FIFA 23 review: long-running franchise bows out on a high with a little something for everyone

FIFA 23 is released for Xbox, PlayStation and PC on September 30
FIFA 23 is released for Xbox, PlayStation and PC on September 30

Shearer and Sutton. Keys and Gray. Allardyce and pints of wine. Football’s Premier League era has been shaped by all manner of game-changing double acts. By contrast, the last three decades on the virtual pitch have been ruled by just one particular pairing.

EA Sports and FIFA’s 30-year partnership has generated hundreds of millions of videogame sales and tens of billions of dollars in revenue. Perhaps inevitably it’s now come to an end thanks, largely, to a row over how that money is distributed and a disagreement over just which party is responsible for that popularity – what feuding rock musicians used to call ‘creative differences’, essentially.

And so FIFA 23 finds the franchise hanging up its boots. A few months back, the developers’ official unveiling suggested the series might fizzle out in a half-hearted holding pattern, that this final instalment would be the equivalent of an old-school player testimonial in which the referee is duty bound to award a penalty just to ensure an ageing veteran can sign off with a goal and some sympathy applause.

It’s no small surprise, then, to discover FIFA 23 is something of a baller, more akin to a late winner in a mid-ranking domestic cup competition (let’s not get too carried away – this is still an incremental annual update after all). It all starts, as it should, on the pitch. The game engine’e deeply unsexily named new mechanics, Hypermotion 2 and AccelerATE, combine to make a truly beautiful whole.

By the end of the season last year’s game was, in the commentator’s vernacular, running through treacle – particularly on current gen consoles, where players were leaden-footed and the ball wobbled through the air on seemingly pre-destined trajectories.

In comparison, FIFA 23 moves. New animations and physics models make for a gloriously unpredictable affair. Sure, it’s still possible to pull off impossible skill moves at the drop of a shoulder button but the increase in collisions and ricochets accurately represents the chaos underpinning the game’s beauty.

And after years of vacillating between extremes, it finally feels like FIFA has got a handle on player pace. By dividing the roster into archetypes of sprinters, long-distance runners, and a blend of the two, the game inherently feels more balanced – and fair.

It’s a common theme. The goalscoring pendulum seems more centred: defensive tackling feels more effective but the keepers more realistically fallible should your attacker break through. The gimmicky power shot is largely unstoppable if you get it away, but that’s not always a given thanks to the move’s comically long wind-up.

Of course, all the usual caveats with regard to future gameplay patches apply here. FIFA matches in January are markedly different from those in October, and definitively calling the experience on release is like judging the effectiveness of a transfer window on deadline day. Still, you can only review what’s in front of you, and FIFA 23 currently plays better than it has in years.

Elsewhere EA Sports have spent a commendable amount of time making good on their pre-release promise of creating their most inclusive FIFA yet. The increased focus on the women’s game is, frankly, long overdue – even if the execution still feels a touch tokenistic.

Chelsea cover star Sam Kerr features throughout, and female footballers have been motion captured for the first time, ensuring they move correctly on the pitch. However the licensed English WSL and French Division 1 Feminine leagues are easy to miss amid the multitude of mens’ competitions and, in practice, are largely reskins, with the teams playing in their male counterparts’ stadiums (Manchester City aside). Even AFC Richmond, the fictional team from the TV show Ted Lasso included here as a PR stunt, get their own ground to play in.

FIFA 23's next gen presentation is near faultless, right down to the persistent divots in the pitch
FIFA 23's next gen presentation is near faultless, right down to the persistent divots in the pitch

The promised women’s World Cup content to accompany the men’s later in the year will hopefully be more bespoke but females don’t feature in FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) at all – unless you count the conspicuously incongruous female referees.

Still, representation is half this stage of the battle, and just being able to control faithfully rendered versions of England’s victorious Lionesses will hopefully open up FIFA to an entirely new audience. EA are clearly banking on it as they’ve baked onboarding features throughout the game.

The centrepiece is a nine-chapter training module which can be integrated with most of the offline modes, offering tutorial videos and drills, in-game challenges, and a full suite of customisable tool tips and playing aids. It’s a really smart – and genuinely useful – concept which, even better, will doubtless infuriate the Proper FIFA Men.

Accessibility is also central to one of the FUT mode’s headline innovations, Moments – a library of bitesized in-game challenge scenarios that earn Stars, which in turn can be exchanged for packs. The vast majority in place at launch will prove laughably easy for hardcore players – make a tackle against the lowest level of AI opponent; score a goal etc – but serve to introduce the fundamentals of the game to newcomers. They also offer a welcome change of pace from the unhealthy grind of Division Rivals and the omnipresent FUT Champions weekend competition.

More than ever before, FUT feels like the dominant player in FIFA’s squad – and it’s depressingly easy to discern why. Thanks to a suite of mechanics precision-tooled to drive in-game purchases, this card-collecting cash cow brought in $1.62billon, or 29% of total revenue, as per EA’s fiscal year report for 2021. (The company omitted to report on its revenue numbers the following year, although it’s unlikely to be because it tanked).

There’s not much to like about a business model so brazenly designed to divorce kids from their pocket money – and the big swing in favour of untradeable reward cards this year only increases the likelihood of that outcome. That said… it is remarkably addictive, and the overhaul of the chemistry rules that underpin squad building have at least shaken up the shakedown.

The token improvements to the increasingly inessential Volta – still more marketing exercise than videogame – and the criminally under-loved Career and Pro Clubs modes, all point inexorably to a future where EA goes all in on Ultimate Team.

The company has yet to reveal its plans for the post-divorce EA Sports FC but it would be wise to assume loot boxes loom large in their plans. For now, though, the FIFA franchise is bowing out on something of a high.

FIFA 23 is released on September 30 on PlayStation 4 and 5 (reviewed), Xbox One and Series X/S, and PC