Note this is a review in progress for FIFA 18. While we’re confident we’ve thoroughly tested every aspect of the game, we won’t pass final judgement until we’ve had the chance to test its online components on public servers.
FIFA 17 was a season of bold, headline-grabbing ideas, with The Journey – its ground-breaking story mode – leading the charge. Following young hopeful Alex Hunter’s rise through the league was short-lived but refreshing, and the added grunt of the Frostbite engine have extra details to the players, the stadiums and the lighting. It provided the foundation on which future games in the series would be based.
This season, for better or worse, is one of consolidation. FIFA 18 builds directly on its predecessor, refining many of the ideas introduced last year. This continuity is most apparent in The Journey: Hunter Returns, which picks up our prodigy’s story where it left off. Last year Hunter was just breaking onto the scene; this year he wants to play with the best and win the biggest competitions.
A year on and he’s a more confident but still likeable character, and you can’t help but want him to succeed thanks to the way he develops. Within the first couple of hours he’s traded jokes with Cristiano Ronaldo, been interviewed by Rio Ferdinand and been involved in transfer gossip with the world’s biggest clubs.
You never feel genuinely in control of Hunter’s story
While there are improvements – for example, there’s a much better balance between watching the story unfold and taking control of Hunter on the pitch – the whole experience doesn’t quite elevate itself beyond its awkward first season.
This is in part due to the dialogue choices, which at times feel meaningless. During the Rio Ferdinand interview a single dialogue decision determines Hunter’s response to a whole string of questions – you’re given the chance to respond once, but the answers to the following questions are pre-defined.
As a result you never feel genuinely in control of Hunter’s story, relegated instead to being part of the audience. Hunter Returns doesn’t really build on The Journey’s potential, feeling shallow and never managing to be more than a distraction from a main event.
Elsewhere, FIFA has always put spectacle and authenticity over its dedication to realism, and FIFA 18 continues that trend and then some. Slick presentation is a given, but FIFA 18 also excels at capturing the grand scale of big league games, but also picking up smaller details such as signature celebrations and the way star players run the ball.
Stadiums, players likenesses, and crowd animations are all worthy of note, and the slickness of movement when graceful players like Messi, Isco or David Silva move with the ball is a beauty to behold. Throw dramatic lighting, smart commentary and a pitch that gets realistically cut up as matches unfold and there’s no question FIFA 18 is the best looking football game ever made.
However, FIFA 18 doesn’t tackle the finer attributes of the sport with quite the same finesse and there’s a strong bias towards attacking play over defending. Moments of spectacular sporting prowess, the kind that happen once a season in real life, are almost 10 a penny, and final scores are unrealistically high due the sheer number of attacking options.
Acrobatic mid-air volleys and long range shots frequently find the back of the net, so shooting at every opportunity is now a viable tactic. New dribbling and animation systems, which give good players even greater close control, mean it’s possible to your way through a crowded midfield with ease, as you’re able to run with the ball at speed and turn tightly without losing possession. At times it’s hard not to feel unstoppable when controlling the likes of Ronaldo, Messi, and Griezmann, and defending against them is frustrating.
True, this happens in real life, but it’s overly exaggerated here and what should be an occasional grievance becomes a constant annoyance, and makes defensive powerhouses such as Atletico Madrid and Juventus much less effective than they should be.
Passing also feels overly precise and the ball almost always perfectly finds the feet of teammates. This limits the impact players like N’Golo Kante or Sergio Busquets, who thrive on intelligently positioning themselves to make interceptions, have and it’s tempting not play defensive midfielders at all, in order to load up on more attacking players and concentrate solely on scoring.
Initially these masterclasses of skill are a pleasure to watch, but the long-term impact of this approach is detrimental to a balanced game of football. A focus on attack provides a constant string of highlight reel moments and makes it easier for new players to get on the scoreboard, but without an equally strong defensive component one-dimensional too quickly.
Elsewhere, Ultimate Team sees the meaningful addition of Squad Battles, a single-player mode where you compete against squads built by other players. The more games you win, the better the reward and the higher up the leaderboard you climb. It’s a nice addition for those who prefer to play against AI rather than against real players, but still want the variety offered by community-designed teams.
The biggest tweak to Career Mode comes from the transfer market and contract negotiations. Transfer dealings are conducted in real-time via dialogue options similar to those in The Journey.
It’s designed to add drama and lavishness to the overall vibe and it works to good effect, creating a Hollywood-style sense of excitement to transfers in the same way Sky Sports attempts to do on transfer deadline day. Bringing in a new face is now a process that feels more important and that, in turn, makes you and your role feel more important – which is a great thing given how much time you can sink into managing a team.
Ultimately, FIFA 18 introduces enough new ideas to suggest it’s not sitting on the laurels of its success. However, it’s a simplified experience, one that fails to embrace the complexity of football at the highest level. Its focus on attack makes for spectacular matches, but they often feel like extravagant offensive training sessions than a proper match with depth and strategy.