Reviewing sports games can be a surprisingly difficult task. More than any other type of franchise, annualised sports titles must remain near identical at their core to the previous year, while simultaneously pushing toward the nebulous (and often contradictory) combination of minor fixes and major overhauls that fans demand. There really is no such thing as a perfect game on that endless treadmill. FIFA 19 will never be as good as FIFA 20 has the potential to be.
Every so often, though, a series like FIFA introduces something genuinely and refreshingly new: Ultimate Team before it swallowed up the entire experience (more on that later), say, or The Journey's endearing mix of on-field action and story-driven RPG. With FIFA 20, it's a street football mode called Volta, which very much resembles FIFA Street, a product that EA used to stick in a box and ask you to pay $60 to play.
Here, it's just one more option in FIFA's suite of things to do, and it has been at the forefront of EA's messaging around this year's game. Critics are mixed about just how satisfying an addition Volta actually is, but given the generosity the FIFA proposition, pretty much everyone is happy enough to have it onboard.
"Don't expect Volta to be the headline act that EA wants it to be"
That includes Push Square's Robert Ramsey, who declared Volta "fun and well made" despite "[failing] to leave a lasting impression."
"Volta's problem... is that it's just not as dynamic as a proper game of footie. FIFA's been building on, honing, and overhauling its regular 11 versus 11 gameplay for decades, and by comparison, Volta feels stunted and overly simplistic. It is fun and it is well made, but it's unlikely to hold the attention of those who crave proper football.
"In some ways, Volta replaces The Journey -- FIFA's dedicated story mode. You make your own character and you round up other characters for your team so that you can take the world of street football by storm. It's... Well, it's actually quite interesting and there's a degree of role-playing and freedom that The Journey never had, but it's hamstrung by some awful cutscenes, dialogue, and characters.
Ramsey added: "Partially embrace how cheesy it is and there's fun to be had -- just don't expect it to be the headline act that EA wants it to be."
With Ultimate Team also on offer, it's arguable that EA sees Volta as anything other than a fun diversion. There is only one "headline act" in FIFA these days, and several reviews criticise EA for letting the game's other modes dwindle in its long, lucrative shadow. Push Square described Career mode as being "in a worrying state" despite a handful of new additions, and Game Informer's Matthew Kato felt much the same.
"Other modes like Career (player or manager) and Pro Clubs are... stingy, including a few new elements that may solve long-standing problems or address fans' requests (like being able to practice in Pro Clubs), but which simply cannot disguise that these modes haven't been fundamentally improved.
"Off the pitch, FIFA 20 has made no concession to the current concern around loot boxes, and that worries me"
"For instance, the new manager interviews/conversations during Career mode are a thin way to address player morale, which is a system that behaves erratically. Some players demand more playing time when they've already been in the starting lineup for months. The AI also falters in managing its rosters correctly, keeping the transfer market stocked, and fielding the right lineup alongside you in the player-centric version of career mode."
And so to Ultimate Team, the mode that has become a financial bedrock for the whole of EA's business, and (critics say) the reason why the rest of the FIFA package feels somewhat underfed. This year, however, there is a new issue to contend with; namely a shift in the conversation (particularly in Europe) around loot box mechanics that has placed FIFA and Ultimate Team in the conversation around gambling, with the looming spectre of damaging, imposed regulation just around the corner.
According to Eurogamer's Wesley Yin-Poole, however, FIFA 20 plays like a game that exists in a world in which nothing has changed at all.
"I find myself quite cross with FIFA 20. This is a game with meaningful, welcome changes on the pitch. This is a fun football video game made by developers who clearly love football and are well aware of community feedback... Unfortunately, off the pitch, FIFA 20 has made no concession to the current concern around loot boxes, and that worries me.
"FIFA Ultimate Team, the game's most popular mode and EA's golden goose, is pay-to-win and, via its loot boxes, a gambling mechanic. Not a surprise mechanic -- a gambling mechanic. You can't cash out? Yes you can. Even if you couldn't, FIFA's virtual items carry huge value among the game's community, a value that for some means more than money.
"FUT normalises gambling for children and exploits them with grubby promotions that suggest highly-coveted cards are only in packs for limited time periods. And, the ultimate crime: with the launch of FIFA 20, once again FUT fans must start from scratch. All the blood, sweat and tears put into FIFA 19 discarded as if it were a right stick flick down quick sell."
"My queasy fascination with FUT is compounded by FIFA 20's core gameplay actually being really good this year"
Eurogamer's review is mentioned by its sister site, USgamer. In her review, Kat Bailey conceded that "criticism of its predatory gambling model is deserved," but she also addressed an uncomfortable fact about Ultimate Team that remains true even as the debate on loot boxes starts to boil over.
"I guess this is where I admit that FUT is kind of my mode of choice these days," Bailey wrote. "I like building my team off the market, and I think modes like Squad Battles -- in which you battle CPU-controlled teams for big rewards -- are really well done. It's the best expression of online play in the game. Oh for a world in which FUT had all of this without the whole predatory monetization element. But I guess that's like wishing for world soccer without all of the corruption.
"My queasy fascination with FUT is compounded by FIFA 20's core gameplay actually being really good this year. As always, this is subject to the inevitable balance patch that screws everything up, but I think FIFA has found the right balance with this version."
FIFA 20 is essentially as FIFA has always been, then; a reliably good and staggeringly popular video game, very much in thrall to its own most popular mode. The landscape is certainly changing beneath it, and future iterations may bring the kind of changes to FUT that show EA can remove its head from the sand on the very real issues around loot boxes. How quickly it's possible to turn a tanker the size of FIFA, though, remains an open question.
Indeed, far from taking stock and sweating the details, The Daily Telegraph's Dan Silver sees more evidence in FIFA 20 that EA has raised its ambitions further still. Not content with it just being the most profitable mode by a country mile, FUT has also been "re-imagined as an enormous time sink" -- seemingly with another vastly successful game in mind.
"The most ingenious/insidious (delete according to taste) addition is the confusingly titled Season Objectives, which have nothing to do with the football calendar and instead are a version of Fortnite's Battle Pass. Pretty much every action in the mode, from playing games to listing items on the transfer market, now accrues XP which in turn unlocks rewards, ranging from new stadium decorations to coins, packs and, ultimately, limited edition players.
"Wisely given the furore over FUT's loot box-style pack system, progression is (currently) free and, unlike its Fortnite equivalent, doesn't offer paid-for shortcuts. However the time players will need to invest to earn the top tier reward of a limited edition Wilfried Zaha card before Season 1 ends in around 50 days' time looks equally ruinous. Players (and parents): consider yourself warned.
"The company has, perhaps justifiably, been accused of prioritising profits over gameplay but the emphasis has evidently now shifted to attention time. FIFA's main competitor is now no longer football games, it's free-to-play shooters. And that might prove to be the series' toughest match up yet."