A whole new ball game?

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(Pocket-lint) – It could be said the FIFA game franchise is like a top Premier League club. Most close seasons it just makes minor signings, slightly refreshing different areas of the team but essentially playing the same tactics. Every so often though, it splashes the cash on big transfers – ones that have the potential to change the game entirely. This is one of those seasons and, like big money signings in real life, they can occasionally take time to settle in.

That’s not to say FIFA 22 isn’t a good game – it very much is. But, some of the major tweaks seem to have hampered rather than enhance the gameplay. At least until the numerous title patches appear over the coming weeks and months.

Here then is what we think of the game at launch. We might revisit down the line to see whether the creases have been ironed out, but this review is based on the prerelease but final PlayStation 5 code we’ve played so far.

Liquid football

The game certainly looks the bees knees when it comes to presentation. It starts with an odd but enjoyable tutorial story, where you form an avatar and run through drills with cover star Kylian Mbappe and Thierry Henry. You also end up rubbing shoulders with the likes of David Beckham along the way.

This transitions into a demo match – a Champions League semi-final between PSG and Chelsea – and you are then thrust into the game proper. It’s all skippable but actually enjoyable, and the gameplay refreshers on offer will depend on your history with the game (through a simple beginner/experienced option). Sadly, it left us lamenting the loss of the Alex Hunter story mode in FIFA’s gone by and is all too brief, but there’s plenty else to get your teeth into this year.

The menu system has been improved, not just visually – with males and female stars running in and out of shot – but also in terms of navigation. We felt it was vastly improved last year and this is a further extension on that. It is much easier to get into the modes and matches in fewer clicks.

FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) has experienced perhaps the biggest changes in the modes on offer, with Division Rivals and FUT Champions being overhauled, its menu system also feels better generally. You still flick down the left stick to get to your squad screen, but everything is now split into Home, Play and Club sub-menus accessible through the left and right bumpers. There’s far less reliance on the back button just to get to the home page.

Stadium customisation is back and is largely unchanged from its debut in FIFA 21 – save for the fact you can reverse improvements to the size of your stadium. In addition, the store retains the preview and purchase scheme that was introduced in the latter seasons of FIFA 21.

The different FUT elements are also effectively the same – Squad Building Challenges, online and local friendlies, Squad Battles, etc. The aforementioned competitive multiplayer modes are quite different though.

Changing rooms

We’ll be honest and admit that, at time of writing, we hadn’t competed in any FUT Champions matches. Qualification was technically impossible in the time we’ve had with the game so far. It’s different in that it now comprises play-off matches that can be played any time across a season (around a month-and-a-half). You are no longer limited to having to grind across weekends after qualification. You then have to play nine matches to rise up the ranks and reach the finals.

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These matches can be played at any time throughout the six week season. And, while the finals are hosted at weekends only, you get a wider choice of when to enter. Both the play-offs and finals earn rewards, with the latter giving the better swag (of course).

We don’t know how fun this all is, or how much less of a grind, as we’re yet to qualify (like most at the prerelease stage). However, we’ve played more that 70 Division Rivals matches, so have more of a grasp on its changes.

In all honesty, we didn’t mind the old format, but this time around all players start at the bottom – Div 10 – and must progress up the ranks by, well, winning matches. There is no relegation though, as there are Who Wants to be a Millionaire style checkpoints that, once you reach them, you stay at no matter how many times you lose. Each division has several tiers, with better prizes on offer for each, so there’s always something within reach no matter your skill level.

Our only criticism with this mode is that, because everyone starts at the same level, you can find yourself hopelessly mismatches to begin with. Perseverance is rewarded though and you’ll eventually settle into the right swim lane.

As well as division progression rewards, which are handed out weekly, you also get milestone rewards for the amount of matches played – win, lose or draw. These are given out at the end of each season and reset for the next. That should mean you’ll effectively get more card packs and coins than in previous FIFAs, but we yet can’t be sure at this very early stage.

Extra time

Ultimate Team isn’t the only game mode to experience improvement. Volta gets some new bells and whistles, including a new skill meter that increases how much a goal is worth when full, plus signature abilities that you can assign to your avater for boosts during a match. There is also Volta Arcade – new party games for up to four players, including dodgeball and foot tennis. We’ve always felt Volta a little odd though, with essentially the same control system feeling slightly off when applied to 3v3, 4v4 and 5v5 matches.

EAFIFA 22 review: Plenty of changes, but are they for the better? photo 9

For us, it really is a “jumpers for goalposts” experience in comparison with the main game. Some love it for sure, but bar an initial fascination and dalliance each year, we often leave it untouched thereafter.

Career is a different kettle of fish. To offset the stress of Ultimate Team we often like to swap over to Career Mode for a while, and this year’s enhancements make it even more attractive as a sideshow.

For starters, you can finally create your own club from scratch. You choose your name, stadium size, team quality, kit and budget, then replace any team in any of the leagues covered in the game and away you go. Naturally, this will mean there’ll be many thousands of AFC Richmond’s out there (yep, we’re Ted Lasso fans too and it was our immediate default), but why not? It’s great fun, especially considering you can hand yourself a billion to start off and buy the world’s best players from the off.

It’s also clever that your newly created team is full of computer-generated players to begin with, assigned through the choice of team quality and age balance. So you could even start at the bottom with a limited budget and it’s equally fun.

