Now that the 2017/18 European Football season is in full swing, it’s time for the annual FIFA expansion… I mean… update… uhh, patch? Wait, why are we paying for this every year? Jokes aside, the incremental changes made to each year’s FIFA release barely constitute a new game, and certainly shouldn’t warrant an AAA price tag. There is rarely any new content added, and except a few significant leaps (2011, 2016), it’s mostly just graphical fidelity tweaks and AI buffs. This year, however, EA has come to the table with something exciting. Beyond the expected minor upgrades, FIFA 18 features the most elaborate story mode EVER in a sports game, giving hope for the future of the franchise and perhaps, for the first time, justifying a yearly purchase.
Alex Hunter, the returning star of FIFA 17’s “The Journey,” is back in fine form and competing among the best players in the world. The second chapter of his story is far more nuanced than the first, now that the excitement of fame has worn away and Alex is left to face the reality of dashed hopes, lost friends and broken contracts.
Good on EA (I can’t believe I just said that) for spending serious time and money to breathe new life into FIFA, when they could just as easily have not, and probably sold the same amount of copies. The result is a well written, capably acted drama that throws tough choices and gameplay twists your way the entire time. It’s not Scorsese, but I was honestly stunned by the effort that’s gone into the production, which bodes incredibly well for future titles. This must be what Take Two had in mind when they let Spike Lee make that NBA 2K game a few years back.
Less progress was made in the visuals department, which, overall, are roughly of the same fidelity as last year’s entry. Player facial animations have been vastly improved though, and more player models include the finer details of accurate tattoos, facial hair and accessories which were previously reserved for Lionel and Cristiano. It bears noting, too, that blade-of-grass physics appear to have been worked on, making for the best-looking close-ups ever. It’s a tiny detail, but we’d criticise them for skipping it, so we must praise them for not.
Onto the important gameplay dynamics, to which great improvements have been made. Players react faster to surprise changes in direction and pace, and the overall fluidity of their rotation has been increased, making ball-shielding and artful turns viable where they were once far too risky.
Ball control has been made tighter, but now has an enormously high skill ceiling. The issue here is that this creates a larger overall skill gap between players, and massively inflates the power of dribbling as an attribute. Players like David Silva, Marco Veratti and Kylian Mbappe are open to stick-trick dribbling abuse now that their feet have been improved, while the defenders’ are still stuck in the last generation.
Goal-scoring options are, at long last, balanced! Crosses, headers, long balls, walking it in; all as viable and worthwhile as each other, for perhaps the first time in recent memory. There’s no more learning the new game’s weakness; it’s all about performance.
With controls becoming more responsive, finesse and timing are beginning to play a bigger role than direction and pace, which is a wonderful shift from what we saw only a year or two ago. Complain though we may about incremental upgrades, at least it seems that they’re moving towards ideal gameplay rather than making changes at random.
Gameplay modes remain largely unchanged, aside from some welcome presentation upgrades in Career and Manager modes. A new offline multiplayer mode allows you to compete against other player’s squads, though controlled by the AI. This is great for people that want the variety of online play, without the challenge and tension of a live opponent.
Look, no one is going to say that FIFA 18 is revolutionary. It is the best football game ever released, by virtue of the fact that it’s the newest. So, there’s no massive accomplishment here, and if you weren’t already a fan, this won’t convert you. The magic, though, is there and brighter than ever. Roar as you score a 92nd-minute screamer, taking it to 3-3. Fist-pump in your mate’s face. You are an artist, and the football is your brush. I’ve never fully understood how it is that FIFA catches the passion and energy of real football, but whatever they’re doing, it’s still being done here. Now, if we could just have an indoor mode…