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After an incredible 30-year run, FIFA 23 had to go out on a high – and to be fair, we reckon it just about has. Fans of EA Sports’ flagship football franchise will be familiar with the formula: this is more refinement than revolution, but FIFA 22 threaded through some of the best virtual soccer we’ve seen from the juggernaut publisher in several years, and the latest instalment iterates on that without ripping up the tactics sheet.

Much to the malign of bigmouthed YouTubers with even bigger followings, the gameplay is a lot slower, with a greater emphasis on passing the ball between players rather than running rings around defenders using Lionel Messi. Tackling has also been buffed, meaning it’s now possible – albeit risky, as you’d expect – to slide in and poke the ball away from five-star attackers. All this leads to a more deliberate, physical game of football that better replicates the real thing – with perhaps the exception of the arcade-esque Power Shots, which have an exaggerated wind-up time but are deadly when aimed correctly.

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Of course, with such complicated physics at play you inevitably run into some strange collisions which break down the immersion like Erling Haaland against a Premier League back four. If you’re able to turn a blind eye to these moments, however, the newly captured HyperMotion 2.0 animations – paired with a continued improvement to last year’s Machine Learning – really help sell the illusion that you’re the puppet master of a professional football team. It’s impressive!

But outside of the moment-to-moment gameplay, the enhancements are a little harder to find. Ultimate Team, being such a big money-spinner, has perhaps received the bulk of the project’s budget – and to be fair, the alterations border on brave. The firm’s done away with the old Chemistry system, a pivotal team-building component, replacing the iconic green lines with a tiered system that sees you achieve buffs as you add more complementary players to your squad.

Personally, we’re not particularly big fans. While we can appreciate this is easier for newcomers to understand, and actually allows for fresh team-building possibilities, the flexibility takes away a lot of the reward from finding the perfect piece for a particular puzzle. This, of course, expands to the Squad Building Challenges, which are popular team-building exercises you can complete for rewards – it’s just not as engaging as it once was.

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There are other issues, too. In an effort to augment more single player content, the FIFA Mobile-inspired FUT Moments seem like a ridiculously smart addition: bitesized gameplay challenges that you can complete with your team in return for tradable stars. But where in games like Madden NFL 23 you’re able to tackle an entire set, back-to-back, FIFA 23 wants to take you through several screens of menus before getting you to the next objective – it all feels a bit disjointed and cumbersome.

And of course, old habits die hard: this is still by far the most costly sports game on the market when it comes to microtransactions. While rivals like NBA 2K23 allow you to assemble a reasonable team with little to no investment, the reality is that even competing on the lower rungs of the FUT Champions ladder is going to require you to cough up, because barely above average players cost an absolute fortune on the Transfer Market.

While it’s possible to earn plenty of packs through gameplay, the odds are always rigged in EA Sports’ favour: pull an 83+ player and you can guarantee you’re getting a random goalkeeper from the Eredivisie and not Kylian Mbappe – that’s just how the game’s designed. It’s true that competent players with weaker teams can overcome rich kids with God squads, but with elements of pay-to-win at play here, it belittles the competitive aspect of the entire experience.

What about single player, then? Well, there’s not so much to speak of here, really. Career mode largely takes on the same form, albeit there are new cutscenes to add flavour, context, and atmosphere to key moments. It’s good, albeit still far too user interface heavy, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. The Player Career, meanwhile – a key point of emphasis last year – has added in a salary system, and personality points which can help you better refine what type of player you want to be. It mostly feels like superfluous fluff to us, but it does add a dollop of depth on last year.

Elsewhere, the Fall Guys-inspired party minigame compilation Volta has received a bunch of new minigames – and been paired up with eleven-vs-eleven option Pro Clubs. This means that a lot of your progression is shared between the two modes, and it feels like the first step towards EA Sports introducing a long overdue MyPlayer-esque campaign, like the one in NBA 2K23. The publisher has alluded to governing body FIFA clipping its wings here, so perhaps that’s the next step for EA Sports FC.

What’s on offer in the here and now is adequate, though; some of the Volta minigames feel a little awkward to us because they’re built around the movement mechanics of the main game, and it just doesn’t feel tight enough to execute on its ambition. But we appreciate the organisation’s ambition to offer more than just competitive football matches: the world of soccer is broad, from five-a-side to sweaters-as-goalposts, so it’s important the franchise reflects as much of this as possible.

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And we will add that it’s gone above and beyond with its integration of the women’s game this year, incorporating dozens of licensed teams from England and France, and also implementing an entirely unique set of animations to better differentiate them from the men’s game. As the ladies game continues to grow in popularity following this summer’s transformative European tournament, it’s imperative that EA Sports keeps pace with its progression.

Similarly, we should note that this is the first FIFA game to feature full console crossplay across same generation systems. While this comes with caveats – like the fact that it’s restricted to one-on-one modes – it works well, and should help break down barriers for people who want to play together. While this has never been the type of series longing for a larger player pool to keep it alive, it’s nice knowing you can take on friends or family, even if they subscribe to the green side.

Conclusion

The tweaks to FIFA 23’s gameplay make for a more deliberate, physical representation of the beautiful game – and while it won’t be to the taste of sweats who are used to five-star skilling their way up the ranks in Division Rivals, personally we appreciate the commitment to authenticity. As an overall package, this is a strong end to an impressive 30-year run, but an overemphasis on microtransactions and some cumbersome UI decisions underline everything that’s been frustrating about this franchise for the past decade or so. Make no mistake, with crossplay and a wealth of things to do, this is the best shape the series has been in – but we hope EA Sports FC, unshackled from the overbearing eyes of governing body FIFA, brings a little bit more to the field.