It’s FIFA time again. It’s something we’ve all gotten used to. September and October have become the new virtual-football season openers and for FIFA players there’s nothing more exciting. However, with the rising cost of games and, often, the similarities of one year’s version to the next – many alternate their FIFA purchases based on new content. So is FIFA 20 a skip-it or buy-it year? Well, aside from some familiar irritations and, depressingly, the seemingly unstoppable scourge of microtransactions – the good news is that with the introduction of Volta and a few other notable improvements and additions – FIFA 20 looks to be the best package we’ve seen in years.
A Volta to the Street
If last year’s focus was the inclusion of the newly acquired Champions League – FIFA 20 is all about Volta. For a few years from about 2005, FIFA Street was a big thing. And while these games provided a fun alternative to the full-field stuff we were enjoying in the mainline games, I often found them lacking in content. They would get repetitive fast. It’s 2019/20 though and it’s been a while since we got a FIFA Street game (and even longer since we got a good one) and while Volta will immediately garner comparisons those games – Volta tries to mix it up a little.
In Volta, skills and tricks are a more important feature than in the full 11v11 matches. But unlike FIFA Street where pannas and rainbow flicks were the main attraction, the primary aim in Volta is winning matches and progressing through scoring goals. It’s a slight shift in focus but it makes quite a difference. Particularly because this year, the Journey-styled story mode actually takes place in Volta. You take on the role of an up-and-coming street player who joins a street team (led by a street legend named Jayzinho). However, things quickly turn sour and it’s up to you and a wise-cracking teammate, Syd, to rebuild the team (and yourself via a skill tree system) and get them through to the World Championships.
Because ‘The Journey’ culminated last year in a three-protagonist-strong story mode, Volta’s narrative may not feel as grandiose as the previous version. However, I must admit that I still really enjoyed the more intimate take on a sports game story. The themes of youth versus experience and “modern-day social media mad, record-everything” vs “the older, calmer and more respectful ‘live-in-the-moment'” mantra were a little heavy-handed and the narrative did jump around once or twice. But as a sports game guy that really enjoys the single-player stuff – I really liked the 5-10 hour story mode here and found it just the right amount of nonsensical fun.
The Journey-styled story mode takes place in Volta… and I found it just the right amount of nonsensical fun.
On the downside, my journey through the Volta story did contain a few oddities – including the ‘clone wars’. At the start, almost every team I played against included a replica of my own teammate ‘Syd’. The character model and assets were simply duplicated: same clothing, attributes and even trademark shaved head. Often, several team names were also duplicated. I played two teams, both aptly named “The Attack” – in both the Group-of-16 and Semi-Finals of the same knockout tournament. However, the review version I played was pre-official launch and during my playthrough, I received at least two updates. So I would assume this is just a bug that will be fixed and there should be sufficient randomly generated other characters to ensure the issue is temporary. While a few of the characters’ voice acting is good (notably Jayzinho) most of the others are very cringy. Consistently hearing “Bruv” in a ridiculous, put-on South Londoner accent did get a little much and was only topped by the oddly named white South African(?) character Bobbi Pillay with an accent that hovered somewhere between Capetonian and Australian.
It’s in the Game(play)
This year, FIFA 20 boasts a few updates in the technical department. Volta, of course, has been designed from the ground-up favouring more close-quarter, smaller team, quicker, in-your-face gameplay that feels very different to what we’ve been playing over the last few years. Beyond that, EA details (amongst others): improved ball physics, dynamic one-on-ones, new(ish) composed finishing and new strafe dribbling. The debut features that immediately stood out to me, though, were the set-piece refresh, the improved defender AI and the introduction of what the EA team are calling ‘controlled tackling’.
The debut features that immediately stood out to me were the set-piece refresh, the improved defender AI and the introduction of the great new ‘controlled tackling’.
Set-pieces have always been a bit of a gamble and every few years we get an update to the system. This has happened yet again, and while it does take some getting used to – I do prefer the new format to what we had previously. Aiming is significantly improved and once you master it (which I haven’t quite yet) adding some curl, dip or even knuckling a ball CR7-style is quite fun.
Traditionally, Goalkeeper and Defender AI has been one of FIFA’s weak points. This year the latter got a bit of an overhaul. While it continues to favour attackers – the new system does at least feel a little more realistic. Most goals I suffered were largely down to my impatience and wildly running out of defence, rather than AI defenders behaving like headless chickens. That being said, shooting is still over-powered and once you get the hang of it (as so many online players consistently demonstrated against me) you can expect a goal virtually every time you score from a close enough distance.
However, given my already admitted defensive frailties, the one improvement I really appreciated was the controlled tackling. I really noticed that, depending on the situation, I was able to use a last-ditch slide or even a more controlled and well-timed close tackle without the fear that I would automatically be shown a red card or alternatively miss completely. It seems to take into account the match situation, attacker’s position and your own angle of approach providing a more forgiving and in my opinion more realistic result.
