common, the ball doesn’t hit the woodwork anywhere near as much. Aside from a questionable free kick system (you’ll either love it or hate it), FIFA 20 has once again taken FIFA in the right direction. Does it warrant a new release and you spending another £50? Absolutely not, these feel like tweaks that could be made in a simple patch, like somebody at EA has just adjusted a few numbers and moved a few sliders.
But if FIFA 19 only needed a few tweaks which wouldn’t warrant a new release, then what could EA possibly do to make FIFA 20 worth your money? The answer to that is to make big improvements off the pitch. I was very critical in my review of FIFA 19 about the lack of work that EA did to its core game modes outside of Ultimate Team, opting instead to give anything which wouldn’t earn them extra cash a simple copy and paste treatment, so I was eager to see if FIFA 20 would follow the same pattern or if EA would finally make some much-needed improvements. Frustratingly, the results are mixed.
It’s only fair that I start by talking about Volta Football, the standout, brand new feature of FIFA 20. Volta Football is like the lovechild of FIFA Street and The Journey, with some significant influence from its foster parents, Ultimate Team and Pro Clubs. You create a unique avatar who you can rank up with skill points a’la Pro Clubs and then take to the streets to compete in 3v3, 4v4, or 5v5 matches in warehouses, parking lots, and street courts. There’s a story mode to play here, and much like the mode which it replaced—The Journey—it’s a cutscene heavy affair that bombards you with training exercises, dodgy cockney accents, at-times dreadful voice acting, and a radically overused clichéd story of overcoming adversity and achieving your dreams. Throughout the story, you travel the world, competing in events, and recruiting new players as you aim to win the World Championships. Recruiting players and fitting them into your team uses a chemistry system like the one used in Ultimate Team, where assigning players to the correct position and in their preferred formation will improve their chemistry and therefore their performance.
The story mode has a few problems outside of its predictable narrative; the same players appear on multiple teams, which means you often end up with two versions of the same player on opposing teams in matches. This is just the kind of ridiculously lazy stuff from EA that winds me up, and it forces you to customise your players with cosmetic items just so you can easily discern your version of a player from your opponents. Thankfully, cosmetic items can only be bought from the Volta Store with in-game currency that is earned from playing, so I guess I should give EA some credit for not allowing their greed to cross over into the new mode. Most of your time in the Story Mode will be spent taking part in tournaments that you have to win to progress, but losing a match will force you to replay the entire tournament again from the start. In some instances this can mean that you play six 10 minute matches in a row only to have to start from the first one all over again. I get that there needs to be some risk to losing, but it seems overly punishing for a game mode which, at its core, is all about having fun.
And have fun you will. The actual gameplay of Volta is an absolute blast, providing players with a great alternative to the standard mode. Each size of match (3v3, 4v4, 5v5) feels different to the others, and the courts add variety to the matches too. Some courts have walls, which means you can bypass a defender by rebounding the ball off the wall to a teammate, while those courts that don’t have a wall will force the ball to start again from the keeper should it go out of play. You can even play with traditional futsal rules, with an accumulation of fouls resulting in a penalty for the opposition. Volta isn’t quite as trick-heavy as it would like you to think though, a lot of the flashiest moves that you pull off will be done automatically by the game, and trying to beat players with tricks all the time will likely result in you losing the ball and conceding a goal. That means that good old pass and move is still the key to success in Volta, but you’ll still score some cool looking goals and have great fun along the way, as long as you can get used to the manual shooting which the game forces you to use to prevent ridiculous goal-fests. It’s tricky to get used to at first, but it soon becomes second nature. Volta is a completely new way to play the game, it’s faster and more frantic, and you often find yourself in nail-biting “next goal wins” situations where even the slightest mistake can cost you the game. It’s tense stuff at times and that only serves to make it more exciting.
The mode isn’t just restricted to Story Mode either, you can take your squad online and play against other players in a traditional head-to-head seasons mode complete with promotion and relegation, and you can play against your buddies in friendlies too. It may have its shortcomings and it may not quite be the modern day FIFA Street that we all expected, but Volta is great fun and feels like the first genuinely new way to play FIFA in a number of years, and that’s something that should be applauded.
