Another September, a new FIFA and a fresh round of everyone being concerned that annual release cycles are a cynical money-grabbing enterprise, but still buying the game anyway.
In a few short days FIFA 18 will burst onto the scene once more, packing stores across the world and hitting the top ten sellers as so many of its predecessors have done. So, is it worth the hype? Is it enough of an improvement on FIFA 17 to warrant spending sixty more dollars?
Most importantly, is it fun?
Right off the bat, FIFA 18 impresses. FIFA has been criticised in the past for being too “arcade-y”, being too prone to pace-abusing and for lacking the depth of individuality offered by its main competitor PES. In these places, FIFA 18 excels.
Player Personality gives the top tier players a lot of their idiosyncratic movements. Cristiano Ronaldo’s running style is one of the first things you notice. They’ve clearly motion captured him to get the best effect. It’s really striking to see these individual players on the pitch. It turns out to be a much-needed addition. Personality also plays into what EA are calling Dramatic Moments. Player personality ensure the heroes of the game stand tall in the biggest moments, finishing more often on the biggest stages… whatever that means. In my time with the game, I haven’t noticed anything tangible that I would attribute to dramatic moments. Although, perhaps it’s only meant to give the better players a little extra buff in a time of need. For example, when they’re one-on-one with the ‘keeper in the 90th minute. I think anything that adds extra flavour to different moments is fine by me. Also, one thing I have noticed is that the crowd and the players have notably more muted celebrations when you’re winning by several goals. It is a sensible change.
The dribbling overhaul, for me, has the biggest impact on overall play. It prioritises body angle and quick movements over the ability to pull off an incredible skill move. I love this. In real football, you rarely would see Lionel Messi – one of the greatest dribblers of all time – attempt extravagant skill moves. A drop of the shoulder, a little dink or change of direction, that’s all he needs to get past a player.
You also find that you have more control with slow dribbling and less control dribbling at high speeds. This takes a little bit from the players who use raw power and rewards those with high dribbling but average speeds. For example, David Silva, Iniesta or Dimitri Payet. Skilful players are also rewarded by a greater variety of fake kick options. This change makes it one of the must-master skills, especially for newer players.
Coupled with the real player motion technology and the ever-tuning physics engine, dribbling is much more about shifting the body, taking smart touches and wrong-footing the defender. And the game is better for it.
They’ve also toned down the benefits of having a team of super, top-speed players. It will take a noticeable amount of time for them to hit their full running speed. This means players with good acceleration are key for getting out of a tight spot, but it also means that defenders will struggle to recover if they over-commit from a tackle and a speedy winger bursts past them.
Quick Subs is a nifty addition. This allows you to pre-set who your three subs will be for the match. Once set you sub them in on the fly once in-game. It’s a nice little time-saver, especially as FIFA 18 continues to become more competitive online. Stopping to make a substitution can be a nuisance for both players.
The final flagship gameplay improvement is the new crossing system. In FIFA 17 there was almost no point in crossing. Defenders tracked every run and there were only a few trajectories. Meaning that players would miss open targets just because the game would only send the ball one way. Now, with this new system in FIFA 18, crossing is good. Maybe too good. A little dink from the corner of the box to the far post, a low driven cross towards the penalty spot, the fullback blindly pumping one in from the touchline, I’ve scored in many different ways. Header or volley, if the attacker is unmarked they are far more likely to put it in the corner. Something I really like. You must put pressure on the shooter as a defender. Otherwise, they’ve got enough time to pick a spot. It rewards good play and doesn’t leave you feeling frustrated when your striker blasted it wide from six yards with no one around him.
Part of the strength of crossing, however, is by far the biggest flaw I found in my time with the game; defensive AI. Attackers make really direct runs into the box now and defenders (particularly full backs and wing backs) have no idea how to mark them. Too often a winger will find themselves with acres of space in the box because his fullback has either pulled way too central, or wandered way too far up the pitch and is making no real effort to get back. This tends to happen for both you and your opponent. It is almost worthless having a full back with a High attacking work rate, because he’s going to leave you for dead at least once. As I’ve said, if an attacker has plenty of time and space then they’re going to score.
It’s not really game breaking. It will hopefully be addressed in a patch soon. However, I can’t find myself enjoying scoring when I send a simple through ball to my right winger and there is literally no opposing players on that side of the field.
