FIFA 20 Review: Good fundamentals

There’s no better herald of the end-of-year video game rush than the arrival of a new FIFA game, and arrive it does with FIFA 20. There is a specific audience for these games — bring up FIFA around a group of gamers and third of them will immediately lose interest, another third remain neutral, and the remaining third begin to lose their minds with excitement. Despite having played every entry in the series in the last 20 years or so and consider myself a fan, I still feel like I tend to fall in the middle tier. There have been plenty of years that brought the thunder (FIFA 10, I’m looking at you), while some iterations brought literally nothing new to the table (sorry FIFA 08, someone had to cop it and you know what you did).

FIFA 20 is a game chasing an ellusive balance. Neither a disaster nor a roaring success, its a relief to say that (as FIFA games go) FIFA 20 falls somewhere in the middle rung — almost everything feels better tuned overall, but doesn’t really offer anything I would consider ‘different’ or even ‘progressive’. New mode Volta is the year’s biggest draw by far, and arguably the best thing in this year’s package.

When it comes to presentation, the FIFA series has always fought to create an authentic and engaging football experience. FIFA 20 picks up right where the franchise left off, leveraging EA’s Frostbite engine for realistic lighting, detailed character models and recording enough audio commentary to make your head spin. FIFA‘s presentation has always been one of its strongest suits, it understands the value of a strong first impression — a layer gloss that helps engross the player and forgive its other shortcomings.

This quality and sheen also extends to the gameplay, as FIFA 20 controls incredibly well. Defending is vastly improved over 2019 and is now more tactical than ever. Players must line up attackers, and build a much better sense of when to sprint, sidestep and ultimately strike. Holding down the tackle button won’t get you anywhere anymore, and while the casual fans might consider it a shame, I welcome it with open arms. I wish I could say the same for the attacking end of the ground. Though FIFA 20 plays well offensively, it didn’t feel quite as versatile as last year’s outing.

I feel like FIFA can’t make up its mind on whether it wants to slow players down for the sake of realism, or play up the arcadey aspects for the sake of fun, and changes its mind on it year-to-year. This is a line the franchise has always toyed with, but this time around every player feels slightly more sluggish than before. This mostly applies to touches and passes, and it’s not as though it’s unbearable, but it does make the game feel heavier overall. Free kicks also shake things up, with a target now being placed over the goals, and as the player runs up to the ball, you can now add spin and drop, which is a welcome and finely tuned addition. The set-up touch also allows payers to roll the ball into a small pocket for another player to then launch a belting shot. If you’re thinking “Matt, they’ve had that feature in FIFA for a while now,” you’re right, it has, but it’s never been bound to a button press. The only issue here is that I could rarely pull it off — bloody satisfying when I did though.

Most of the issues I had regarding the attacking gameplay vanish in Volta, FIFA’s attempt at bringing back their classic Street series. However, before you get too excited, it’s worth mentioning that Volta still falls in line with more traditional FIFA gameplay rather than it does the Street series. Although you are playing on the streets, players aren’t judged on their ability to trick opponents, nor is there a points scoring system or multiplier. Think of Volta as an added burst of spice and flavour to the traditional FIFA menu. The game controls the same, but players move, pass and shoot with style. The trick stick has slightly more use in Volta, but it’s not something I would consider necessary. Players automatically touch the ball with an added flair, nifty animations that really make you feel like a pro, and turn the fun up a notch or two.

Volta is easily the mode to beat this year, and actually includes the story mode. It’s story is simple enough, with your custom created player being accepted into a new freestyle team led by real-life freestyle circuit player Jayzinho. After Jayzinho suffers an injury and all faith in his team is, and you must heed the call to action and help him rebuild — a task that just so happens to include taking down the best of the best. The story packs a surprising amount of heart, even more so than last year’s ending to Alex Hunter’s multi-year storyline The Journey. Volta also includes 3v3, 4v4 and 5v5 modes, all of which change the rules, pace and feel of the game. 3v3 and 4v4 implement the more traditional street style rules as you play in cages with smaller goals, while 5v5 matches play like futsal games, complete with larger goals and court boundaries. Apart from the story, Volta also includes tour and league modes. The league mode acts as the online part of the package as you face off against various online opponents, while the tour mode takes place offline. Overall, I had the most fun with this mode, and recommend it to anyone as the most premium part of the package for both single and multiplayer fun.

Outside of Volta, all your traditional modes return. career mode is literally a barebones carryover, with no story, and minimal variety, while House Rules introduces some whacky new modes to keep you engaged. King of the Hill acts as a possession-based mode where you must avoid players and maintain the ball, while Mystery Ball gives players a new ball every time it goes out of bounds, complete with varying physics and traits, as one ball can affect either, shooting, dribbling or speed, while another does all three. This mode admittedly mode me chuckle and is best played with friends. Ultimate Team also includes a couple exclusive modes this time around in the form of Max Chemistry and Swaps modes, which are self explanatory, but not the real reason why people come to Ultimate Team. Let’s keep this simple; yes Ultimate Team is still very much the same, which is a good thing, and yes, it will burn a hole in your wallet if you let it. Ultimate Team has always been addictive for this reason, and while the grind is always present, I found card packs to be somewhat generous this time around, so you can chalk that up to dumb luck or maybe FIFA has had a change of heart.

Overall, FIFA 20 is a mixed bag, but it’s worst traits are still acceptably implemented and play well. While defensive play is more engaging than ever, offensive play feels perhaps a little too sluggish. Volta is easily the best mode on offer here, and provides a surprisingly engaging narrative while it lasts. House Rules are fun, but didn’t really hold me throughout those longer play sessions. Ultimate Team is as good as it’s ever been, but FIFA clearly knows what it has in FUT and refuses to change a thing. FIFA 20 is sure to please most fans of the series as an acceptable entry, but I’m sure it’s bound to disappoint some hardcore fans too. They got the goal, but its not the back-of-the-net screamer you might have hoped for.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Defensive gameplay; Volta mode; House Rules modes; Same stellar presentation
Lowlights: Bland career mode; sluggish offensive gameplay; Little changes to Ultimate Team
Developer: Electronic Arts, EA Romania, EA Vancouver
Publisher: EA Sports
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows
Available: Now

Review conducted on Playstation 4 with a physical retail copy provided by the publisher.

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