But what of the traditional game modes then? Well, EA has somewhat remembered that Career Mode actually exists this year at least, but the results are hit and miss. There are more customisation options for your manager or player, including the ability to create a female manager, and dynamic player potential is now a thing, which will see a players development either improve or get worse depending on how much game time they’re getting and how well they’re playing. There’s also team and player morale to think about now, which fluctuates depending on your answers to questions in the new pre and post match press conferences. These are a good idea in theory, but in reality they feel very wooden thanks to the lack of voice acting and they are also pretty broken at times – I was asked what I thought about my sides goalless draw and my inability to score goals after a 2-2 draw. Transfers and contract negotiations are still sorted out through cutscenes that have been copy and pasted over from the previous version, and these are similarly wooden and get tiresome and long-winded pretty quickly.
It’s frustrating because I really do enjoy playing career mode, but EA has ignored it for years and the one year that they try and do something new it ends up being completely underwhelming and broken. Career Mode has also had problems with throwing up ridiculous results and transfers for years and that hasn’t been addressed in the slightest – teams like Man City will lose countless games, in some cases getting relegated, while traditionally lower-positioned teams will fight it out at the top of the league. Sure, that may make a nice change from the usual teams being at the top, but it’s also completely unrealistic. This has been going on for years and EA has once again completely ignored the issue like it isn’t there, instead opting to give us dynamic player potential and a boring press conference system and hoping it keeps us quiet. It isn’t good enough.
Another mode that isn’t good enough is Pro Clubs, which—aside from the incorporation of House Rules, which I’m happy to say is now completely incorporated into every mode and is playable online after being ridiculously restricted to offline play last year—is once again a complete copy and paste job with absolutely no attempt to introduce any new features. I understand that there is only so much you can do, but surely we should expect EA to do something? This is a company that makes millions and millions of pounds from this game, and they can’t come up with one new meaningful feature for Pro Clubs?
Speaking of making millions and millions of pounds, Ultimate Team is of course back and EA wants you to focus most of your attention on the mode again. It’s pretty much a copy and paste job itself, complete with last years improvement of Division Rivals, and there’s a new reward system called Season Objectives which effectively acts as a battle pass for the mode. This is a step in the right direction for the mode – you complete objectives to rank up through seasonal tiers, unlocking new rewards as you progress such as kits, stadiums, and players, without having to spend a penny. You’ll have to grind for the big rewards, but at least you have a viable option outside of dipping into your wallet. That doesn’t mean that the games controversial microtransactions don’t still exist, and they’re just as ugly as ever in my opinion, and putting odds on the packs only further convinces me that it’s a form of gambling rather than a “surprise mechanic”.
To be fair, I like Ultimate Team, I like the idea of building my own team and seeing how they perform against other players, but its pay-to-win mentality is still something that grinds on me. There’s something about the whole thing that just doesn’t sit right with me. How many players have spent countless amounts of money building their team, only for the next years version to come out and wipe their slate clean, forcing them to start all over again and pay £50 for the privilege? It feels like exploitism, and while you can always blame the player for allowing themselves to be exploited in such a fashion, the majority of the blame has to be placed at the door of the people who create a system that is designed to take full monetary advantage of its addictive and exploitative nature. I really hope that EA shifts Ultimate Team’s focus towards the new battle pass grinding system and away from microtransactions moving forward, but let’s be honest, what are the chances of that?
FIFA 20 is a difficult game to score. It takes plenty of steps forward, but for every step forward it feels like there’s a step back. Volta is a completely fresh way to play the game and it’s great fun, but it also isn’t quite the modern day FIFA Street that it wants you to think. House Rules is now playable online and there are new modes to play within it, but Pro Clubs is a copy and paste job again. Career Mode has been given a bit of attention for once but it’s just as broken as ever. Ultimate Team gets a free way of earning rewards if you’re willing to commit enough time but it still encourages you to take the easy way out and spend more of your money. One thing for sure is that FIFA 20 remains the ultimate suite of football content, offering you exquisite presentation and plenty of different ways to play, and it still plays a great game of football, better than last year in fact, but EA still has a lot of work to do off the pitch to stop people claiming its the same game every year. A step in the right direction then, but not a big one.