One of my absolute favourite features of FIFA 20 (and where I feel it is way ahead of its main competitor) is its accessibility. Not only does it have a dedicated accessibility section – allowing you to toggle features like subtitles, size of icons and even palettes depending on colour blindness, but importantly it is much easier to approach for new players. Having also reviewed PES 2020 earlier this month, I noticed a stark difference in the approach. While there is no doubting PES’ technical aptitude, FIFA not only favours a more accessible arcade-style, but it also provides really great in-game assists and even an in-depth tutorial section. These ‘Skill Games’ provide an entry point for brand new players and also do a great job of introducing new features. And while these games can be tiresome for experienced players they are, on the whole, optional and therefore, a fantastic and unique selling point.
Goal-fest, Mode-fest, Money-fest
For a ‘simple’ sports game – FIFA 20 contains a ridiculous amount of varying modes and content. Of course, as spoken about in length above, Volta is the largest addition in this regard. Along with the story-related stuff, you can also play Volta League and Volta Tour modes. Within these modes (some of which are online) you are exposed to a substantial amount of differing street-soccer themed locations and styles including everything from small field 3-on-3 matches to larger 5-on-5 Futsal matches that even include flying goalkeepers. It’s a great variety and the 3v3 games were my favourite.
Then, once you’ve had your fill of Volta you can begin to tackle all the returning modes. Kick-off is back as well as the Champions League, DIY Tournaments, Career Modes not to mention online Seasons, Co-Op and Pro Club modes and FUT. Happily, many of these returning modes have seen a little bit of an overhaul and the result is remarkably robust. Kick-Off now includes the option to hop into a Volta match and includes new (and returning) House Rules options. These same wonderful and creative ways to mix-up the couch co-op/versus experience have also moved online in FUT Friendlies. My highlight in this mode was playing against a player in another part of the world in a ‘King of the Hill’ online match-up where thanks to my positional play I was able to rack up a massive goal lead (11:0) after only scoring 4 ‘real goals’. It’s mad, and a heck of a lot of fun.
Career modes are once again split up between starting as a new manager or an up-and-coming star, but this time around you can have a more profound effect on transfers, media perception and team morale. Thanks to a series of short cutscenes featuring a few limited decision-tree options – you can influence the structure of a player’s contract, what the media think of the team brand and even how happy Pogba is playing for Manchester United. It’s a small addition, but like sprinkles on a sundae, I’m all for it.
Playing online seemed to be mostly stable throughout my matches (only in one match did the game lag slightly) and while Co-Op seasons and Pro-Club haven’t seen any major updates that I noticed, FUT continues progressing. Unfortunately, not all of the progression is in the right direction. On the positive side of things, the multiple online friendly additions are wonderful and newly included tutorial-like ‘Season Objectives’ provide a more structured and very obvious way to earn XP by providing specific goals to accomplish. The auction system is still worth it if you are patient and I managed to develop a reasonably capable team (importantly with some 90+ Chemistry) without ever contemplating spending real money.
Not only does FIFA 20 re-introduce street football in a way that feels fresh, but the accompanying story and a plethora of other game modes are rather impressive.
Unfortunately, the temptation to spend money is always there. And while for many of us it’s just not an option we consider, the fact that kids (rated PEGI age 3 and up and no in-game parental controls) and individuals with gambling addiction play this game makes some parts of FUT feel exploitative. Getting Icon level players requires a ridiculous amount of coins – which are virtually unattainable playing the game unless you have loads of time and some F2Tekkz-level skills. (Look him up). Even just entering the FUT Draft mode requires 15,000 coins (for context I only managed to rack up just under 5000 coins in about 4 days of reviewing, admittedly after buying some players and getting my team to a semi-competitive level). You can, of course, buy yourself in – 300 FIFA Coins will set you back around R60. And while that may not seem like much – FUT Coin packs run-up to near the R1,500 mark – and you know it’s available because people are buying it. And, while we may not be there yet, this seemingly unstoppable march towards an exclusively pay-to-win model is in the very least depressing and increasingly worrisome.
Penalties after extra-time
Just like that missed penalty after extra-time, FIFA 20 has its flaws; Chief among them is likely FUT’s continued glamorising of loot-box culture. Along with that major issue, a few other minor irritations remain. Some players seriously need a visual upgrade (especially when compared to some of the player models produced by FIFA’s main competitor), shooting is OP and commentary is repetitive. Also, during the review, the game suffered from a few bug-like issues (including the duplicates mentioned above), a few long loading times and, surprisingly, even a crash during a FUT bidding process – although I suspect these will quickly be handled by an update.
But really, despite these issues, FIFA 20 really has a lot going for it. Not only does it re-introduce street football in a way that feels fresh, but the accompanying story and a plethora of other game modes are impressive. Throw in several significant gameplay improvements, a wonderful presentation and astounding attention to detail from crowd reactions to player-creation and to me, this feels like a really significant edition of the yearly franchise. It is accessible, slick, fun and engaging and whether you’re looking for a FIFA game to enjoy on your own, locally with some friends or you’re the next online esports star in the making, FIFA 20 is an edition you’re likely to enjoy.