Also new with Career this year are performance-related match objectives for you to complete if you decide to start as a player. These will help you boost your manager rating and therefore determine whether you start a game or have to sit on the bench. Training too is important, as you level up and unlock skill points. It’s not a huge step away from similar functionality last year, but the tweaks seem well-thought out and implemented.

Finally, Pro Clubs can now include women players. You can therefore compete in 11v11 online matches with teams made up of either gender. We’d like to see more women’s football implemented in future, such as the WSL, but this is a good further step in that direction.

There are people on the pitch…

No onto perhaps the most important element and the one that’s experienced the most tweaks – the on-pitch play.

The last few FIFA outings, even during the transition to next-gen, have been accused of stagnation. The gameplay has bared progressed in two-three years. It’s been fun and we enjoyed the fast-paced play over FIFA 20 and 21, but it felt change was more aesthetic than anything. This year is different.

EA has gone back to the drawing board in some respects, bringing in what it calls HyperMotion for the PS5 (the version tested), Xbox Series X/S and Google Stadia. The development team motion captured players in full 11v11 matchplay scenarios and combined that with machine learning to not just implement new animations, but the ebb and flow of a real match. The result is more realistic player movement, both individually and positionally. You can now see defenders, for example, take up true-to-life positioning in relation to the ball and their teammates.

EAFIFA 22 review: Plenty of changes, but are they for the better? photo 10

Matches play out more like the real deal therefore, with central defensive midfielders specifically acting different this time around. No matter their pace, they seem to be better at interceptions thanks to vastly improved positional AI.

Add to this a completely reworked goalkeeper system, with entirely new animations and styles that make them behave less robotic. Indeed, once you’ve seen your own keeper accidentally palm the ball into his own net because of the force of a shot, you’ll realise just how much has changed.

Both of these things make single-player games more fun and interesting, with a more considered style of play necessary to break defensive walls and get attackers in behind. However, it’s not all good news.

Multiplayer, especially in Ultimate Team, needs work. The new system has thrown up a few foibles that make for a less fun experience. For example, thanks to better defensive positional artificial intelligence, it is far easier to just put a load of bodies in the box using a custom tactic and let the AI defend for you. Also, it seems that no matter the strength of an opposing player, one-on-ones always favour the defending team. You just have to stand in the way and you’ll likely win the ball.

Of course, this could just result in a rethink of how you play the game. But, with certain aspects being artificially overpowered (for now) it can replace fun with frustration.

Another quibble we have is that any amount of pressing chosen in custom tactics results in players with less energy than a Tesla after a 400 mile round trip. Stamina saps so quickly, even on the “press on heavy touch” defensive tactic  (let alone possession less or constant), that it renders those almost unusable. Yes, you might score a couple of goals before halftime, but you’ll be sending out a bunch on zombies for the second 45.

Like with most FIFA games, these are likely things that will be addressed in the title updates we mentioned at the start. For now, matches look more realistic than ever but, for us, at the expense of fast-paced thrills.

Still, we’re pleased that there’s less of a reliance on speed for defenders and midfielders in FIFA 22. It just all needs further tweaking.

Player pics

Our final ports of call are the graphics and audio. We’re pleased to say there are some nice improvements with both, albeit not groundbreaking ones.

The game is visually similar to before (we’re comparing next-gen versions – we’ve not seen it on PS4 or Xbox One), although there are slightly improved player likenesses in many cases and a better crowd. Managers have been more significantly enhanced, with more accurate facial renderings and key traits for some of the more famous ones. Jürgen Klopp, for example, hugs everyone on pitch after a win and performs his famous air punches towards the home fans.

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There is a gripe – some of the close-ups during match highlights look fuzzy to us. We wonder if it’s a camera focus effect, but it just doesn’t look that great. The same with field of view on free kicks. Considering you have to time your kick perfectly, it’s odd that the ball is purposely shown out of focus to ensure the goal is pin sharp.

These are minor things though and certainly don’t spoil the game, as otherwise the entire presentation is superb. The same is true with the audio. As before, crowd chants and musical score are brilliant. The only oddity is the new twonk when the ball hits the back of the net. It sounds more like you’ve scored in a five-a-side goal at a leisure centre. The net physics are great, but the accompaniment is a little weird.

Nevertheless, EA has always done a great job with its licences – which doesn’t include a number of Italian teams, such as Juventus, again. And, this continues to be the best-looking football game on the planet.

Verdict

And there you have it in a nutshell. FIFA continues to the best football game, full stop. But mainly because it’s just about the only one in its category. Konami’s PES and now eFootball offers an alternative but it’s been a long while since it could compete on the same playing field.

What’s great this year is that EA hasn’t taken its top spot for granted. There are many more improvements and changes in FIFA 22 than in recent predecessors. It’s just that a few of them aren’t quite oven-ready as yet.

Like all big triple-A titles today, especially those that are regularly played online over a period of months, it will be tweaked and prodded in the coming months. Eventually, the new gameplay system will be reach its potential, and this could end up being the best FIFA for many a year. For now though, it’s a good game mildly hampered by its own ambition.

Fans will still love it, but should be aware that it’s no longer the fast-paced winger they remember. More a solid, capable central defensive midfielder.

Writing by Rik Henderson. Originally published on .





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