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I’ve had to reassess the way I’ve played FIFA this year, which is something I haven’t had to do in many years through all the tweaks, changes and so called “game-changing mechanics”. FIFA 20
feels different to previous years; in some ways for the better, but in others not. Volta, a brand-new way to play FIFA that offers a breath of fresh air to the series – albeit not without its own faults – is here, but does it come at the expense of the game as a whole?
Last year, many of FIFA 19’s gameplay innovations were based on the attacking game, from timed-finishes to the basics of how the ball could be nudged into space with a flick of the stick. FIFA 20 swings the pendulum back the other way and puts much more emphasis on the other side of the ball. The way you defend has been overhauled and has never felt more crucial. You can no longer heedlessly charge at a defender, hold down the tackle button, and hope for the best. You’re punished for not thinking about defensive play to the same extent you would building an attack, due to the high level of risk-reward when going in for a challenge; time it well and you’ll likely take the ball cleanly and win possession. Misjudge the timing, however, and you’re punished with a foul or left watching as your opponent skips over your trailing leg.
This is due in part to a new weapon attackers now have in their arsenal in the form of strafe dribbling. You can square up to a defender by holding the left bumper and attempt to shimmy past, ultimately creating a yard of space needed for a cross or shot. It’s a useful tool that provides more options when in control of the ball. If successful, at the very least you’ll get fouled, giving you the chance to try out the new way set-pieces are taken. EA has seemingly taken inspiration from the now-dormant PGA Tour golf series when it comes to taking direct free kicks, because now you first place a target where you want to aim, then add spin with the right stick as the taker approaches the ball. This technique opens up new possibilities and can produce some great-looking finishes. It’s initially difficult to get to grips with but I found myself enjoying it greatly, especially in comparison the simplistic ways they’ve worked in previous games.
For more on specific gameplay changes, check out the video below:
Get past your man without being chopped down, however, and you’re in luck, as you’ll likely have the pace to ward them off and bear down on goal. This is thanks to a welcome adjustment of how player speed works in FIFA 20. A common FIFA 19 frustration was how easily slow defenders would often be able to catch up with much faster attackers; I’m happy to report that’s no longer the case here, and the sight of an aging Mats Hummels quickly closing in on a spritely Raheem Sterling is no longer a regular occurrence.
Add another new addition, the set-up touch, and a devastating combo is possible. By rolling the ball into space by holding the right bumper and flicking the right stick, you’re then able to hit a vicious shot on goal. This often creates some blockbuster moments and, when pulled off correctly, feels great. Sadly, FIFA 20 provides little opportunity to actually achieve this, because the set-up animation feels like it takes an age to complete, and often you’re crowded out by tenacious defenders before getting your effort on goal away.
This loops back to the defensive overhaul implemented in FIFA 20. Defensive AI is far more intelligent and they’ll intercept passes and block shots much more often. Lofted through balls are no longer anywhere near as effective as they once were, as defenders are better at reading the game and provide more of a challenge than I’m used to when playing FIFA.
As a result I’ve found myself playing more on the counter-attack, which in turn has led to my biggest frustration with this year’s outing: it feels completely two paced. The players have returned to being lightning-quick, but that feels completely at odds with the speed at which the ball wants to move. New ball physics cause it to bobble and get slowed down grass more realistically, which admittedly looks great, but it also interrupts the flow of the game. It’s like listening to a song with someone sporadically pressing the half-speed button every time you hit a groove.
This, coupled with the more realistic ways players turn, both on and off the ball, slows down the pace considerably, and some players’ turning circles are unusually large. I’m all for creating as authentic a football experience as possible – and something that FIFA excels in its presentation – but I fundamentally want it to be fun first. For me, football games have often been at their best when they don’t take themselves too seriously and embrace the silly side of the game. Whether that be the long-lost penguin outfits in the golden era of PES or the pure slapstick, arcade fun of FIFA Street. Luckily, there is still room for plenty of that in FIFA 20, even if it’s hard to find in its core 90-minute match modes.
For more a full match of FIFA 20 in 4K, check out the video below:
The Marred Volta
Volta is the grandstand addition to FIFA 20 and is an amalgamation of FIFA Street and the more recent story-based Journey mode. In many ways it’s a successful combination: there’s a lot of variety and perhaps even enough to do to to warrant a standalone release without provoking too many gripes. That alone nullifies the argument that FIFA 20 is just a reskin of the previous year’s version.
There are three ways to play Volta: Tour, League and Story, each of which is appealing in different measure. Tour is where you go to play matches against the CPU, using squads pulled from the server that have been built by other players. Once you beat a squad you can recruit a player from that team to join yours, similar to Need for Speed’s pink slip system. It also allows you to choose which of the 17 worldwide locations and forms of street football you’d like to play. Each of these global arenas has been beautifully crafted and has its own unique atmosphere, while also offering a genuinely different gameplay experience – though some with greater success than others. I much preferred the larger pitches like Rio de Janeiro’s favela or the Berlin gymnasium rather than the claustrophobic cages of Tokyo’s sky-high rooftops.
