Yearly sports sims are some of the most well received and highest bought in the video games charts. Year in, year out, the likes of NBA 2K, Madden and even the ‘fake’ sport of wrestling sell well with the WWE 2K series. The king of this virtual simulated sports monopoly? Football (soccer), of course. It is still the most watched and wealthiest sport in the world, so it only makes sense that it sells the most.
There is one underlining issue with yearly released games, however, and that is that it is often a challenge to revolutionise the product year in, year out. Most yearly released titles rarely break the mould in terms of features but usually just improve on the previous instalments, well, most of the time. This is a perfect way to sum up FIFA 18. Are the changes to this year’s instalment drastic compared to FIFA 17? No, but is it an improvement on last year’s outing? Well, much like Burnley this season in the Premier League, the changes are subtle but work well.
One of these changes is evident in the opening match of FIFA 18, the atmosphere inside the stadiums. Generally, I have always felt EA has done a great job with the noise the crowd will generate in a stadium. Sure, it isn’t as loud as the real thing, and you don’t hear any offensive/funny chants, but it still sounded good. The atmospheres in FIFA 18 blow all previous instalments out of the window. In the opening match, you are plunged into the middle of the Madrid derby as you take control of Real Madrid. All through the match, the Madrid faithful is encouraging Los Blancos to overcome their city rivals. Where the atmosphere sounds great during play, it is when you score that you truly appreciate just how good it is. Smashing in a signature Cristiano Ronaldo free kick, the stadium erupted, and it was then I released just how good the crowd not only sounded but looked. Everyone in the stands is individually 3D rendered, so they act just like a crowd would. The first few front rows rush to the front to try and hug their heroes, the rest all jump for joy, it truly is a marvel to witness. EA has also done a great job with making crowds from different countries sound authentic. There are, of course, a lot of generic sounds for the lower ranked teams and leagues, but all the famous teams and stadiums do really sound like their real-life counterparts.
FIFA 18 feeling more like the real thing is also helped with the MLS and La Liga now having authentic pre-match graphics and sounds. With these two added with the Premier League and Bundesliga, EA is slowly making the leagues have an individual feel as opposed to the generic broadcast graphics and music which accompany the rest of the leagues. Thanks to the Frostbite engine, the real-life stadiums all look absolutely stunning. Come rain or shine, day or night, they really are spectacular. Player likeness is also starting to catch up with the likes of NBA 2K and Madden. There are a few questionable models, but generally, they mostly all look pretty good. Now, this is also going to be my first moan about FIFA 18; to be fair, there aren’t many, but this one really irritates me. It is obvious that EA’s main goal in this year’s release was authenticity, but there are still so many top players that still do not have their real-life likenesses. Players like Dries Mertens, who has been scoring for Napoli for a couple of seasons now, is still just a generic character model. There are loads of players who are rated over 80 who play for big teams that also suffer from this. It just takes away from the authentic visuals EA are trying to provide when a 5-year-old character model is seen celebrating on camera with a player who does have their likeness authentically represented.
For the ‘true’ football experience though, everyone’s favourite up and coming star, Alex Hunter, is back for The Journey 2. You can expect the same sort of EastEnders-styled soap opera drama that might be a bit cliché and cheesy, but it is still entertaining. You will be met with dialogue choices that will determine Hunter’s personality. Most of the time there isn’t much actual effect on the story, but there are a couple of occasions where you will have to make game-changing decisions. After Hunter’s breakthrough season, like many young players these days, Hunter’s temptation to join one of the European elite puts his position at his current club (you can either choose to import your previous version of Hunter with the club you chose last year or start afresh with a new club) in jeopardy. Not to delve into any major spoilers here, but his dream move falls through, and he ends up going out on loan again; not to the Championship this time but to a rather interesting choice that works extremely well. A nice little addition to The Journey this year is the ability to customise Mr. Hunter. You can pick a different hairstyle, give him some ink and change the way his kit looks. Not a massive addition but a great way to help personalise him to your liking.
In terms of how to play The Journey, the two ways are vastly different and offer unique satisfaction. Playing as the whole team is obviously easier, but it won’t always make you play better as a team. Often, playing as a team you will feel obliged to pass to Hunter more often than not, even if he is in a rubbish position. Playing solely as Hunter forces you to be more of a team player, but it really is quite tough. Thankfully, you can choose each option before the start of every game so you’re not stuck with one option for the duration of The Journey.