FIFA 18 is a solid improvement over FIFA 17. There are new authentic overlays for La Liga and MLS. In addition, there are new stadiums that include dynamic lighting and projectiles which land on the pitch. The whole game seems slightly darker and the frostbite engine does an excellent job at the rendering of clothing, faces, cutscenes and the crowds.
Speaking of which, the new 3D rendered crowds are fantastic. To score a massive goal and then have it pan to a celebrating crowd, who doesn’t look like they’re made of cardboard, is a blessing. It really adds that bit of extra immersion and really adds to EA’s major improvement, atmospheres. As the camera pans across 50,000 screaming fans after you’ve just put your team 2-1 up, it is hard not to feel the emotion. The crowd is so much more dynamic than in any previous year. The experience is all the better for it. Also, if you’re a small team or playing at a lower level in pro clubs, your stadium will be half-empty. It’s dynamic, it’s immersive and it’s good.
Outside of the field, the UI is almost the same as in FIFA 17. If it’s not broke don’t fix it, I guess. Also, shout out to whoever put ‘Jungle’ by Tash Sultana on the soundtrack. I’m pretty sure all of us have been shown a cool new song by a someone or heard something on the radio and think “oh yeah, that’s on FIFA.” This year certainly doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
Finally, pack openings are becoming more and more explosive and exciting. No complaints at all. However, based on the extravagant animation, I was expecting more than an 83 Gaitan as my first major pull.
Unfortunately, (or fortunately depending on your opinion) the game modes will all be very familiar to you this year. Beyond a couple of minor additions in each, you will find yourself easily navigating them if you played them in FIFA 17. Is it good enough for a whole year’s work? I really think you must decide that for yourself.
We’ll start by looking at Ultimate Team. This is by far the most popular mode and a real money maker for EA. It is not uncommon for even moderate players to spend as much money on FIFA points as they did on the base game. I personally feel it’s a massive exploit and borrows from the very worst of the insidious micro-transaction culture in AAA gaming. However, it is part of the game and it’s not likely to change any time soon. Thankfully, there are a few more options now for players to get packs without dishing out their hard-earned cash.
Squad Battles is the largest addition to Ultimate team and it’s one I like a lot. You play against AI controlled randomly selected teams. These are comprised of other players’ actual ultimate teams alongside their chemistry effects. The higher you rank at the end of the week, the better your rewards in coins and packs. The catch is that you can only play 4 opponents over a several hour period. Meaning, you have to make the most out of each game because, you get more points for playing on higher difficulties as well as for skill and goals. It’s nice to see a mode that rewards players for being good offline as well as for grinding. In FIFA 17, you got an untradeable premium gold pack for winning the offline Div one. That meant winning 10 games straight on legendary and ultimate.
There is also a new way to watch the top players face off in the weekend league, in the Champions Channel if that’s your thing. I’d honestly rather just play myself, but there’s no harm in this little addition.
The Daily objectives tab gives you a nice little target each day and encourages you to try a few different things in order to earn a nice little cash reward. It’s nice early on, but I don’t see many hardcore players worrying too much about them.
The new Icons are possibly the most widely advertised and hyped elements of this year’s game. Which is funny, because very few people will actually get to use them. Still it’s nice to see names like Ronaldo (the Brazilian one), Henry, Maradona and – my personal favourite – Ronaldinho all in the game now. These are players that captured the imagination for a lot of us when we were younger, but never got to play as them in the fantastic graphical fidelity we have now. Some of these icons even have three different cards, representing three different moments of their illustrious careers. Amazing. And I will never own one.
The last thing I’d like to mention is that Ultimate Team is probably the most beginner-friendly it’s been in years. The opening is clearer, while still being quick, and you now get the option to choose a nation around which to base your first squad, meaning you can get some reasonable chemistry straight away rather than that awful feeling of having no coins, no points, and some random 76 Azerbaijani leading the line on 3 chem.
Pro Clubs is one of my personal favourite modes, particularly to play with friends. It really feels like a forgotten mode, and it would be great to see it get a bit more love. Thankfully EA put a little bit of time into it this year. You now have the ability to store three different ‘play styles’ that you can quickly and easily swap between games. You can save your height, weight, position and skills, and the experience you accrue by playing games improves all of them equally. It’s a nice quality of life thing.