To see all of the different Volta modes, check out the video below:
Matches on these smaller pitches often descend into chaos, with balls bouncing between knees, concrete and chain fences, and very little football actually taking place. Repeatedly hitting shoot to see where the bounces was often the most successful tactic, repeating until it finds the back of the net. But on more open pitches, Volta really comes into its own. There’s time and space to pass the ball around, with enough scope to add flourishes like tricks and flicks. That said, if you overplay flair you’ll be punished, because Volta is much more rooted in classic FIFA than the old Street games. There are no bonus points for skills moves, they’re just another way to help win the match. It feels good to achieve a balance of the two, even if in my heart I yearn for the days of getting Peter Crouch to panna every opponent in sight.
There are subtle differences between the matches, some more engaging than others. Futsal is the pick of the bunch and the one most grounded in the traditional 11v11 game. The lack of walls to bounce the ball off provide an extra challenge and prevent matches descending into something akin to pinball. 4v4 and 5v5 play much like Futsal and are also enjoyable, with the major difference being manual shooting. This takes some getting used to, especially if you’re used to the assists the core game gives you, but it’s ultimately rewarding.
3v3 rush and 4v4 rush aren’t quite so enjoyable. It is essentially a three or four-aside match with one crucial difference – there are no goalkeepers. You therefore rely on defensive players to block incoming shots, something they’re often not that great at doing. Countless times I’d watch tame shots trundle towards a defender, only for them to let it roll past and straight into the goal. This happened regularly, with both AI and player-controlled defenders, leaving me infuriated when matches ended up 15-14. On the rare occasion a player blocked the ball, it would more often than not ping back to the attacker, who would then score anyway. This, coupled with the compact arenas, means you rarely ever feel in control of the outcome of a rush match, so it’s doubly frustrating a majority of Volta’s campaign mode is made up of these games.
To watch the first 11 minutes of Volta Story, check out the video below:
As for Volta’s story, it’s pure cheese and its cliché-laden plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen an underdog sports movie. The Journey’s branching storylines are gone, replaced by a rags to riches narrative that’s functional if forgettable. The acting is mixed, with one-dimensional robots sitting alongside more believable characters, like your loyal best friend, Syd. Although the cutscenes often feel repetitive, Volta is never the slog The Journey was, and is over in five to six hours. Progress is only halted if you lose a match, meaning you have to start the whole tournament again, which can mean replaying up to three or four matches. This can be frustrating, especially if it consists of the less appealing three or four aside rush ruleset.
Naturally, there’s a wealth of customisation available. Importantly, these vanity items – tops, shoes, hairstyles and so on – can be purchased only with Volta coins, a currency earned through playing matches within Volta, which is currently a microtransaction-free zone. While I spent time tailoring my player’s look at the beginning of the story mode, I soon settled on a style I liked and little attention to it afterwards. However, I can really see customisation coming into its own in the Volta League mode.
League is Volta’s online game and is where you’ll likely spend most of your time, especially after completing the story mode, which offers little replay value. The premise is simple: face off against other online opponents to climb the rankings, while at the same time showcasing your squad and vanity items. Its approach is similar to Seasons in the core game, opening up every match type and location.
Volta is also available in kickoff mode should you fancy a quick game, alongside the options to add house rules. Last year’s selection are still present, with survival mode a particular highlight, especially as Volta means you’re reduced to one player each.
Modes, Modes and More Modes
Outside Volta, there are numerous additions to other modes in FIFA 20. House Rules gets a couple of new options: King of the Hill is a possession-based mode I can see myself spending little time with, while Mystery Ball is pure madness. Every time the ball goes out of play a new appears on the pitch, with a different ‘perk’ altering its physics each time. These include dribbling, speed and shooting boosts, to one ball that has all three combined. Panic ensues every time this ball comes into play, because the player in possession can breeze past defenders before slapping the ball into the net. It’s the kind of silliness I want from FIFA and continues the trend of last year’s fun additions.
Ultimate Team also benefits from House Rules modes this year, with a couple exclusive to FUT. Max Chemistry and Swaps modes are fun, but I can’t see them being a massive time suck for people already invested in FUT’s loop. They’re found in the new FUT Friendlies section, meaning you can take your assembled squad offline and play with a friend. It’s a quality-of-life improvement for those who don’t want to worry about player fitness or contracts running down.
For a full match of Mystery Ball, check out the video below:
For those going online, there are new Season Objectives. Much like a battle pass system, it sets challenges which rewards items only exclusive to this mode. Some are vanity items that express more of that welcome silliness in FIFA, introducing such things as a retro 16-bit ball and a dabbing unicorn tifo for your stadium. These are all positive changes that add a bit of personalisation to the FUT experience, which is much needed when a lot of squads are filled with the same handful of players, causing the whole thing to become a little homogenised.
Another thing people have been hoping for is an overhauled career mode. For years now, it’s been overlooked. To be fair, in FIFA 20 some additions have been made, but none are big enough to make it an instantly more appealing game mode than it was last year or the year before that. Much as in Volta, you can now select to be male or female when choosing your playable manager, which is a step in the right direction. But apart from that, a largely ineffectual morale system and unimaginative press conference sequences are entirely underwhelming. It’s sad to see a mode that used to be my go-to in FIFA continue to formerly be my go-to in FIFA. Hey, there’s always next year.