When I first got married and my wife and I were sorting out our cohabitation situation and newlywed budgets, I lobbied for three things with respects to gaming: a PS Plus annual subscription, one full priced new game per year, and one copy of the latest FIFA. It was that important to me, the best game about my favorite sport, that I had to write access into the very verbal negotiations we were sorting out our futures over. I was a rabid Pro Evo player for years through all of its greatest iterations but, like many, migrated over to FIFA as EA started to surpass Konami's flagship football property. In most years of my adult gaming life, I would log more hours on the annual iteration of FIFA than any other game in my library.
My relationship with FIFA of late has been... less enthusiastic. In recent years the game has been taken over by Ultimate Team (FUT) and all the grubby cash grab it represents. Some other recent experimental modes like the Journey were just ridiculous press release filler and a waste of development resources. I'm primarily a career mode player, through and through, and what was once the standout mode of the game has been neglected for a decade in favor of FUT's micro transactions dominating the game's distribution of developmental time and effort. The nadir of my relationship with the series was surely FIFA 21, whose AI defending was so bad it rendered the game broken and unplayable. I wrote about it here. I would normally play through in-game years of career modes seasons while plunging a few extra tens of hours into FUT, but that entire cycle I could scarcely play more than the first few games required to uncover what a mess it was. It was a waste of my time. I was back a year later in for FIFA 22 because that time away really left a hole in my gaming life. Things did improve, and for FIFA 23 I was invited to the beta, not because of any Gaming Nexus connection but simply because my PSN was lucky enough to get an email in my inbox. I liked what I saw and was re-energized by what steps the gameplay might be taking this iteration to. I took on this review hoping for a redemption arc.
Before I dig into my experience, it is worth cutting through a lot of the b.s. that is surrounding this game and this series. First of all, this not "the last FIFA" like many other sites are smugly tagging it. EA and FIFA did not renew their licensing deal, that is true. Which means... basically nothing. It means the game will have to change its name, that's all. I even read one site referring to this as the "last FIFA collaboration". What collaboration? FIFA just lends a name and logo and EA does all the work. Even the players leagues and teams are individually licensed through the various representative entities. I think in the age of influencers we might have lost track of what that word "collaboration" actually means. EA sports will continue making the same game with the same players and same teams and same modes. It just has to drop "FIFA" from the title and next year will go with "EA Sports FC" instead.
FIFA as a sports governing body is just a giant, corrupt organization that holds a World Cup every few years, uses bribes to determine the host, fleeces fans and sponsors at every step to funnel as much money out of the game while holding off government oversight as best they possibly can. FIFA occasionally tweaks the rules of the game, only to later backtrack and tweak them again when the outcomes aren't what was expected. So, EA Sports FC will lose the name and the World Cup branding as well, surely to be replaced with something like the EA Sports Global Tournament™ or some other silly, off-brand title while everything else chugs along, business as usual. They might not even need to shoehorn in some knockoff tournament because after this sham, mid-season Qatar one coming up in a month, it's not even a World Cup year again for another four years (unless the money grubbers at FIFA get their way and shove more pointless international football that no one wants down everyone's throat to manufacture more opportunities to wantonly pilfer). If anything, distancing yourself from the sleaze of FIFA isn't a bad thing, even if the name recognition takes a hit.
The next bit of b.s. that needs to be swept up in this housekeeping is any idea that this, or any iteration, of the FIFA series is anything but a full-featured AAA video game. I know that EA is on a really tight turnaround and yearly development cycles are hard to impossible. I know that they don't reinvent the game every year but try to iteratively improve over time to address those constraints. But I also know they charge $70 for this game and do everything in their marketing powers to push you into the $100 purchase of the Ultimate Edition. Konami made a mess of their Pro Evo rebrand into eFootball, but they didn't charge for it. They gave away the thing, broken and lacking features sure, but still playable and free. EA is charging top dollar here so there can be none of this "step in the right direction" excuses for ten years running like a certain popular streamer recently called out a certain popular review site for handing out to Madden year after year after year.
And on that latter point it is worth pointing out that this game is buggy, oh so very buggy - but not in the ways we've seen FIFA in the past. I'm playing on PS5 with the full release version and all patches and there is quite a bit off the pitch that often does not work. There was some press made about how the menus and tile swapping moving within modes like Career have been overhauled, and frankly what was delivered is just not ready for primetime. Multiple times each session I'll page through menus and the next page will be missing all of its items. Or a switch won't load in the actual title and tag text that undergoes the localization into the different languages depending on your settings. So instead of a title that means something, you get placeholder text like TXT_Fraction_Separator. I'm sure they'll fix it next iteration and it's rarely something that you don't have to just page out and back in to fix, but functioning menus should be a reasonable expectation of a AAA title, no?