Beyond the play styles, the unlockable skills for you player are now set into RPG-style skill trees. It means that you now have to go though, say, a number of dribbling points to unlock 5-star skill moves. There is also more variation and depth. You can spend one point for one speed, rather than having to drop four at once.
The problem with Pro Clubs is one that EA cannot control: People suck.
That’s one of the reasons I like playing against the AI, and my favourite mode for that is easily Career Mode. I have been playing FIFA since FIFA 09 and until last year, Career mode was always my mode of choice. I loved growing young players, or bringing low-tier teams to the upper echelons of world football. Last year it felt tired and bland. This year it feels the same.
Most of the improvements for career mode feel like a coat of paint over a crack in the wall, and none of them will be remembered once you’re toiling mid-season. The interactive transfers are really cool. I have my sincere doubts that Jose Mourinho would waste his time coming all the way to my office just to discuss transfers with me, but I guess they wanted to put the rendered manager faces in. Given the focus on your manager throughout, I would have loved to have the option to choose to be the existing, active manager of my club. Maybe next year.
As the negotiations are underway, you have to be careful not to insult the player or he will storm away, and you now have the option to insert release clauses, offer signing bonuses, add sell-on clauses and more. Transfers are now much more in depth and you do leave the room feeling like you’ve actually achieved something by signing the player. Understandably, however, these cut scenes do not feature any voice-acting, so it means that they are quite creepy experiences, especially with the ominous tones underneath.
Once the transfer window is over, you are left to face a very similar and tired career mode. Some interactive news banners look cool, and there are new tabs called ‘Transfer Hub’ and ‘ Squad Hub’ which allow you to keep track of your transfers and your squads more effectively. The rest of it is the same, and it’s frankly disappointing. I would love to see more customisation for youth players, maybe letting you create their faces. It would also be nice if youth players had more realistic physical stats, rather than giving every single winger 70 pace or less, when pace is often a much more native trait and you can’t train it. All in all, I fear that the career mode additions will be cool for October, but once the new year rolls around, most of us will be playing something else.
Finally, we come to the youngest of the game modes in the FIFA series; The Journey. Last year it was a breath of fresh air, as we took Alex Hunter from un-signed, unknown player, to premier league star. It was great trying something new, alongside an impactful and compelling storyline that really made you feel like you wanted to succeed, however railroaded it may have felt. This year, Hunter is a star, with the spotlight on him and transfer rumours beginning to swirl. There are big name appearances like Rio Ferdinand, Dele Alli, and Cristiano Ronaldo, although I couldn’t help listening to Ronaldo’s chalky, stilted and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance, and wonder if the money they paid him could have been better allocated somewhere else.
Once you’re past the gloss, though, you’ll notice that The Journey is much the same as last year. There is some cool customisation, new clothes, options for you kit, as well as tattoo and hair style options, but this is little more than the cosmetic here. Getting into the game I found myself reliving the same frustrations of last year, but without the rose-tinted glasses of story to make me not hate it. It doesn’t feel worth controlling the whole team, because you find yourself trying to find Hunter wherever you can rather than playing the game. It just doesn’t feel like you’ve earned the goals then. But when you choose just to control Hunter, you’ll find yourself cursing the awful AI for being unable to string together a couple of passes, drop deeper to get a touch or two and then lose your rating for being out of position. It’s maddening.
I haven’t had the time to finish The Journey yet, so it might prove me wrong. But I think it’s quite telling that I simply have no desire to keep playing. They’ve put a lot of time into this mode, and the performance by the actual actors, and the writing, is all great, but I just can’t bring myself to be excited about it.
I’ve complained about a lot of small details, but to be completely fair FIFA 18 is objectively a very good game. It always was going to be. Ultimate team will continue to be a ton of fun, and while the improvements overall are not game-changing, they haven’t taken anything out, so it’s hard to see anything but progression here. That being said, until the defensive AI gets fixed I think we’ll see a lot more rage than usual, and the while the visuals are stunning, it’s hard to find an improvement that amounts to much more than cosmetics.
Still, I’m going to pour hours upon hours into FIFA 18, and I’ll have a blast the whole way, and that’s really all that I could ask for.