I recently got to play FIFA 20 at a preview event in Berlin and, as you might expect, the new game is like the current version, FIFA 19, but a bit different. The passing is a little better, the shooting is a little better, the UI has been tidied up in some areas--you know, the usual fare.
Out of curiosity on my return from Berlin, I booted up an old PS4 copy of FIFA 15, a game released when Ultimate Team was still a relatively new concept, Career Mode was still good, and Steven Gerrard was still the beating heart of Liverpool's midfield. The five-year-old game holds up remarkably well and feels surprisingly similar to the upcoming FIFA 20. Sure, the newer games are slicker experiences, but FIFA 20 isn't as far ahead as you might expect, given the five-game gap.
That's not a dig at modern FIFA--I have thoroughly enjoyed 19 and it is comfortably my most-played game of the past 10 months. Rather it's both a compliment to FIFA 15 and a comment on the diminishing returns developers face when making annual games. Despite five years of tweaks, gameplay improvements, a whole new development engine, and new modes like The Journey, we're not that much further ahead.
This year's big new mode is the FIFA Street-like Volta, which, on first impression, seems like a deep and engaging addition to the series' portfolio. Once you've built your custom player-character, you're presented with a world map showing a number of locations you can visit. These places are the battlegrounds that host various types of street football, and they include London, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro, among a bunch of others. You can then travel to these locales to partake in Story matches and city-specific events--some of which can be played against friends' teams even when they're offline. Your team in these modes is made of fake characters created specifically for the mode--though the story mode contains some real-life street footballers as 'boss fights.' There's also a Volta Kick-Off submode that allows you to play small-sided matches--3v3 up to 5v5--with players from licensed professional teams like Man Utd or Real Madrid.
Elsewhere, Volta borrows heavily from Ultimate Team: players are represented by cards, whose chemistry is affected by the position you place them in and the formation you decide to play. Your team's chemistry will also change depending on the type of court they prefer compared to the one they're playing on--the presence or lack of solid walls on the outer edge, for example, makes quite a large difference to how a game plays out and to the tactics you can exploit. The mode also contains weekly challenges and deep customization options, the latter of which are represented in Overwatch-style fashion by different colors and labels denoting, for example, Epic, Legendary, or Common rarity items. EA says these items are purchasable using in-game currency only, with no microtransactions present at launch.
Aside from these customization options, such as hats, jerseys, and boots, the long-term appeal of Volta appears to be driven by multiplayer matches against your friends and their teams, as well as striving to accumulate the best players. (When you beat another team, you can pick a player to steal to join your own squad, though that player will also remain as part of their existing squad.)
Volta matches themselves feel very reminiscent of the 2012 FIFA Street reboot--while there is a greater focus on skills and showing off than is found in regular soccer, it's not as over-the-top as the previous Street games were. There are no gamebreakers or classes, and the control scheme carries over from regular FIFA, a move EA says is designed to help players transition between the two otherwise diametrically opposed ways of playing. In that respect, it seems a successful move--and bouncing balls off walls and nutmegging opposition players before getting on your hands and knees to head a ball over the line is thrilling--but it did feel a little like I was straining against the control scheme in order to achieve such feats. It's as if the framing was just a little too much like standard FIFA to enable the great moments to flow. Hopefully EA can tighten this up in the remaining weeks before launch.
I found the integration of Volta's multiplayer and single-player submodes and its AI-driven community squads a little confusing, so I'm eager to get my hands on the mode again when the final game launches at the end of September. My initial instincts say Volta will be a fun option that I'll dip in and out of throughout the year when I grow tired of Ultimate Team or Career Mode, rather than a main draw like either of those two. However, at least Volta's appeal appears to be longer-lasting than that of The Journey, which, while I enjoyed, held little to no long-term value.
Volta is a refreshing new way to play FIFA, then, but what happens on the pitch still doesn't feel significantly different to what came before. This is a problem many games faced toward the end of the last console generation. The reality is that when hardware stays the same, developers can only achieve so much--especially when they face the continual deadlines of annual releases and increasing pressure to update existing games as live services. This issue is not unique to FIFA, and PES has suffered from a similar deceleration in gameplay improvements. The games are still getting better and steps forward are still being made--they're just smaller with each passing year.
This is reflected in the way the series are developed and marketed these days. EA and Konami focus less on gameplay enhancements and their somewhat ridiculous buzzword labels--Elite Technique, Pro Instincts, Hyper Shooting, Super Space Auto Tackling 2.0, that kind of thing--and more on entire new modes or aesthetic changes. Konami has gone all-out on its license acquisitions this year, for example, while EA points to FUT and Volta before it gets to what's changed on the pitch. This isn't necessarily a problem, since we're still getting cool new features to make it worth forking out every year, but maybe, for the time being, we need to adjust our expectations of what developers can achieve in yearly development cycles.
With the next generation of consoles on the horizon, I'm sure a revolution is coming for football games. Until then, we'll have to make do with an entirely new mode that, while not groundbreaking, is an enjoyable alternative to the modes we've come to know and love (and, occasionally, hate). I suppose Volta could be summed up as being like standard FIFA 20--but a bit different. How very modern.
FIFA 20 launches for PS4, Xbox One, and PC--with legacy editions coming to Switch and older platforms--on September 27.