As for on the pitch, in the game, things are much better. The classic FIFA bug takes the form of collision issues between player models resulting in clips all over Youtube (none of which I care to link) ranging from the absurd to the horrifying. Those were not present in any of my play time, despite the debut of a new engine powering the game - the much hyped Hypermotion 2. You can find compilations of fails and glitches for FIFA 23 on YouTube as well, but in my experience the engine was not only bug-free, but actually quite a triumph. This is not the FIFA of old where balls are glued to attackers feet and the only thing you need to win is pace and a through ball. I think in this version they finally started to get some of the variance correct that makes soccer what it is. Bad first touches, players that take a runway to get up to full speed, loose passes and deflections - the game recreates so many of the unscripted bits that actually make football the beautiful game. We have veered farther from an arcade game into a proper football sim than any year in FIFA's past.
These changes also make taking a pub team and trying to play like Guardiola's Barcelona that much more of a challenge, as there is not just a noticeable level of variance in things like first touch, control, and tackling but also a marked improvement in those abilities as player attributes go up corresponding to the levels of the game's real-life models. The animations and styles from player to player have been ramped up as well, but really its the gameplay that makes the biggest impact. How not every touch is perfect, not every tackle clean, not every pass on a laser line. It's how that variance, that actually determines the outcomes of so many real games, is also "in the game." Even if the throughballs seem to be a little devastating, they are balanced out by being misplaced so often into the intercepting space of the defender the ball is meant to wrap past. So yeah, a throughball can be deadly, but only if you can pull it off, which imitates what we see on the real world pitches.
As for the AI, it's not a trainwreck, nothing like the aforementioned issues that broke FIFA 21. I was concerned at first as my first few games in the Airtricity Irish League where I always start my careers were a 2-1 win and a 5-5 draw on World Class level. Then after a bump up to Legendary I recorded a 4-3 win and 4-2 halftime score in my fourth match of the game before I took a concerned break. Further play seemed to indicate that those early results were outliers on a small sample size, because while there are goals to be scored and even more likely coming as I continue to figure out how to best exploit the AI, I restarted my career on Legendary and scores were meaningful and re-aligned with what you'd expect from the sport. In any case, it's not obviously broken after only a handful of matches like 21 was. The game is still much too easy in FUT when I am restricted to World Class because Legendary and Ultimate automatically tack on "Competetor mode" which makes every Computer controlled player try to pull off and endless stream of stepovers and tricks. It is meant to imitate "how the best FUT players play" but makes every AI opponent seem like a needlessly griefing douchebag. Which... to be fair, does kind of seem like how many top FUT players play. So... well done? I just can't stand it and try to limit myself to silver squads and my beloved MLS starting eleven.
There are other oversights despite a solid package on the field and in-game. The career mode "skip first transfer window" option doesn't work for leagues who don't follow the European calendar where the first window is a winter one instead of a summer one. This is especially problematic with players with release clauses. So here is my scenario: I want to play as my beloved Seattle Sounders and right some wrongs in a fantasy where they didn't just cap one of the greatest achievements in MLS - being the first team to ever win the CONCACAF Champions League, with also having their worst regular season in the team's MLS history and miss the playoffs for the first time ever. Load up career mode and first off there is no CONCACAF Champions League to participate in. FIFA has always lacked depth pretty much anywhere outside the UK football pyramid so this is nothing new; but what does stink is the fact that because the disable first window option is not functional, it is nigh on impossible to get through preseason and hold on to star striker Raul Ruidiaz without some European club swooping in and just paying the release clause. So now I not only don't have the triumph of the champions league, but I can't actually correct the Sounders' season as I can't keep the roster intact. What's most frustrating is that this is the same behavior present in FIFA 22 that no one bothered to fix. Then there is this other new one where no matter how you build up or neglect your career mode sharpness in training sessions, in each match every player is given the same sharpness rating of -1. I can't actually tell if this even effects gameplay because I have yet to find a career mode game where it doesn't show as -1 so I have no baseline to compare it against.
And that also largely sums up my issues with the chronically unloved Career mode. It was the mode that kicked off FIFA's success, but what attention it has gotten lately has been misguided. EA keeps adding cutscenes that I can't imagine anyone wanting while ignoring adding any real depth to the simulation. I don't want transfer negotiation cutscenes. They are poorly done in the first place, add nothing to the negotiation, and create unnecessarily frustration as I have to begrudgingly mash a button each time just to skip them. At least they don't start overheating the console anymore like when first introduced and cause the cooling fan to spin up to top RPMs as before. Now we have even more cutscenes with an additional one every time a player leaves the club. Why? What we want is real lower league teams to play out fantasies of starting from the bottom and rising to the top. But the presence of any of those teams is entirely absent outside of the UK. At best leagues get two divisions per country, most have only one. A critical component with international football is promotion and relegation and most leagues can't even enjoy that madness. There are a few licensed mid-year tournaments but even more are absent. Entire continents like Asia and Africa have nearly no representation and while some ground was made in South America last year with the addition of things like the Copa Libertadores no new additions were made for this year. Now that CONEMBOL update in 22 was mid-season so who knows? Maybe there is yet hope for things like CONCACAF Champions League or Club World Cup (doubtful given the expiring FIFA licensing) or CAF Champions League.
