FIFA 19 - Champions League arrives as gameplay introduces new challenges

A huge Cristiano Ronaldo tifo is unveiled at the Allianz Stadium in Turin as the spine-tingling UEFA Champions League music blares out from the TV speakers. The man himself strides out in his usual confident manner, pristinely groomed, ready to prove he can do it anywhere, anytime.

“Mr Champions League”, commentator Derek Rae (and a very warm welcome to our own Lee Dixon) introduces Ronaldo onto the field.

Grab a drink, settle in, it’s Champions League time again. An introduction so life-like you almost forget to pick up the controller. EA Sports has finally got its hands on the license it so craved for years - the Champions League is finally ‘in the game’ - and it looks fantastic.

It’s thrust upon you as soon as you load up FIFA 19 - can you lead Ronaldo to a fourth Champions League trophy in as many years? It’s eye-catching, but what really matters is what happens when you hit your first button to take the kick-off.

For all the new licensing, the fancy intros, the immense graphics, what makes or breaks a football simulator is how it emulates the real game. And that’s what we’ll focus on in this review. If you want a list of new additions, what overall (and necessary) upgrades FUT, kick-mode and the likes have had - head here.

As the camera pans out to let the match commence you’d be forgiven if you thought you were playing FIFA 18 - it looks largely the same graphically - but as soon as you kick off you notice the differences.

This game is harder. The way the players move is different. This is a challenge, a very welcome challenge.

Playing as Crystal Palace, the ball is moved back to Luka Milivojevic who looks for Andros Townsend with a standard pass along the ground - instead of the ball reaching his feet it’s fired out of play - much to the joy of St James’ Park. Ok, this is different.

The Champions League is now in the game. Credit: EA

If you thought that was tough, wait until you take your first shot. Having actually put some passes together Crystal Palace attacked the Newcastle goal and the ball fell to the ever-reliant Wilfried Zaha, with the reworked first-touch system coming into play he skipped round Jamaal Lascelles.

Now, you have the option of shooting as per FIFA 18 here with a single tap but this year sees the introduction of timed finishing - a second press of the button will give you the chance to hit a perfectly timed shot and a better chance of beating the ‘keeper. Zaha balloons the ball into row z. It’s risk vs reward.

And the reward can give you serious satisfaction. Playing as Wolves, Diogo Jota found himself on the edge of the area and let the knockdown from Raul Jimenez bounce and come across his body and onto his left foot. With a tap on the shoot button followed by a perfectly timed second tap he struck the ball so sweetly that it swung away from an outstretching Kasper Schmeichel and bulged the Leicester net.

A goal worthy of delving into the instant replay and watching six times, a goal you wouldn’t have seen on any other FIFA. The ball physics and the way Jota hit it was so lifelike it could easily have featured in goal of the month.

Alex Hunter is back in The Journey. Credit: EA

It’s a feature that’s more than welcome. Shooting in ‘real life’ is difficult, why not emulate that in the game.

The other notable and less-lauded new feature seems to be crosses. So often an underappreciated part of football simulations. PES got it right with their new edition and it looks as though EA have followed suit. You can now really whip in crosses at varying heights with real pace that cause defenders and keepers serious problems.

Trent Alexander-Arnold whipped such a ferocious mid-height ball in for Liverpool that all it needed was Roberto Firmino to adjust his body - which players do with new animations - and glance the ball off his forehead and over a goalkeeper stranded in no man’s land.

What was also very noticeable about that passage of play was Firmino’s movement in the box - starting his run behind the defender before at the last minute side-stepping and getting goalside. The runs in the box seem to have vastly improved from previous editions.

Players that ooze class in FIFA 19 are a joy to play with. Kevin De Bruyne can dictate play with confidence and lay off little passes through the lines, ping 40 yarders to feet and rarely miss the target from outside of the box - all aspects that make playing this game fun.

Speed, so often a trait that was over-reliant in previous FIFA editions, can help you out again but only serious speed. 2-1 down away at Everton with 20 minutes to go and Adama Traore, the fastest player in the game, came on for Wolves. He caused havoc. Tearing Lucas Digne apart with raw pace and strength - whipping in fierce low balls he turned the game on its head - a 3-2 win and man of the match performance (think Hazard against Liverpool).

It’s a fun game to play but sometimes arcade-like. All too often you’ll see players flick the ball up (a nudge of the right stick) and come out with outrageous overhead kicks. Now and again that’s fine. And when Ronaldo or Bale does it that’s fine. But when players that you never see attempt that week-in, week-out suddenly perform a picture-perfect overhead kick that flies into the top corner it downplays the realism somewhat. There was a game that ended 1-1 with both goals being overhead kicks.

Can EA improve the gameplay? Yes. Which of course is a good thing - the game needs to keep evolving. In the meantime there’s plenty of new and old modes to get your teeth into with this new edition and the fun element will keep you going until this time next year.