When FIFA 22 cover star Kylian Mbappe cannoned a penalty against the outstretched right palm of Yann Sommer back in June, condemning France to a shock round-of-16 Euro 2020 exit, it was widely viewed as part of football’s rich tapestry. Proof that even the world’s best players are human. Yet had the same event occurred during a FUT Champions weekend – a 91-rated striker seeing his decisive spot-kick blocked by a 85-rated keeper – most FIFA veterans would decry it as ‘scripted’ or ‘death of skill gap’ or ‘RNG bullshit’. Therein lies the challenge of developing a modern sports game. Realism is only welcomed when it generates positive outcomes.
Platform(s): PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PC
Release date: October 1, 2021
Developer: EA Canada
This puts the latest edition of EA’s footballing juggernaut in a curious place. I’m finding it the most believable FIFA in years, its gentler pace welcoming cerebral midfield play and intricate work around the box, searching for a decisive pass. Patience feels not only encouraged, but rewarded, and while speed has been toned down, the addition of a burst move to surge past a defender is a masterstroke. Yet I get the sense that the wider community is going to hate those changes. Years of playing Division Rivals and Weekend League have conditioned me to end-to-end basketball style matches where the quickest, most meta team wins. Usually 7-6. Purists, you’d hope, would welcome more authentic football. But are there any purists left?
Rock you like a Harry Kane
We’ll get an answer to the above when the first patch arrives a few weeks after release – for FIFA 21 it brought numerous gameplay changes based on community feedback, such as (sigh!) increased swiftness across the park. Many, myself included, considered it a poorer football simulation as a result. Because for those weaned on the classic Pro Evo efforts of yesteryear, sports gaming is all about mimicking the real thing while having fun along the way. Various tweaks made across the last 12 months enable FIFA 22, in its current guise, to do a strong job on that front.
More pensive approach play is a huge factor, but it’s not just about the man on the ball. In GR’s FIFA 22 preview, developer EA Canada spoke about mo-capping 22 players together for the first time, and you really feel the results. Full-backs make attack-joining runs without you having to set a specific tactic, team-mates look for open pockets of space in which to receive a short pass, forwards pull away from defenders in order to attack crosses (which are faster, and whippier, and generally more effective): there’s so much less standing around. I’ve liked recent FIFAs, but also found them filled with moments where I threw my hands up in exasperation and yelled “why?!” at an AI team-mate. That’s rarely the case this year.
More importantly, it’s finally possible to have faith in your keeper or back three/four/five. A defensive unit with reasonable ratings (low-80s on World Class difficulty, in my case) works tidily together, largely keeping its shape and knowing where one other is – sit them deep and you also see them putting their bodies on the line in and around the box, Burnley style. Both online and off I’m yet to experience anything approaching an 8-7 scoreline. That’s down to goalies too: new mo-cap, animations, and behavioral tendencies transform custodians for the better, offering more variety and reliability – with mistakes still possible, but unusual. Again, watch Match of the Day and you’ll seldom see any episode where every gloveman proves faultless.
Lowering the Toney
While I sympathize with the challenges of developing sports games for an audience that wants both realism and competitiveness, EA doesn’t get a free pass. Grind your way to an elite player and it’s forgivable to see him miss a chance or two when added to your line-up. Such was the agony and ecstasy of Master League, in PES’ heyday. Spend hundreds of pounds on FIFA Points chasing that 91-rated Mbappe card, and the sense of entitlement when he finally lands in your squad – followed by fury, when he misses from 12 yards out – is understandable. Perhaps even justifiable.
It’s alarming, then, to see this year’s Ultimate Team diluting those grinding possibilities, instead funneling gamers towards dropping cash. Bronze Pack Method, where over time you could guarantee slow-yet-effective transfer market profit by opening packs then selling on the players inside, has been made tougher by the removal of standard 400-coin packs – you’re now stuck with the premium version, at 750. Player prices have also been meddled with. The minimum (‘discard’, in FUT parlance) price for in-form (‘TOTW’) cards used to be 10,000 coins – enabling you to invest when they arrived, then profit later. In FIFA 22, that technique has been hamstrung too: TOTW Ivan Toney’s minimum price upon release was 18,500, again blocking off the buy-low-sell-high route to coins. The harder it is to grind for in-game currency, the more real dollars people will feel like they have to spend.
It’s unacceptable, frankly. Between FIFA, Madden, and NHL, Ultimate Team made EA $1.62 billion in its last fiscal year, thanks to players unloading their wallets in order to chase super cards – having already shelled out £50-70 to buy each game. Chasing even greater profits, by making the transfer market harder to work and less enjoyable at the same time, just comes across as greedy on the publisher’s part. MLB The Show 21’s similar Diamond Dynasty mode eventually gives you more great cards than you can ever use; dropping cash just expedites the process. That’s fair. For me, FIFA 22 is the first series entry where the balance feels unfair - which has to affect this review’s final score.
Soaking up Bath time
Before we get to that verdict, some more positives: because there is plenty to like. Detailed stat tracking – heat maps, an array of post-match numbers – enables you to microscopically assess the performance of your team and every individual player. Online losses feel much less unjust when you note that an opponent’s XG obliterated your own. Even little details like improved net physics, deeper goal kicks, and more physicality at corners bring sparks of joy. And while career mode plays second fiddle to FUT these days, I’m thoroughly enjoying the new option of guiding a created club (Bath City) through their first-ever season of league football – see our imminent FIFA 22 tips guide for more on this brilliantly implemented addition.
In terms of gameplay this is a four-star football offering. And gameplay is always paramount. But I can’t in good conscience award it those four stars when its most popular, and most profitable, mode feels so shamelessly focussed on making the kind of money that would buy Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Robert Lewandowski in real life. FIFA 22’s PS5 action sets the most wonderful precedent for its future on the field of play – punctured by a dreadful sense of foreboding for what upcoming installments of Ultimate Team have in store.
Reviewed on PS5 with a code provided by the publisher.
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