It's the end of September and that means only one thing in video games: It's time for the latest version of the FIFA franchise to hit our consoles and keep us occupied through the grim, snowy misery of winter.
FIFA 19 hits the stores/internet/whatever this Friday, a run that began with the first pixels hitting our Segas in 16-bit glory back in 1993.
Like those versions that came before, FIFA 19 is great fun. It's enhanced in subtle ways that move the game ever closer to realism but with enough familiarity that you can pick up a controller and dive right in without feeling bewildered. The inclusion of the Chinese Super League means you're now able to control the litany of stars who went there for astronomical sums over the past season or two. (Here's lookin' at you, Ezequiel Lavezzi.) Yet the Russian Premier League has vanished, leaving behind just CSKA Moscow, Lokomotiv Moscow and Spartak Moscow. You can't have it all.
Popular story mode The Journey has been enhanced and expanded to give you more opportunities to impact the future of not just Alex Hunter, as he moves to Real Madrid, but his younger sister (a budding U.S. national team striker) and his best friend from the academy days as he tries to establish himself in the Premier League. The pathways are more complicated for all three interconnected leads, making it a more immersive way to play the game than just league or tournament modes.
Another big add was a reinvention of the passing, ball control and shooting mechanics to leave more room for mastery and improvement that might set a seasoned player apart from a novice.
Finally, the officially licensed presence of UEFA's flagship competitions, the Champions League and the Europa League, is a delight. Each tournament mode carries the branded style right down to the typeface, score chyrons, the match ball and, yes, the official chaaaaaampioooooooons pre-game theme song is in here too. (The first time you play a CL fixture, you can't seem to skip ahead beyond the song so I hope you like it as much as I do.)
Consider this your official guide to all the nuances, changes, highs and lows. Oh, and it's great fun: If you're a super-fan of the FIFA franchise, it will tick all the boxes in your heart and keep the controller in your hands until the FIFA 20 demo drops next September. There's just enough enhancement and refinement to give life to a very familiar and comforting series.
Cristiano Ronaldo again graces the cover as FIFA 19 pushes the game even further than past editions. EA Sports
The Top 10 in the game
10. Toni Kroos, CM, Real Madrid (last year: 9)
9. David De Gea, GK, Man United (11)
8. Luis Suarez, ST, Barcelona (4)
7. Sergio Ramos, CB, Real Madrid (7)
6. Eden Hazard, LW, Chelsea (8)
5. Kevin De Bruyne, CAM, Manchester City (15)
4. Luka Modric, CM, Real Madrid (12)
3. Neymar, LW, Paris Saint-Germain (3)
2. Lionel Messi, CF, Barcelona (2)
1. Cristiano Ronaldo, ST, Juventus (1)
Whether playing a franchise mode or starting a FIFA Ultimate Teams (FUT) dynasty worthy of winning real-life tournaments, you'll want to make sure you've got at least one or two of the above. The ranking has changed a lot in the past year, with two players in particular soaring up the charts: Luka Modric, who's currently winning all the individual awards following a spectacular 12 months for club and country, and Kevin De Bruyne, who grew into his fullest potential as the fulcrum for Pep Guardiola's all-conquering and record-smashing City side in the Premier League.
The top three remain the same, though one has to wonder: Didn't Kylian Mbappe or Mo Salah do enough to crack the top 10? (They're ranked 42nd and 27th, respectively.)
The pass masters
Best passers: Kevin De Bruyne, CAM, Manchester City (92). Luka Modric, CM, Real Madrid (90). Toni Kroos, CM, Real Madrid; Christian Eriksen, CAM, Tottenham (89). Six players, including Lionel Messi, on 88.
Worst passers: Wang Yaopeng, CB, Dalian Yifang; George Ray, CB, Crewe Alexandra; Yoshiaki Fujita, CB, Jubilo Iwata (24). Chen Weiming, CB, Guangzhou R&F (25). Four players tied on 26.
The biggest improvements to FIFA 19 come in the passing and ball movement department, making accuracy a must when kickstarting attacks. It's not like FIFA games of old where you can turn any team into a dangerous bunch of one-touch passers: 19 is the most realistic yet when it comes to how players perform on the ball.
If you're facing one direction but want to lay it off to someone behind your player, it's fair to assume the ball will no longer ping to them perfectly, in stride, as if controlled by magnets. The players at the top end of the passing scale will be able to play a full gamut of long- and short-range passes via air or ground with more confidence, but it still requires forethought as to how you manage possession against the CPU or a friend. Moving the ball within your player's field of vision is the best bet if you want to ensure the killer through-ball finds a winger tearing into space.