Away from the glitz and glamour of The Journey, FIFA 18, of course, features the two stalwarts of the series, Career Mode and FIFA Ultimate Team. FUT is unquestionably the more popular of the two and has had players obsessed ever since its inclusion in FIFA 09. FUT has also received the minimal but welcome changes that EA are just so good at. For people new to FUT, it can seem a bit overwhelming, so EA has made it a bit easier to navigate for new players, and the first few objectives you are presented with really help you learn how to truly get the most out of FUT, and the new daily objectives help keep you interested and offer some great rewards to help you build a decent squad. The big new feature for FUT this year are, of course, ICONS. The greatest players to ever grace a pitch, the likes of (Brazilian) Ronaldo, Pelé and Maradona are available (at a cost) to slot into your team. FUT is as fun as ever, and the only real downside to it is the potential cost of your actual money that you’ll be tempted to part with. The most expensive FIFA points pack is £79.99, but it is possible to play the game without spending any actual money and still have a great time, you’ll just struggle to have Barcelona mark II.
Career Mode is where I personally spend most of my time in FIFA, and I was ecstatic to find EA was finally going to give the somewhat neglected mode some new features. Apart from some new training drills (over 15 new ones to try) and some new graphics in the club news section, the highlight of the new features is the interactive transfer negotiations. It is a great new feature that, although a bit shallow, allows you to somewhat experience how clubs do transfers in the real world. You start with meeting with the other team’s manager to discuss either you buying or selling a player. Once the transfer has been agreed by either a fee, player swap possibly also including a sell-on fee, it is time to meet the player and his agent. Here you will discuss the squad role, length of the contract, wages and bonuses. It really is just the same options as before but with a visual representation as opposed to just the text options we had before, which is a nice touch. Apart from that, it is business as usual, pick a club and lead them to glory. With the new incredible atmospheres inside the stadiums, Career Mode really is a blast this year in FIFA 18.
All of this would be pointless though if the actual gameplay sucks, right? Well, I am happy to inform you that this is the best gameplay in a FIFA game for a long time. FIFA 17 was great, but with the small but welcomed changes to this year’s effort, FIFA 18 truly is a fantastic play. Let’s get this out of the way first before we carry on: As good as the gameplay is, it still falls short of PES. That isn’t a criticism of FIFA 18’s gameplay, it is just that PES better simulates the style of football I enjoy, but let’s get back to FIFA. The overall speed has been slowed down quite drastically. I have always played FIFA on the slow tempo setting, but this year I had to bump it up to normal. It’s not just the speed of the game that has improved, thanks to the new Real Player Motion tech, all the big stars of the game move just like they do on a real football pitch. Lukaka bullies helpless defenders, Messi moves with the grace only he can pull off and Ronaldo’s breakneck speed trickery all make things a nightmare for defenders. There are new animations for shooting which seem to be executed quicker than in FIFA 17. The physics collision system is a firm but fair mistress as Wes Morgan of Leicester sent Raheem Sterling flying as I battled for the ball. Dribbling feels better than ever, with players like Messi, Griezman, Ronaldo and Bale an absolute joy to control.
The crossing has also been given a makeover and now is better than ever. Gone are double hitting square or X, you now simply press the cross button once for a normal cross. Hold L1/LB for a lofted cross or R1/RB for a whipped, low cross. The result is more control of the particular cross you want to unleash. It still is hard to actually score from crosses, but at least you are given the tools to actually try. Passing can still be a bit off with your controlled player trying to play the ball to a completely different player than you intended to. Defending is also tough, really tough. Turn of pace in FIFA 18 has been made a lot more realistic, so big, strong defenders like Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross cannot turn and keep up with Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez, for example. Going in for a standing tackle, you need to be as accurate as possible. If you miss, then that attacker is long gone before you can turn and try and catch up with them. EA has also introduced quick subs in FIFA 18. Simply, instead of going into the pause menu, when the ball is out of play, FIFA 18 will give you the choice of a player to sub by pressing R2/RT. This is especially welcome in Career Mode as you manually set the quick subs in team management. It is just a great way to keep the game on the pitch.
Developer: EA Sports
Publisher: EA Sports
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 29th September 2017