FIFA 19 hands-on: your questions answered on Champions League, timed finishing, new player faces and more

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For the first time since 2008, the Champions League is coming to FIFA. That news will be spun one of two ways when FIFA 19’s release date of 28 September arrives. Long-standing fans are guaranteed to proclaim it the series’ biggest step-change in a decade; critics will announce that it bears no relevance, because on-pitch gameplay trumps off-field licensing.

There’s actually a seed of truth in both of those perspectives, which is why I approach GamesRadar’s first hands-on with FIFA 19, held behind closed doors at Stamford Bridge, in an open-minded fashion. I’m excited about the Champions League integration, but also feel EA needs to fine-tune certain on-pitch mechanics such as defending. But this particular project isn’t just about me. As is now traditional on GR, the direction of my playtest is based on your questions about the game, submitted over Twitter and email in the build-up to the event. Here, then, is what I learn during an afternoon of non-stop FIFA 19…

What’s the biggest change this year? It’s a whole new ball game, right? Andrew Craft

Brace yourself if you’ve spent the last 12 months panning EA and all who sail on her. Ready? There is no epoch-defining transformation in FIFA 19. Traditionally, early hours with a new FIFA are spent bemoaning everything that’s different and denouncing it as broken. This edition is different. There’s a familiarity from the outset, with most of the fundamentals very similar to last year. First touches feel more delicate and through balls are a touch more effective – particularly diagonals in behind a full back – but those who enjoyed FIFA 18 will be reassured by the developer’s evolution-rather-than-revolution approach.

There is hope for those who didn’t, too. Sustained play demonstrates upgrades to the engine which, while subtle, are highly promising. The one which will interest elite gamers is timed finishing. Holding down the shoot button then tapping it again as your player strikes the ball triggers an attempt at a timed finish; get the timing right and you’re rewarded with extra accuracy and swerve. Get the timing wrong and… let’s just say I unleash one Fernandinho effort which almost obliterates the corner flag. 

I’d pinpoint tweaks to physicality as the element which improves the game most. Take 50/50 challenges: in previous games the first player to any loose ball would gain control, and it was maddening to see a midfielder bounce off an invisible forcefield when a split-second late to that tackle. Now players truly throw themselves into 50-50s with gusto, and the resulting contextual animations deliver all manner of results. Sometimes you come away with the ball; others, particularly if you’re, say, Christian Eriksen butting against Romelu Lukaku, see you launched onto your backside. It delivers variety and the sense that you could regain possession at any moment – long lost from recent FIFAs.

On the subject of Lukaku, strong players shield the ball properly, with the jarring animations that made hold-up play feeling awkward and a touch arbitrary now gone. That works both ways, too – as Vincent Kompany I’m able to hold off Marcus Rashford by the corner flag while waiting for Kyle Walker to drop back for a pass, the United man’s absurd speed momentarily nullified. Big thumbs up, then, for the physicality tweaks. 

Have the god-awful defending mechanics from FIFA 18 been changed?
Sam Jones

Defending mechanics definitely feel more reliable. My full-backs are sharper when it comes to closing down wingers, and two matches against fellow journalist Nathan Ditum become soupy in midfield at times because Fernandinho and De Bruyne (me, as Man City) and Dier and Dembele (Ditum, as Spurs) are so efficient when it comes to closing down space. That’s a good thing on paper, but whether it filters down to Championship or Ligue 2 teams remains to be seen. 

Gameplay producer Kantcho Doskov insists defending was a priority this year, specifically because of the feedback to FIFA 18. “A lot of work has been done on the player AI for marking, and just the way players are able to decelerate,” says Doskov. “It’s much more responsive. The way a defender jockeys and moves from side to side is much faster in this year’s game. In FIFA 18, people felt it was difficult to apply pressure – pro players kept telling us they couldn’t win the ball back. They felt their defenders were too slow to turn. So we’ve addressed that issue: you can counter a high possession team by being more agile when actually controlling a player.”

Are star players still overpowered? I’ve not played FIFA 18 much because it seems they get better while defenders’ ability to deal with them gets worse. Fran Harvey

Well… yes. Perfectly nail that new precision shooting mechanic with Ronaldo, Messi or Neymar and they find the corner almost every time. That’s not to say their every shot goes in – I see Roman Burki and David De Gea pull off miracle low saves too – but the very best still play like the very best, and are difficult to contain. New skill moves only add to that toughness from a defensive standpoint; for instance, click R3 while dribbling and your player flicks the ball up to himself, enabling you to launch an unassisted volley. The move is so effective right now that I predict it’ll be one of the first things toned down in a patch.

Balance is important, so I’ve no wish to present a defence on EA’s behalf, but you can understand the developer making sure FIFA 19’s headliners offer the most fun from an attacking standpoint. Still, I put it to Doskov that his game needs to play just as enjoyably, and realistically, if you’re controlling Exeter City against Plymouth Argyle as it does when pitching Barca against Real. 