There are other modes besides Career of course, like Volta, which was clearly designed for someone other than me. Volta adds super abilities, skill trees for leveling up, power ups, and a bunch of crap obviously targeted at kids who think wearing track pants to the mall is edgy. Default avatars all look fresh (or whatever the kids are saying these days) and a lot of time seems to be spent customizing the look of your dude, as you unlock new outfits along with your leveling up. Despite this variety in wardrobe, most of the default teammates you start out with all sport the same kit. The devs and art department put so much time into creating a massive closet of pants, shirts, and shoes but rather than show off that variety they just take the same five default outfits and kit the players out with that subset.
The game varies between 3v3 without goalies to 5v5 with them and is meant to be fast paced and trick orientated (kinda like competitor mode, huh?) but the introduction of super abilities and boosts kind of loses the plot for me. I'm not saying it's bad, and if Volta or Pro Clubs or any of these modes are your jam then I'm happy for you. And it might just be the changes with Hypermotion 2 bog down some other modes in a realism that denies many players the frantic pace they are seeking, and Volta delivers. I'm just saying... get off my lawn. I'm old and sticking to career and the occasional time wasting in FUT because I don't want to have a Flavor Flav clock hanging from my neck as I try and do stopovers, I just want to imitate football at the highest levels like it's actually played on the field. So I have my career mode, and others can choose for themselves what best utilizes their own time. Oh, and also I'm happy the Journey is gone because that was some unrealistic nonsense. The very opening scene of the Journey was: United need a goal late and instead of bring Zlatan off the bench they are going to turn to some untested kid who, in the very next cut scene, is about to have to prove himself by going on loan. Don't ever bring it back.
And before I close this review I did want to say my piece on FUT as I've badmouthed it on one hand and keep indicating that it is a continual part of my gameplay experience, even if only peripherally. FUT is bad because it's a money grab. Once upon a time it was a mode where you use a transfer market to build a team of your favorite stars and play soccer. What happened though is EA started printing money with the microtransactions and decided to weaponize the mode. They effectively replaced the transfer market with SBCs (challenges where you swap players for, well, more players, but better) and the team building with an arms race - continually trumping the best players with even better versions of those same best players. The effect is no matter what team you build, there is always a better player to plug into it with the latest roster update that sneaks in as the team of the week or team of the year or SBC reward or position change event or some other googily-goofy-pretend reason that makes no sense. Currently they are running the "Rulebreakers" which lets them take 40 year old defenders who in real life amble around the pitch on knees still damaged from begging Shakira to take them back and instead give them 80 pace because... rulez broken, yo? No, because it gives them a completely artificial reason to make players keep chasing a better card until the next update where a slightly better one still will come along.
But I still play because there is a game within that game where I refuse to spend any money, build a team from card pack draws I get using only in-game rewards, and actually have a lot of fun playing one-off matches in between the dopamine high of pack openings. If I don't have the time or mental resiliency at the moment to pick up my career save where every game matters, I can drop into a carefee match with my crafted squad of lesser MLS mortals and just relax and put up big scores on World Class mode without those pressures. The most impressive thing about FUT this year by far is how seamless the gameplay is. What I mean by that is that in every other iteration of FUT where I've dipped into multiplayer, there is this noticeable input lag on the connected match that actually changes the way you play, makes you do everything a beat slower. You can't implement the same quick tactics of singleplayer because somewhere between the connection speeds and server code too much response lag was introduced. But this year it's... unnoticeable. For the first time I can remember multiplayer and single-player matches just feel the same. Well done. Even though I still can't stand multiplayer because you go up against a super team most every match of pace merchants doing non-stop stepovers and flicks. That's the arms race for you...
So what's the verdict? Did EA complete the FIFA redemption arc? Well, on the field yes, absolutely. If you're looking for a football sim the Hypermotion 2 engine has the best one I've probably ever seen - and that's what really matters. Unfortunately, things are still rough around the edges with menus that don't load, bugs from last years' game that carry over, etc. The game as a macro-review is a lot like FUT as a micro-review within it: there's more than one game inside here between the various modes and if you ignore the ugly bits you can find your jam within.
I'll even go back to a question Sean asks point blank in his FIFA 21 review: is it worth it this time around? Is this iteration on last year's game with a big roster update worth the AA price? In 21 he answered "no." But with FIFA 23 the pendulum has happily swung back to a firm "yes." If you're still on the fence, you can also always use some of my old advice and trial with EA Play first. And hey, maybe in EA Sports FC 24 they'll finally fix that skip transfer window bug. One can hope.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...