Despite being a veteran of the franchise all the way back to 1993 (Della Savia, anyone?), it took me a few games to get a handle on where I wanted the ball to go vs. where it actually ended up.
Changes to the touch and control mechanics means that your player is no longer assured of keeping possession. Unless it's Kevin De Bruyne, of course. EA Sports
Running at light speed vs. stuck in the mud
The fastest: Adama Traore, RW, Wolves; Kylian Mbappe, RW, Paris Saint-Germain (96). Gareth Bale, RW, Real Madrid; Douglas Costa, LM, Juventus; Leroy Sane, LW, Manchester City; Jurgen Damm, RM, Tigres UANL (95). 13 players tied on 94.
The slowest: Aaron Hughes, CB, Heart of Midlothian (24). Frode Kippe, CB, Lillestrom SK; Jamie McCombe, CB, Lincoln City (25). Damien Delaney, CB, Cork City; Matt Rhead, ST, Lincoln City (27). Five players tied on 29.
Speed is still killer in FIFA 19 if you're a fan of the sprint button, but thanks to some tweaks and refinements to game play, it's no longer enough to just mash the controller and watch your player zoom off toward goal. However, the initial burst can be enough to make a difference and you'll note that the wing is where such gifts of acceleration can be found.
Defenders are smarter in how they track your runs and pursue you around the field when trying to kickstart upfield moves. It's no longer enough to simply punt it into space and out-run your markers, though raw pace can help you gain separation. Tweaks to the crossing mechanism become most obvious when you're at full speed: If you're off balance, the variation in cross pace and accuracy is much sharper compared with previous FIFA iterations. A good run is for nothing if you belt the square pass into the stands.
The converse of relentless pace down the flanks is a gaggle of leaden-footed central defenders. Don't attempt to play a high line and offside trap if you have any of the above in your starting XI.
The Journey mode is back with Alex Hunter grappling with life at Real Madrid, though his sister and his best friend also have significant storylines to pursue as well. EA Sports
Separating the strong from the weak
The strongest: Adebayo Akinfenwa, ST, Wycombe Wanderers (97). Tomas Chory, ST, Sigma Olomouc; Kendall Waston, CB, Vancouver Whitecaps (95); Romelu Lukaku, ST, Manchester United; Felipe Carvalho, CB, Valerrenga; Anderson Esiti, CDM, KAA Gent; Kalidou Koulibaly, CB, Napoli; Niklas Sule, CB, Bayern Munich; Kara Mbodji, CB, FC Nantes; Sebastian Coates, CB, Sporting CP (94).
The weakest: Ryo Miyaichi, RM, FC St. Pauli (30). Cesar Valenzuela, CAM, Huachipato; Patrik Karlsson Lagemyr, RW, IFK Goteborg; Bryan Mbuemo, LW, ESTAC Troyes; Jordan Young, ST, Swindon Town (32). Four players tied on 33.
Power can often be important in soccer. Do you win every aerial challenge? Are you a menace in possession and impossible to tackle? Can you bully just about anyone off the ball?
It's no surprise that Akinfenwa, the man they call "The Beast," tops the strength charts again given his remarkable physique and downright intimidating style of play. Unsurprisingly, there's a mixture of players at both ends of the pitch who have the tools to dominate: Depending on how the Champions League group stage goes, we could even see a Sule vs. Lukaku match-up in the knockouts, the ultimate test of immovable object vs. unstoppable force.
Luckily, there's a new range of quick tactical options added to FIFA 19 in case you find yourself out-matched. Building off the "quick sub" menu added to FIFA 18, whereby you could pre-arrange set substitutions or have the option to make a spur-of-the-moment change without pulling out of the game, there's a new range of quick shifts in formation and lineup that you can access mid-game. If something's not working, you can pull up your pre-set tactics and adjust to what your opponent is doing.
Outmatched in midfield? Adjust to add an extra body as the game's happening. Need more support at the back? Tweak the number of players in your defense or push a striker into a more withdrawn centre-forward role to help with retaining possession. It's yet another enhancement adding a layer of realism to proceedings so you can indulge your inner Pep Guardiola when it comes to shuffling the pieces on the pitch.
