Football, it’s known worldwide as the beautiful game and is one of the most popular sports, viewed by millions of fans with an emotional attachment to a single team, or a few in some peoples’ cases. Historic moments are relived for years and people never forget those special matches they attended. Recreating the magic of football for a video game must therefore be an insurmountable task for EA Sports to handle year in, year out.
Each year EA Sports try to make enough changes to entice gamers to purchase the latest instalment in the FIFA series, whilst not having much time to introduce truly wholesale changes. Could the returning Alex Hunter and the regular draw of Ultimate Team be a vital part of the success of FIFA 18? Or is it just the same old FIFA, just with a lick of paint?
The marketing for FIFA 18 made a pretty big deal about the return of The Journey and the star of the piece, Alex Hunter, so that’s my first port of call. Part two, Hunter Returns, picks up with Alex still at his Premier League club after the FA Cup triumph, which helped him in becoming a well established name after just one season; as shown in the opening scene set in Brazil, when he’s recognised by random children who are playing street football. The buffoon-like agent rejoins the cast, as does Alex’s mum, granddad and estranged father, whilst a few more high profile names are coming along for the ride.
The main thing that bugged me the most during The Journey the first time was when it became a chore and not much was going on. That’s been rectified for the most part as the story is split up into chapters, which sees just as much happening off the pitch as on it. Whilst the life we’re living out in Hunter Returns is full of incidents that’d be completely believable in isolation, it’s less so when they’re occurring one after the other; whether it’s family revelations, the media circus or transfer rumours, you don’t expect it to be crammed in. Still, something is better than nothing, and the cutscenes are of a high quality, with the original characters doing a good voiceover job. Unlike the top footballers who’ve ‘phoned in’ their performances.
As for what you’ll actually be doing, well, it’ll let you take control of Alex Hunter in training sessions and matches. The better the overall performances, the more the manager’s trust is earned and a spot in the starting XI is cemented, whilst attributes continue to increase and Mr. Hunter becomes a better player. What I particularly like though are the short-term objectives to fulfil, such as scoring a goal in a certain match, to earn rewards ranging from the aesthetic to additional followers, as these keep everything ticking over nicely. Off the pitch, decisions must be made and the way you respond is once again presented as three option types; fiery, cool and balanced. Being fiery wins over the fans, whereas a cool response is what the manager is more appreciative of.
There’s no doubt the conciseness of Hunter Returns and the ongoing narrative is a step up from what we’ve seen before, and it throws a curve ball or two at you by allowing you to take the reins of at least one other player – no spoilers. The Ultimate Team rewards for finishing chapters is a welcome bonus too, because who doesn’t love an extra loan player to bolster your chances of winning?
Ultimate Team as a mode is clearly the money maker for EA Sports; even the three blind mice could see that and that’s why there’s been the most enhancements made to it – not that I’m complaining. The fresh game modes of recent years all return, like FUT Draft, Champions and Squad Building Challenges, but it’s the newly added Squad Battles which are the talk of the town. I’ve always felt slightly bored in the single player side of FUT, using my dream team against regular, boring teams such as Colchester, Southampton etc.
Where Squad Battles in FUT differs is that you’ll face other people’s teams, which are controlled by A.I. and are a real mixed bag. FIFA does choose a selection of teams that you’re allowed to compete against, refreshing them periodically, and at the end of the week it’ll give rewards based on how well you did in comparison to the rest of the world. And these rewards can be as epic as Mega Packs, or a basic as a Gold pack, depending on your ranking on the leaderboard. It’s basically an offline version of FUT Champions to enable everyone to have a chance at getting free packs and coins. I love the concept and it really rounds off Ultimate Team.
But there are even more rewards to be had by completing the new weekly and daily objectives, offering up packs and coins for achieving the targets set. As these aren’t always specific to a certain game mode within Ultimate Team, it lets you play different areas of the main mode naturally and receive extras as incentives to keep playing. Although EA get a bad rep for the micro-transactions, FIFA 18 provides enough avenues for players to create a brilliant team without needing to splash the cash and I commend that.
It’s clear that FUT offers the best features; however most of my time on any FIFA game is spent playing the Pro Clubs mode, where you can team up with friends online for 11vs11 action and rise up the divisions, using your own created player. Sadly, not enough has changed in FIFA 18 that’s worth noting, except for the inclusion of being able to set up different play styles for the Virtual Pro to switch between. In essence it means you can have all your skill points piled into the defensive traits and boosts for one play style, whilst the other two could be for attacking positions. It saves a little time, but otherwise it’s a disappointment not seeing much else new for Pro Clubs.
The 2vs2 Co-Op Seasons caters for anyone who can’t muster up enough friends for a Pro Clubs team, whilst the solo head to head ranked matches are present for the loners of this world to show off how good they are against other humans. Skill Games are available to get to grips with the different types of manoeuvres, both offensive and defensive, and it’s good to see a bit more variation to the games included.
