The biggest compliment you can pay FIFA 22 is that it feels like real football for once. EA Sports’ soccer simulator still has its fair share of quirks, but at launch the developer has done an outstanding job of upgrading the ball physics and player positioning to make for a much more authentic experience. Add in all of the new animations, enabled by HyperMotion Technology, as well as the complete rewrite to how goalkeepers operate, and you end up with a breath of fresh air for this storied football franchise.

Rather than favour skill moves and dribbling, you’re now going to need to work the ball around if you intend to open defences up. Crossing is a much more viable offensive tactic thanks to the alterations that have been made to aerial balls, while Paul Scholes-esque slices out wide allow you to effectively switch the play, meaning you can use the full width of the pitch to pull defenders out of position. Back lines are compact and – dare we say it – intelligent, working as a unit to keep their shape.

All of this means that goals, on higher difficulties at least, are harder to come by, resulting in much tenser encounters. Scoring a single goal against Manchester City feels like it means something, because it gives you a lead to hold onto – especially if you’re playing as a weaker team in the Premier League. Similarly, it can be challenging to break down stubborn defences in a low-block like Burnley, but that makes it all the more satisfying when the ball hits the back of the net.

In fact, there are dozens of subtle things that EA Sports has added to make the act of scoring more rewarding: net physics have been redone to make the net bulge more realistic when you thunder a strike past the goalkeeper, and the publisher has even reworked the DualSense haptic feedback to give you a more tactile sensation in your hands. There are a ton of new celebration sequences, too, which trigger when you score a last-ditch winner in stoppage time.

It’s still a video game, so collision detection issues and general animation glitches like warping do still occur, but many of the animations added via the heavily advertised HyperMotion Technology help build on the immersion. We’ve also got a lot of time for the new on-the-ball running animations, which are using machine learning to help adjust players’ strides contextually in real-time. It’s a minor thing, but it does add to the responsiveness when players approach the ball properly.

Of course, there are always concerns that patches will ultimately upset the balance – or exploits could be uncovered. Playing online, we’ve been done on way more corners than feels realistic, and the buff to timed shots could result in too many unstoppable curlers into the top corner, but we’re just going to have to trust EA Sports to look at the data and make the necessary adjustments there. Even with these minor issues, the gameplay is still a significant step forward from FIFA 21.

Even the goalkeepers, with a new range of animations and rewritten systems, act much more sensibly. They’re less susceptible to getting beaten at their near post, and seem to react much smarter to loose balls knocked towards the edge of the box. There’s always going to be a debate about scripting, but generally we’ve found the balance to be mostly good: we’re getting punished when we make mistakes, and not when the game’s decided it’s time for us to lose.

Of course, all of these gameplay tweaks are great, but FIFA 22 would be a tough sell without improvements outside of them. Fortunately, flagship single player offering Career Mode has been given a revamp – especially if you’re looking to create your own club or break into a team as a pro. While the nuts-and-bolts remain identical – all of the menus are repurposed from last year – the ability to found your own team and build the expectations for it is fun.

We’re currently in charge of a small team we started in the West Midlands, which is looking to avoid relegation from the Premier League. With a minuscule transfer budget, we’ve been forced to promote kids from our academy and hope for the best. You get to set the profile of the players in your starting squad and even design your stadium. Having so much control of your team does help you to develop an attachment to it, which makes you feel every high and low on the field.

There’s still so much more EA Sports could do to add depth here, though. In real-life, for example, Manchester United recently hired a set-piece coach – but you barely have any control over your staff in FIFA 22. When competing sports series like NBA 2K22 allow you to dig so deeply into the day-to-day running of your team that you can even hire sports psychologists and sleeping specialists to help improve the performance of your playing personnel, there’s clearly loads that could be incorporated here.

The focus this year appears to be on the Player Career, which is significantly improved. The simple addition of substitutions means that you can now break into teams, or get benched if you’re not performing to the standard your manager expects. You’ll get dynamic goals for each game, and will need to impress each time you take to the field if you want to progress and force your way into the starting lineup. It’s a huge improvement over the barebones offering of previous years.

Outside of Career Mode, street football spin-off Volta Football has also been revamped to adopt a more arcade-style pick-up-and-play experience. Drop-in multiplayer is not just encouraged, it’s borderline enforced – and new scoring mechanics reward you for playing with flair in order to multiply the number of goals you score. There are a bunch of new football-themed mini-games that you can play, all of which tie into a reward system which allows you to unlock cosmetics for your avatar.

While there’s undoubtedly fun to be had here, it does feel like EA Sports is merely scratching the surface. Sure, the MyPlayer mode in NBA 2K22 has its fair share of issues, the way 2K Sports unifies street basketball with professional basketball and gives you a wealth of activities to do both offline and online is unprecedented, and it’s something we can see EA Sports edging towards eventually – but it’s got a long way to go.

That’s probably because FIFA Ultimate Team is the main mode these days, and it very much remains so in FIFA 22. Surprisingly, it’s probably seen the fewest changes overall, with some minor user interface alterations being the most notable. The way Division Rivals works has been massively rebooted, meaning you’ll no longer bounce between divisions as you win and lose matches, but will instead reach checkpoints to help keep you at an appropriate level.

We’re still not sure how we feel about this change – frankly, we’ve been getting battered by most opponents so far – so we’re curious to see how the balance events out. The Weekend League has also been altered, with a preliminary qualifying round running all week before the FUT Champions finals unfold over the weekend. As we haven’t qualified yet, we can’t comment on how it will all shake out, but the ambition is to give players more flexibility, which we appreciate.

Of course, microtransactions still rule supreme, as you’re completely at the mercy of EA Sports’ gacha mechanics over what players you actually get. Pull a Cristiano Ronaldo card in a pack, and reselling it on the Transfer Market could very well set you up for the rest of the year – but the chances of doing so are low. We appreciate it’s the rarity that ultimately drives the value, but the mode feels so stingy compared to games like MLB The Show 21, where you can build a great team at no cost.

Still, there’s so much to do in FIFA 22 that it feels hard to complain too heavily, in truth. Pro Clubs has more squad customisation options than in past years, while Online Seasons returns, providing an online experience with real teams. The soundtrack is larger and more varied than ever, with some really strong inclusions, and absolutely everything is underpinned by the excellent gameplay improvements detailed above. We’ve not even mentioned the presentation either, which is excellent across the board – outside of the woeful commentary which is somehow worse than it’s ever been.

Conclusion

FIFA 22 feels like real football, and it’s all the better for it. Impressive improvements to player positioning, ball physics, and animations make for a supremely satisfying simulation that underpins each of the franchise’s flagship modes. Career Mode doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but the ability to create a club is entertaining, and the changes to Player Careers are overdue. Microtransactions still rule supreme in Ultimate Team, and you’ll already have your own personal opinions on that, but there’s so much to do in this year’s release that you could easily invest hundreds of hours into it without seeing a single loot box.