FIFA 19 brings even more realism and polish to the visuals, which is remarkable given how last year's edition saw a significant increase in quality. EA Sports
The five-star skill club
There's a select list of players in the game who boast the full five-star rating when it comes to skill on the ball. Capable of pulling off just about every trick, flick and bicycle kick imaginable, you want to look to these guys if you're trying to improve your team's showmanship. It's especially useful when receiving the ball in crowded areas: Poor control is more pronounced in FIFA 19 and will be punished accordingly.
Of course, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba and Philippe Coutinho are present, as well as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and the inimitable Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It's not just attack where the flair can be found: Real Madrid's Marcelo also has the full complement of magic when in possession and is the only defender with five-star powers.
There's a glut of up-and-coming talent to aim for when building a team: Federico Bernardeschi of Juventus is worth grabbing but Omar Abdulrahman (Al-Hilal), Quincy Promes of Sevilla and Martin Odegaard (remember him, Madridistas?) are more realistic still if you're in a franchise mode but lacking the funds of an oligarch to take your team forward. And for anyone saying you can't find wizardry in the English lower leagues, League One Sunderland are repped on the skill front via elder statesman Aiden McGeady.
Red Bulls' Robles & Davis showcase FIFA 19 skills
New York Red Bulls' Luis Robles and Sean Davis stopped by ESPN to square off in FIFA 19 and see how accurate their player ratings are in the game.
The best of MLS
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, ST, LA Galaxy (85). David Villa, ST, New York City FC; Sebastian Giovinco, CF, Toronto FC (82). Carlos Vela, RW, Los Angeles FC; Josef Martinez, ST, Atlanta United FC (81). Bastian Schweinsteiger, CM, Chicago Fire; Ignacio Piatti, LW, Montreal Impact; Wayne Rooney, ST, DC United; Miguel Almiron, CAM, Atlanta United FC; Diego Valeri, CAM, Portland Timbers (80).
Major League Soccer has a handful of players above the 80 rating threshold, though all of them are imported from other leagues. Still, it's nice to see emerging talent like the record-breaking Josef Martinez make the grade as he looks to finish what he started in the goal-scoring stakes. He famously smashed the longstanding record for goals in a single season back in late-August and currently sits on 30 with four regular-season games remaining.
Relax, you're in safe hands
Best hands: Jan Oblak, GK, Atletico Madrid (92). Thibaut Courtois, GK, Real Madrid (91). Manuel Neuer, GK, Bayern Munich (88). Gianluigi Buffon, GK, Paris Saint-Germain (87). Samir Handanovic, GK, Inter Milan (86).
Worst hands: Tim Schneider, GK, KFC Uerdingen 05; Keegan Smith, GK, Wellington Phoenix (44). Eight players tied on 45.
The ratings differentiating goalkeepers arguably have the widest spread when it comes to players sharing a particular number, and nowhere is this more clear than in the Handling stat. Mighty Jan Oblak leads his peers when it comes to catching and holding the ball, whether from set pieces, shots on goal or defending crosses. In short, does he catch or parry balls into the box?
The 47 Club
David Norman Jr., CM, Vancouver Whitecaps; Alec Byrne, CM, Cork City; Lee Watkins, CM, Cambridge United; Kieron Olsen, RB, Carlisle United; Noah Christoffersson, ST, Trelleborgs FF; Ma Junliang, CM, Guangzhou R&F; Zhang Yufeng, CM, Beijing Renhe; Alexander Kaltner, ST, SpVgg Unterhaching; Christoph Ehlich, RB, SpVgg Unterhaching; Josh Lundstram, CM, Crewe Alexandra; Kotaro Fujikawa, CM, Jubilo Iwata; Shandon Baptiste, CM, Oxford United; Jordan Young, ST, Swindon Town; Pierce Phillips, CM, Cork City
Of course, there is fresh life beneath the rarified air of the top players. There are 14 players who qualify for the hallowed "47 Club," those unlucky enough to be bestowed with the lowest OVR rating in the game. Cork City, of the Rep. Ireland Airtricity League, and third-tier German side SpVgg Unterhaching have the dubious honor of having two players each in this hallowed club.
And finally, the Golden Hoof Award
Lincoln City center-back Jamie McCombe wins this prize for having the lowest dribble ability in the entire game. With a 24 rating, it's best just to ask him to punt it immediately upon receiving possession.http://kwese.espn.com/football/blog/espn-fc-united/68/post/3645558/ultimate-fifa-19-preview-best-playersfastest-and-sloweststrongest-and-more