Then there’s the Career mode to take on the mantle of being a manager or a solitary player at the club of your choice from a ton of leagues around globe e.g. Italy, Spain, Scotland, Argentina and so on. The only new feature worth mentioning is the addition of negotiation cutscenes, to sort out transfers and contracts in real time with offers and counter-offers. After a couple of experiences with it though, the novelty wears off and you realise nothing’s really changed, it’s all smoke and mirrors.
That’s something which can’t be said for the gameplay however. Everything about the on-pitch antics feels a lot different from what long-time players are used to. The tempo of every match is akin to that of a Liverpool vs Manchester City match; high speed back and forth, usually goals galore because attacking prowess is far superior to the defensive side of the game, and you can’t blink for missing a shot on goal. We all want excitement, but it wears pretty thin when games finish either 4-4 or 6-0 if you play ‘normally’ and the only way to halt it is to park the bus. The saving grace is that I do think it’s slightly more bearable once you become familiar with the fresh nuances of the FIFA 18.
Movement is a much more measured aspect as the player’s body momentum will shift when you try and stop mid-run, or turn quickly, so you can’t expect everyone to be turning on a sixpence like Messi does. We’ve all seen how long certain players can take to turn and pass a ball – just watch any England match – therefore it’s a welcome change in many ways to add to the realism. Time on the ball is needed to take proper control, meaning there’s no room for dilly-dallying at all, which actually adds to the pace of the game I’ve mentioned. Unfortunately this is your Kryptonite when defending and someone’s running at high speed towards the defence; one wrong movement and your own speed is hampered dramatically, allowing the attacker through with ease. Granted, better players can prepare for this, but the attack vs. defence battle is a tad unbalanced.
The art of passing has incorporated the ping pong style, where people can pass it first time with truly awful players from back to front, and succeeding far too often in the process. It’s unrealistic, arcade-like and doesn’t suit the realism that EA have tried to bring in via player movement. Just as unrealistic as the shooting, which is about as overpowered as it has probably been since way back in FIFA 08 when scoring from 40+ yards with Nigel Reo-Coker was the norm. Outside of the box goals fly in regularly, and you wouldn’t mind if it was a top player or more of a rare occurrence, but these are nobodies and it’s almost every match.
One area that’s spot on though, with zero complaints, is the crossing. There’s more control as to where the balls end up and so the onus is on the player as to whether the cross is of David Beckham quality or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain standard. Early crosses are gone, replaced with a lofty cross, whilst the low kind and middle of the road types are present to offer a decent range.
The final point on the gameplay is in relation to the A.I. and the smarter it gets as you turn up the difficulty level. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the computer play so intelligently on the Professional setting and above; with the defenders cutting off chances like a well-drilled Tony Pulis team and the attackers creating chance upon chance by passing swiftly. The unpredictable nature makes them a real handful and there’s an enjoyable challenge to be had – or you can stick it on Amateur and fall asleep when you’ve won the game in the first ten minutes.
On the presentation front, the pre-match build-up and the stadium atmosphere haven’t changed much, but some of the player models look great. The bigger the name, the more realistic they’re going to look and that’s the case for Ronaldo, Messi, Hazard etc. It’s just a shame they all get a bit sweaty during the match and any cutscene shown in-game usually shows the featured player, whoever it is, sweating profusely with it dripping down their faces. Are EA laying the foundation for a Lynx sponsorship? I’m not sure, but it’s very weird.
As far as the music is concerned, I barely recognised a single name on the soundtrack. There’s a bit of Stormzy and Lorde, but otherwise it’s a lot of relatively unknown artists with tracks that are going to grow on us. One thing FIFA always does is throw a ton of future hits on the soundtrack and I reckon in a few months these tunes will be everywhere.
You’re probably wondering why I’ve waited till near the end of this review to mention the women’s side of the game. And it’s because EA haven’t done anything with them, apart from including the women’s tournament again, which is practically hidden away. I don’t understand the point in having some women’s international teams in the game if they aren’t going to utilise them properly. Introducing them in a few years ago was a step in the right direction, but doing sod all with them is pointless and quite disrespectful. It’s surprising not to have seen the Women’s Super League brought in yet if EA are serious about supporting women’s football.
Anyway, FIFA 18 has already made me experience immense highs and depressing lows, just like football in real life. The gameplay takes a lot of getting used to, however, the changes have mostly been for the good and the A.I. is a lot smarter. I just wish scoring a goal felt like more of an achievement and that the realism of the movement was better complemented by making other in-game actions more realistic. Having so many game modes should mean that everyone is catered for in some way, especially those who play The Journey and Ultimate Team, which have had the most improvements. It’s terribly disappointing how other modes are overlooked though and have been stagnant for years.
Is FIFA 18 the best in the series? No, but there’s a whole load of things to do once you’ve embraced all the gameplay enhancements to ensure it’s still a decent game.