“The way we differentiate between players within those teams is through attributes,” he replies. “[For bigger teams] players are able to make actions quicker, or more accurately. So we make sure a team like Plymouth Argyle can still pass the ball around – obviously not as quickly or as precisely as Real Madrid, but in a way that the game still feels fun. We do make sure that we test those lower-skilled teams and that you can knock the ball around and still get shots on target, and we try not to go too crazy with the amount of player error that goes on. We’ve done a lot of work this year on that. It’s not all about skills – though of course the better teams offer more [variety] in that area.”

Are the faces finally up to par with PES, or do they all still have that cold, dead look?
Dan Welch

As with most other years there’s been a slight sprucing up where graphics are concerned, but player faces largely look the same as they have done throughout this console generation. If you prefer those found in Pro Evo, there’s nothing here to convince you that FIFA’s are superior. I do note some new official likenesses, though, and have listed them below. Sadly it appears that those wanting real faces across the Bundesliga are likely to remain disappointed; Burki, Philipp, Sule, Wagner and Goretzka are all generic in this build of the game.

Here are the new ‘starheads’ I do spot:

  • Serge Aurier (Tottenham Hostpur)
  • Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham Hotspur)
  • Juan Foyth (Tottenham Hotspur)
  • Tashan Oakley-Boothe (Tottenham Hotspur)
  • Anthony Georgiou (Tottenham Hotspur)
  • Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid)
  • Jose Maria Gimenez (Atletico Madrid)
  • Angel Correa (Atletico Madrid)
  • Saul (Atletico Madrid)

Will EA spring a mad one and give us referee mode?
Connor McLean

There’s no referee mode, and there likely never will be, but your question does raise the controversial sceptre of VAR. It’s surely here to stay after a reasonably successful World Cup trial, and the last notable real-life officiating improvement – Goal Line Technology – was added to FIFA with impressive swiftness. Does that mean, then, that we may see VAR coming to FIFA 20 or FIFA 21? I put the question to creative director Mat Prior.

“We don’t really talk about future games, but VAR is interesting,” says Prior. “At the beginning it was a little sketchy, but I think it proved itself across the tournament. [FIFA] just needs to iron out the kinks. I’m for it [in real football] because as a fan there’s nothing worse than going out to a bad decision, and if VAR can reduce that then it’s for the benefit of the game. [With regards to the videogame] we’ll see how it levels out. If it becomes part of the fabric of football it might be something we want to introduce. We’ll monitor it and see how it goes.”

Is the Champions League inclusion really that big a deal?
Carl Green

As I mentioned at the outset of this piece, it’s certainly not going to be the single factor in dragging PES diehards over to FIFA. That’s because, in the strictest possible sense, the CL integration doesn’t affect on-field, 11-vs-11 fundamentals.

It most definitely influences presentation and atmosphere though – and as someone who’s spent more than a decade evangelising MLB The Show for its incredible off-field depth, that’s a big deal for me personally. Every CL detail is included: ball, arch, shirt patches, theme, etc. And having a fresh pair of commentators in Derek Rae (wonderful) and Lee Dixon (patchy, but it is year one) immediately imbues the mode with freshness. There’s a sense of grandeur which makes you feel like CL matches are special, even if your button presses, and AI behaviour on both sides, change little.

It’s neatly incorporated across the game, too. The Champions League plays a focal point in Alex Hunter’s third and final instalment of The Journey; it’s included in career mode, with accurate qualification rules depending on the domestic competition you’re playing in; it exists as its own, completely customisable mode; and it will be in Ultimate Team in some form, even though FUT plays no part in this first hands-on. I predict we’re getting a fortnightly ‘team of the matchday’, in addition to the traditional ‘team of the week’. 

Will it have better online stability? I was happy with FIFA 18, but that side of the game felt too inconsistent.
Gav Bailey 

My day with the game features local multiplayer only (in addition to matches against the AI), so it’s not a question I’m able to answer just yet. Instead, I raise the issue with Prior. “I think we have one of the highest stability rates of online gaming across the industry,” he responds. “But obviously, we want to continually improve that and get as close to a 100% stability rate as possible. It’s one of those things where you notice when it doesn’t work and [at those times] it can feel worse than it actually is – you might have two months without a problem, but then [get frustrated] when one arises. We are ‘player first’: we want the best experience for all our consumers, and online experience is a fundamental part of that, and it is frustrating when things don’t work – and I share that frustration. It’ll continue to be a huge area of focus for us.”

Is there anything new in career mode?
Matt CFC

EA isn’t taking career mode specifics at the moment, although I am shown some footage of how the Europa League crosses over into its main managerial mode. As part of the news panel you get to see clips of the draw being made, and presumably the Champions League draw will be integrated in the same way. From this glimpse the actual layout of the mode seems identical to last year, with central panels steering you to the most notable happenings, and tabs in the top left corner enabling you to see your fixtures, squad, stats and so on. Expect more details around Gamescom in mid-August.

What changes have they made to Pro Clubs? Has anything changed in Ultimate Team re purchases?
Josh Challies

Over to Prior again, for one final time: “We can’t speak to that one. There’ll be more divulgence of other game areas as we had towards Gamescom, and then launch. We will talk about that [in the near future].”

FIFA 19 is released on 28 September. For more on its biggest new license, check out 5 things you need to know about FIFA 19's Champions League mode.