Read the FIFA 18 review
A year can mean a lot in football.
It's just long enough for Leicester City to etch their name in history as the unlikeliest of Premier League winners, or for Arsenal to give birth to the moniker of ‘The Invincibles' following an unbeaten 38-game season.
Contrastingly, it's not a long time in video game development. At any rate, the average time allotted to doing so ranges between three-to-five years. It's commendable, then, that year-on-year developer EA Sports Canada manages to churn out a rendition of The Beautiful Game that grips the footballing world for an entire season without reprieve. And though annualized releases can typically hinder any real progress in this space, it's safe to say that this year's FIFA has captured the essence of the sport it's trying to replicate better than ever before.
A criticism long-levelled at EA Sports' premier football franchise when compared to that of its Konami-developed counterpart, Pro Evolution Soccer, has been just how rehearsed FIFA can sometimes feel - as if certain patterns of play can be used inordinately and certain types of goals manage to rear their heads a little too often. Conversely, Pro Evolution Soccer has always felt a little more free-flowing and open - as if any type of goal is possible so long as you have the requisite skill and the foresight to execute it. Fears of a repeat this year have thankfully been allayed, however, as the gameplay at the heart of FIFA 18 is by far the most accomplished in the series to date. Matches no longer devolve into pace-filled wing play with squared tap-ins or the same tried-and-tested cut-in and finesse shot to the right-hand corner. Instead we're greeted with a system of mechanics that rewards thought, consideration, and flow - an adaptive model that is far more in tandem with the unrestricted nature of Pro Evolution Soccer than in years past. As a result, while FIFA 17 was about ‘moments', FIFA 18 really is about dynamism and fluidity.
Despite the precision and poise by which you can orchestrate build-up play, however, there are still instances where the game has trouble automatically tracking which player should be pulled into a tussle when the ball's deflected into the air within the final third. Though ball-watching is a thing in real life - hell, half of my Crystal Palace team in career mode are guilty of it most game weeks - it is a frustrating occurrence as it means you effectively surrender possession through no fault of your own. Small contrivances aside, though, it bears repeating that the fundamentals at work here are stronger than ever before - players now have more personality what with the introduction of signature dribbling and the take-on mechanics have been overhauled to ensure each attack feels more pronounced, dangerous, and varied.
Compare FIFA 18 to Pro Evolution in the PES 2018 review
Sure, this means that defending as a whole is a little more difficult - namely trying to read an attacker's meandering run as you backtrack towards your own goal or attempt to plug gaps - but it also means that there's simply more goals, and thus more excitement. Within in my first online season in Divisions there must have been an average of around six goals in each game - a testament stronger than most that either defending is in fact a little harder than last year (or at least there's less automation in positioning) or most of the time I simply just forgo any semblance of defensive stability in favour of more goals. It could be either, really, but it does make for more intense, exciting matches regardless. In past FIFAs this sort of defensive dissonance was much maligned as it felt as though the game's AI was actively working against you at times, but in FIFA 18 you never really feel short-changed by conceding, it's just a signal that you need to read and forecast oncoming attacks better.
It probably helps too that FIFA 18’s visuals are noticeably improved upon last year's iteration. Better lighting, tone, and vibrancy (helped no end by the inclusion of HDR) all come to the fore, but it's little differences like finer reactionary facial movements from the players and an overhaul in how the crowd looks and performs that really help elevate the atmosphere of a match day beyond what we've previously seen. It's that subtle shift in realism that makes all the difference now as players visibly wince in challenges, and display frustration at missed chances - rather than the vacant glass-eyed look of yonder - while the crowd goes absolutely manic whenever the ball manages to hit the back of the net.
Graphical prowess and customary iterative upgrades aside, EA Sports' flagship story mode ‘The Journey' has also returned for its second season. Alex Hunter, now a well-known star having broken through during his first year as a professional, is back and looking to continue his ascension to the top of the footballing chain - and that could, of course, mean venturing outside of the Premier League to achieve it. Much like last year's commendable effort, The Journey: Hunter Returns maintains a certain level of quality that makes it hard to dislike, even if the ham-fisted voice acting of Rio Ferdinand and Cristiano Ronaldo tries its best to derail proceedings. Try as it may however, the mode sticks rigidly to convention, unwilling to veer into any territory that may push it beyond the comfortable aside it's turned out to be.
Surprisingly, The Journey's influence is starting to bleed into other areas of the game, namely that of career mode. Within FIFA 18, a new back-and-forth mechanic has been introduced into transfer negotiations wherein you can initiate a dialogue with representatives of a team/player in order to work out a transfer. This basically involves watching a scene between the two parties and selecting options based around how you'd like to conduct the transfer - fee, counter offer, sell-on clause, etc. While in theory it sounds like a dynamic solution to a system that's seen players declare homesickness before then leaving for a club situated about two miles down the road, it feels rather stilted, with no voice-acting for the participants and a relatively tame set of unbending options. There is a novelty in sitting down to discuss terms with the likes of Phil Jones, mind, despite the fact that the aforementioned vacant stare returns for one final hurrah. In the case of Phil perhaps that's true to life.
The new bells and whistles for career mode are indeed there, but they're mostly superficial, and thus lack the sort of substantive impact necessary for it to reach its near-endless potential. It's still fun, mind, and the idea of taking a lower league team and dragging them to the pinnacle of footballing glory is as tantalizing as ever. Thankfully, the plethora of other modes and options mean there's more to tide yourself over with, especially if your team is languishing near the foot of the league.
For many, Ultimate Team is the main attraction when it comes to FIFA each year. Make no mistake, the squad-building card mode is still a phenomenon - inspiring a stat-tracked micro economy and spawning countless YouTubers all by itself. By now regular players will know if it's for them or not, but what with the inclusion of FUT Icons for the first time on a PlayStation platform, some neat presentation touches, and a new mode (Squad Battles) that lets you take on AI-controlled Ultimate Team squads in offline mode to earn a whole host of in-game rewards there's never been a better time to jump in for those online or offline inclined.
The usual praise of course applies to FIFA 18's impeccable presentation, dynamic stats-based interface and wealth of modes and options - the sheer amount of which puts the likes of Pro Evolution Soccer to shame. On the pitch, however - where it matters most -FIFA has rectified the majority of its shortcomings, providing a confident marriage of fluid, dynamic never-say-die football and just enough content to undoubtedly tie footballing fans over for as long as their free time permits. Simply put, this is best FIFA in years.