Even King Canute would have rolled his eyes when former professional footballer-turned-broadcaster Adrian Clarke recently pitched his deckchair in the surf and shouted into the swelling tide of Twitter: “Why are the EA FIFA player rankings an actual news story? ITS A COMPUTER GAME” (sic).
In response it was tempting to channel one of the sport’s other great thinkers, Bill Shankly: some people think FIFA 19 is a computer game. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.
The FIFA franchise doesn’t just reflect the rampant commoditisation of modern football, it actively drives it. The hype and hullabaloo which now heralds each yearly update is both ridiculously confected and also inextricably stitched into the fabric of football - like Transfer Deadline Day, Super Sunday and calendar year statistics.
It’s entirely fitting, then, that the big news for the new season is the transfer of the UEFA Champions League (acquired, incidentally, from fading rival PES, the squaring of a circle that could condemn Konami’s former champions to an eternity languishing in the (fully licensed) minor leagues of mainland Europe).
Understandably EA Sports seem determined to get value for their money and have seeded their pixel-perfect reproduction throughout FIFA 19. As well as being the promised land for narrative mode The Journey, the Champions League is also playable as a standalone tournament and in career modes (for which it represents the only real structural change of any note), and it will form a fundamental part of the FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) live offering over the next nine months.
Even if you despise UEFA for effectively reducing elite European football to a cartel-worthy racket there’s no denying the tangible thrill of hearing Handel’s stirring strings take flight in stunningly recreated stadia featuring teams not labouring under pseudonyms like London FC. Thankfully lessons have been also learned from last summer’s somewhat proscriptive World Cup expansion; FIFA players can customise the competition to their heart’s content, allowing small teams with no chance of ever gracing the tournament proper a chance to go for glory. Yes, even Arsenal.
Come for the Champions League anthem, then, but stay for the fluid tactical flexibility. Ronaldo and co dominated the advance marketing materials to such an extent you could be forgiven for thinking little had changed on the pitch itself. And while it’s true ludicrously-named new gameplay mechanics are largely conspicuous by their absence - Active Touch System, with its air of a steering aid in a mid-range saloon car, aside - the long-overdue root and branch overhaul of FIFA’s woefully inadequate tactics systems could actually make this the most radical release in years.
Ironically given the European integration elsewhere, taking back control is key. Each team’s attacking states can now be modified via the Team Management screen, with everything from the pressing style and player roles to the team’s formation open for tinkering with. Mini-Mourinhos can set up a sliding scale of ever more cautious approaches, while gung-ho Guardiolas can plot out five completely distinct attacking set-ups, all of which can be changed on the fly during the game. Combined with intelligent quick toggles mapped to the d-pad, it adds a tactical layer not seen in FIFA for years - if at all - and will hopefully spell an end to the generic kick and rush so prevalent online.
Other changes on the pitch also seem designed to take some of the predictability out of proceedings. Passing feels less laser-guided than in previous years while a new 50-50 mechanic sees possession change feet more often. Physical attributes feel as important as pace, and matches are as much about knees and elbows as they are flicks and tricks. In this context the new Timed Shooting double tap mechanic makes perfect sense as an attempt to introduce human player skill where previously it was all about the virtual player’s.
The proof of this football pie won’t be felt until FIFA 19’s online community lace up their boots in the coming weeks, of course. The same goes for FIFA Ultimate Team, the stupidly addictive (and astonishingly profitable) card trading mode which inevitably now casts the same shadow over EA Sports’ new features roadmap as it does their balance sheet.
FUT’s already formidable forest of feedback loops and loot drops has spread yet further with a new weekly online competitive mode and a mechanic allowing players to pick their own reward cards. It’s hard not to see the hand of YouTube content creators in every addition - and non-FUT fanatics might feel aggrieved at the attention the mode gets in comparison to Careers in particular - but the sheer mass of improvement both minor and major elsewhere make a mockery of any accusations FIFA has become a one-trick pony.
Indeed, the riotously reimagined Kick Off mode might be FIFA 19’s secret weapon. Classic head-to-heads and Cup Final match-ups have been embellished by House Rules, a clutch of custom game-types drawing inspiration from the playground rather than the Premier League. Long Range, where shots outside the box count double, Headers & Volleys, in which only lofted finishes score points, and Survival, in which teams lose a player every time they get a goal, are all perfect post-pub fare.
Better still is No Rules, a chaotic free-for-all in which everyone gets to experience life as Phil Jones and commit brutal fouls without censure, and which evokes a sense of fun arguably not felt in the franchise since FIFA Street.
The third season of the increasingly essential narrative mode The Journey even boasts a moment anachronisms like Adrian Clarke could appreciate. This year's story starts at the corner kick from which star Alex Hunter’s cantankerous grandad Jim scored his own hundredth career goal playing for Chelsea against Coventry in the late ‘60s. The match, which you play through to its conclusion, takes place on a cabbage patch of a pitch with an analogue scoreboard and two teams playing in unbranded, sponsor-free strips.
Nostalgic period details abound, from the analogue scoreboard and flashing ‘Replay’ stings in the corner of the screen, to the heavy leather ball that popped up as a contemporary prop in the preceding episodes. And in a move destined to bring a lump to the ear of football fans of a certain age, the accompanying commentary comes courtesy of a cameo by John Motson, who at one point wonders aloud how the imminent introduction of yellow and red cards at the 1970 World Cup Finals might influence the development of the game.
For a couple of brief, bucolic minutes we’re transported to an age before the advent of the UCL, UHD TV coverage, and CR7. And then the in-game camera pulls back to reveal the outsized tablet screen on which Jim was watching archived footage of his past exploits while sat by the pool in his millionaire teenage grandson Alex’s ludicrously luxurious Los Angeles gaff - two generations and an entire galaxy removed from his Premier League progeny.
It's a surprisingly self-aware beat for a product now so integral to the fetishisation of footballers that real-world Alex Hunters like Jesse Lingard and Michy Batshuayi publicly complain about the accuracy of their in-game representation. In days gone by EA Sports marketed their softwares with the slogan ‘It’s in the game’. For better or worse, FIFA 19 now is the game.