Last year, EA Sports reignited its relationship with Nintendo by bringing a FIFA game to one of its home consoles for the first time in half a decade. FIFA 18 delivered a solid football experience on Switch, causing us to confidently declare it “the best Nintendo FIFA ever”. This wasn’t exactly difficult to achieve, though (given that FIFA 13 on Wii U was the previous champ), and there was still plenty of room for improvement when it came to missing modes, features and the like. As the first entry on the Switch, FIFA 18 was given the benefit of the doubt in some respects as EA offered up a game on a new format with a new bespoke engine. This year, that courtesy is no longer extended.
With another 12 months available to improve on the groundwork laid in last year’s game, FIFA 19 could be considered the first ‘real’ offering from EA. The results are a mixed bag: while the action on the pitch is as entertaining as ever, the feature list is still oddly inconsistent with other versions of the game. Some of the new modes introduced in FIFA 19 on Xbox One and PS4 are present here too, all singing and dancing and helping to make the game feel fresher. And yet, at the same time, there are just as many additions on the other formats that haven’t made the jump over to the Switch, often for no apparent reason.
Granted, the most notable omission has been explained by EA before. The Journey – a story mode following a young player called Alex Hunter as he makes his way from rags to riches – wasn’t in last year’s Switch entry, with EA bizarrely claiming that a story mode with in-game cutscenes was only possible with the power of its Xbox One and PS4 Frostbite engine (even though the NBA 2K games seem to manage it perfectly well, thanks very much). As such, with the Switch version using a customised and enhanced version of the last-gen Ignite engine, it’s a no-show this year again. We're sure EA could have worked something out if it really wanted to, but no. Other absences are even less understandable. The career mode is identical to last year’s already out-of-date offering, continuing to give players the Xbox 360 and PS3 experience instead of attempting to carry across at least some of the features from the other current-gen systems, like improved transfer negotiations.
Far more frustrating, though, is the lack of progress made in FIFA’s most popular mode, Ultimate Team. Last year we were just delighted that Ultimate Team had made it across at all, but it was missing some major options and modes present in other versions of the game. At the time, EA gave a half-hearted excuse as to why that was, with a producer essentially telling our pals over at Eurogamer that throwing every feature in there at once would intimidate new players experiencing Ultimate Team for the first time. Well, it’s been a year, and we’re sure our delicate little Nintendo brains can handle it now. Unfortunately, EA doesn’t seem to agree, meaning Ultimate Team is more or less unchanged. The other formats’ shiny new Division Rivals mode – where you’re placed in a division of similarly skilled players and get to play as many games as you can within a week to try and build your rank and earn special prizes – is nowhere to be seen here.
More galling, though, is that other modes included in last year’s FIFA on Xbox One and PS4 still aren’t here either. Squad Battles – where you take on offline versions of real players’ teams for rewards – was introduced on other systems in FIFA 18, but still isn’t available on Switch (which is annoying because it would be particularly useful on Nintendo's console given there are fewer players online). Same goes with the weekly FUT Champions event, where the best players get to compete for much bigger rewards: but not if they've picked the Switch, sadly. As for the daily and weekly challenges which give rewards for performing certain tasks, they’re completely AWOL too. In fact, literally the only new addition we could see to Ultimate Team this year is online Friendly Seasons, where you can play a five-match series against someone from your friends list.
As we explained last year, there’s no valid excuse for these features not being on the Switch version, beyond a sheer unwillingness on EA’s part to be bothered to add them. The whole “it might be too much for you” argument was pretty thin before: one year later it’s basically Flat Stanley. We’re paying full price for this, EA, just like people who own a PS4 and Xbox One: don’t worry, we can manage the sheer mental strain of a couple of extra options on the menu screen.
As only became clear after a couple of months playing FIFA 18, all these omissions combine to make for a far more difficult and time-consuming Ultimate Team than on other systems. All the modes that aren’t here were notable because they regularly gave you rewards; you could play Squad Battles to get good player packs for free, cash in points in the EA Sports Football Club menu to get coin bonuses, and take on the daily and weekly challenges to get both player packs and coins. None of that’s here, making building your squad a far longer slog. Unless you’re willing to buy FIFA Points with your real money, of course (pro tip: don’t).
What’s particularly frustrating is that FIFA 19 on Switch isn’t like the bad old days when EA was caught slapping a fresh title screen on Wii FIFA games and presenting exactly the same game as a new product. Elsewhere in the game, it’s clear that numerous improvements have indeed been made, many of which have been introduced at the same time on the Sony and Microsoft versions. The shiny new Champions League and Europa League licences, recently plucked out of Pro Evolution Soccer’s waif-like hands, make their debut here with snazzy presentation and new commentary by Derek Rae and Lee Dixon (which can be quite repetitive, but give them time: FIFA stalwarts Martin Tyler and Alan Smith have been building up their database of lines for years now).
The brilliant new Kick Off mode is fully featured here too, giving you the option to try a little something different from standard friendlies when playing against friends locally. There are now five different ‘house rules’ match types to choose from, each mixing things up a bit. Survival mode has you losing a random player every time you score, while in Long Range mode goals scored from outside the box count double. And if you just fancy some carnage there’s a No Rules setting where fouls and offsides are turned off, essentially turning the game into Shaolin Soccer.
On the pitch, there are no major graphical improvements of note, but some of the other versions’ gameplay tweaks carry over here too (for better or worse). The new optional timed finishing – where you can press the shoot button a second time as your player hits the ball for a more accurate shot – is here, but so is the weird new goal kick system which we struggled to aim properly. And yes, we’re definitely blaming that on the game, not on us being rubbish. Thankfully, you don’t need to worry about the strange phenomenon Xbox One and PS4 owners are experiencing in which overhead kicks are oddly easy to score: the older engine isn’t affected by that here.
Almost as satisfying is that some of the other things missing from last year’s game have finally been added to this one, bringing the whole experience a bit more up to date. The bespoke presentation packages for Premier League, MLS and La Liga weren’t in the Switch version of FIFA 18, but they’re finally here now, which is lovely. And yes, you can finally play online against people from your friends list: a bewildering omission from last year’s game that EA said wasn’t possible but not is, because reasons.
It’s difficult to decide whether to be impressed or frustrated with the Switch version of FIFA 19. The new additions to certain modes like Kick Off and Online are welcome, and along with the league-specific presentation packages and control tweaks show that there’s at least some effort on EA’s part to ensure Switch owners aren’t just getting a copy-and-paste job from last year’s game. And yet, in other areas of the game it feels like exactly that. The fact that Ultimate Team is more or less unchanged is immensely frustrating, especially given the poor excuse for it already being feature-light last year. Couple that with the similarly untouched Career mode and we found ourselves tempted to take our FIFA 18 review, shuffle a few words around and present it as an original piece of work.
FIFA 19’s numerous improvements on and off the pitch mean it overtakes its predecessor as the best football game released on a Nintendo system, and it’s still a technical marvel when played in handheld mode. That said, EA’s decision not to improve Ultimate Team and Career – arguably the two most popular modes – feel like a missed opportunity. It’s better than last year’s game, then, but not as much as it could have been. If you're new to FIFA, then add one point to the score below; this is the best soccer game on Switch by a mile. However, if you're a grizzled veteran - as pretty much anyone who is contemplating a purchase is likely to be, given the advanced age of EA's premier sports franchise, then the score stands.