FIFA 23 stands out thanks to four words its community barely dared to dream. They. Changed. Ultimate. Team. Like, legit ripped out the entire way you build a fantasy squad, bringing EA's final FIFA in line with that other great global football gaming obsession: FPL. No longer are you punished for wanting Mbappe, Son, Tomori, and Courtois in the same line-up. Equally, no longer can you manipulate archaic systems to transform two midfield powerhouses into all-conquering forwards. In one hit, both authenticity and fun are significantly enhanced.
Release date: September 27, 2022
Platform(s): PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Developer: EA Vancouver
Publisher: EA Sports
Contrary to plans announced ahead of launch, EA has retained chemistry after all. But it's nothing like you remember it. Now the maximum possible 'chem' is 33 rather than 100. Players are still rewarded for having team-mates or fellow countrymen elsewhere in your Ultimate Team line up – just without the need for them to be adjacent to one another. And while chemistry provides a gentle stats boost, crucially there's no punishment for deploying a player on zero. Son is deadly down the left in an otherwise all La-Liga squad. Nick Pope remains gallingly impassable behind a completely French back four. Your dream XI finally feels both personalized and unlimited.
Change at the Palace
My fear when EA announced this revised Ultimate Team chemistry system was that it would dilute the intelligence required behind team-building, but it's actually refreshing. For instance, every year one of my first tasks is to concoct a past-and-present Crystal Palace squad. Across the last three editions of FIFA games, Steve Mandanda and Jose Fonte have been relegated to bench warmers due to their negative chemical effects on an EPL-focussed XI. Now they fit seamlessly.
It's a system that offers simplicity but nuance too. Particularly with the decision to amend Position Modifier cards: in FIFA 23 these can only be used to move a player to his real-life secondary or tertiary position, rather than shunting them up and down the pitch. Big, big tick.
Division Rivals matches form the heartbeat of FUT, and make for a pleasant surprise – for now, at least. Human opponents offer tactical variety, and the effectiveness of sitting deep in order to counter with two pacey strikers is toned down, but this is the one area of the game impossible to score on opening weekend. As elite players figure out the meta, super cards spark power creep, and patches arrive, online matches are going to evolve in unpredictable directions. So I'm willing to commend the online play, but only with a 'watch-this-space' asterisk.
The neatest FUT addition in FIFA 23 is Moments. Shamelessly lifted from the Madden games, it sees you completing sequences of quick fire offline tasks – goals from Kylian Mbappe's Monaco years, Jurgen Klopp's managerial highlights from Mainz and Dortmund – to unlock a tiered selection of rewards. Its bite-sized nature sees you lose minutes, then hours, and then evenings in the themed climb towards goodies such as jumbo player packs. If there's any one annoyance here it's that you have to go back to the Moments menu between each challenge, rather than speedily hopping from one to the next – as you're able to do in the Madden games. But that disjointedness should not overly detract from a solid addition.
Away from Ultimate Team, it's in career mode that I'm spending my time – and with highly enjoyable results. Here, without souped-up stats and sweaty opponents, you really get a flavor of how FIFA 23 feels as a sports simulation.
There's a masterstroke to discover before you even step onto the turf. After years of clamoring, it's at last possible to play as a real-life manager, rather than having to create your own inevitably naff avatar. The difference is immediate and palpable. I chose to take over Freiburg – one of six newcomers on the FIFA 23 stadiums list – with Steven Gerrard in the hot-seat, imagining he's been sacked by Villa and is looking to bring a Premier League flavor to Germany's south-western corner.
That instant backstory provides a sense of depth, and makes transfer negotiations and press conferences feel newly authentic. I'm no longer the great pretender when trying to import Patson Daka from Leicester, or Curtis Jones from Gerrard's former club, but an ex-England midfielder whose face and demeanor make cut-scenes believable. In what feels like a finger-click, I lose five hours of a Saturday night to my new life as Stevie G. Deadwood is shipped out, scouts are dispatched; Youth players get surprise first-team contracts, early season matches bring experimentation and new faves. This initial 'setting up' phase is the element I've always loved most about Football Manager – but until now I've never felt similarly invested in FIFA's managerial machinations.
Yet as I write this, I'm still hooked. Jones, alongside fellow new signing Lucas Tousart, is the midfield rock who's helped steer Freiburg to fourth. Daka, accompanied by previous regime holdover Lucas Holer, can't stop piercing tired defenses for late winners. I've grown to love backline stalwarts Mark Flekken, Matthias Ginter, and Christian Gunter more than any recent Ultimate Team card. I've become so deep-rooted that the squad's unbeaten run coming to an end via a late Timo Werner winner at Leipzig results in a 20-minute calm-down walk. I am 42 years old.
Familiar yet Alien
Clearly, I'm also so invested that I lost my thread from three paragraphs ago. So: The way FIFA 23 plays. It's still familiar, but my many hours emulating Stevie G press home how welcome the on-field improvements are. The general speed of FIFA came down a notch last year, and the introduction of HyperMotion 2 in FIFA 23 sees it reduced further. Unless facing a high press, my midfield duo of Tousart and Jones are afforded time to think and move – one of the joys of classic Pro Evo which FIFA has never quite recaptured. Defenders feel more intelligent, hence my love for Ginter and Gunter. Killer pace is still murderous – it's one of the reasons I signed Daka – but players like him work best the Corporal Hicks way: short, controlled bursts. There's much greater effectiveness found in powering onto a perfectly timed through ball, than collecting possession on halfway and trying to charge around every dangled leg.
Weirdly, the best two new additions to EA's sim are distinctly arcade. Power shots, triggered by holding R1 and L1 then holding the shoot button, see the camera zoom in with a slo-mo effect before the ball is thundered goalwards. It's daft, and more like something out of SNES-era International Superstar Soccer, but there is no more satisfying way to score in FIFA 23. Similarly, the new set-piece method of moving a cursor over the ball to determine where you strike it feels utterly bonkers at first – but actually delivers myriad variety and subtlety as you master all it can do.
Lots of encouragement, then. Yet two legacy headaches dent hopes of a stronger score. One is the age-old FUT issue of pack transparency: the odds of unearthing Mbappe, Son, or Benzema (top dog on the FIFA 23 ratings list) are still deliberately obfuscated. Those pay-to-win catcalls are going nowhere. Additionally, there remain too many moments of manufactured drama, in which player control feels sabotaged. Be it Squad Battles where trailing teams turn into 1970 Brazil, online matches where the leading team suddenly can't pass water, or an overabundance of 90th minute goals – not least that Werner sickener. Still, FIFA 23 sees the series bow out on a high, and provides encouraging signs for the debut of EA Sports FC this time next year.
FIFA 23 was reviewed on PS5, with a code provided by the publisher.