EA Sports knows it has something great with its FIFA franchise. It understands that it has to, essentially, do one thing: Make it so when the whistle blows and a game kicks off, gamers are able to spend the next however many minutes of their lives having fun playing video game soccer. It also understands that, over the course of 20-plus years when the first FIFA game was released, it has managed to do this better than anyone else in the world.
FIFA is one of the best-selling sports video game franchises of all time. It has a formula that works. Each year with the release of a new FIFA game, EA Sports has to find small ways to tweak that formula to, ideally, improve the game. If it does, great! If it doesn’t, whatever, there is always next year, when footy fans will still do everything they can to get their hands on the latest FIFA.
Basically, EA Sports has made it so FIFA fans feel loyalty to the game. This means that EA Sports tries to churn out the best possible FIFA game every year to appease those fans, giving a non-stop circle of love between the game’s fans and the company.
The latest attempt at this — FIFA 18 — will continue this cycle, because it does what EA Sports does so well with FIFA games. There are changes. They are generally pretty small and, on the whole, good.
But like all FIFA games, fans who buy FIFA 18 are going to spend a few days/a week/an undetermined amount of time getting used to all of the in-game changes. In general, the way you move and interact is different, which is the biggest change in the game. Dribbling and defending have taken a massive step towards being more lifelike. Players appear to move like they do on the pitch — there is no more getting the ball at your feet and taking off, or charging at an attacker and wiping them out with an easy tackle.
Instead, due to the game’s Real Motion Player Technology, footballers in the game move like footballers in real life. Blowing by defenders with your superior pace is harder, as is stopping on a dime and smoothly moving in a different direction. The game placed an emphasis on dribbling, especially in 1-on-1 situations, feeling more lifelike in that you blow by opponents by being smart on the ball, not by smashing the right trigger.
Movement going forward, in general, is different. The most maddening part of past FIFA games is that it can oftentimes feel like the one player you are controlling is doing all the work. The runs in FIFA 18 are smarter, the interplay is smarter, and the decisions made by your teammates off the ball is — as you can guess — smarter. This especially helps with the new crossing system, which gives you more flexibility on where to put the ball and how your teammates get there.
While the game is more intelligent, there is an emphasis on making sure you are, too. This is apparent in passing — it is now much harder to place an accurate pass while moving, so get used to getting set before sending a ball to a teammate — and most notably, defending. You absolutely have to be well-positioned and aware, as FIFA 18 is EA Sports’ first attempt at defending all over the pitch something difficult. You cannot just run into someone and dispossess them, you have to fight for the ball, because in soccer, that’s how defending works. It can feel a bit clunky at first, but the more you play, the more it makes sense.
This is all a lot of words to say a basic thing: At no point will you play FIFA 18 and go “this does not feel like a FIFA game.” However, you will spend a lot of time saying “this feels like a different FIFA game.” It’s a feeling every FIFA player is used to when a game first drops, and getting adjusted is an underrated-but-crucial part of the joy that comes from playing FIFA.
Beyond the gameplay itself, there are tweaks to FIFA 18 that look to improve on last year’s edition of the game. There is a bevy of new skill games to help you develop your, well, skills. Ultimate Team is still here, and includes new twists like new single-player squad battles, ICONs (a full list is available here, each player has three cards to pay homage to how their career progressed), and a Champions Channel that lets you watch replays of the best FUT players in the world.
We have the second edition of “The Journey,” FIFA’s story mode revolving around the second year of British star Alex Hunter’s career. It’s an ambitious game mode that, despite its flaws (and there are several), tries to take the next step forward in Hunter’s life, both on and off the pitch. (Be sure to keep an eye out for our full review, coming next week.)
As a manager in the game’s Career Mode, you will either love or hate the new transfer system with zero in-between. You still search for players like normal, but now, you either delegate the job of negotiating transfers and wages to an assistant manager, or you enter the game’s new interactive transfer negotiations. You and a representative from another club sit face-to-face and discuss offers all the way through. Then, you do the same thing with players and their agents on their part of the deal.
It can be a bit cumbersome, sure, and it’s easy to see someone getting annoyed at the process. But if you’re the kind of person who is impatient during transfers, it’s perfect for you.
And of course, the game itself is absolutely gorgeous. Visually, players look as good as ever. Stadiums are crisp and damn near perfect, both visually and in terms of the environment inside — they can be breathtaking, sure, but things as simple as team-specific chants and songs give it a lifelike feel. FIFA 17 was the most beautiful FIFA game ever. FIFA 18 comfortably surpasses it.
The game’s biggest flaws stem from the usual stuff. There’s a learning curve, as referenced above. Getting the new system of moving around, especially when it comes to defending, will annoy plenty of gamers. Free kicks are unquestionably better than FIFA 17, but they aren’t perfect just yet. Corner kicks are still rough, as the in-game tactics don’t do too terribly much. They are to FIFA what kickoffs and punt returns are to Madden — there can’t be an easy way to score on them or else someone would game the system and score that way every time.
As for what EA Sports likely hopes will be the hallmark of the game, The Journey’s gameplay is good, but the story itself has some strange twists and turns. Additionally, it begins with the protagonist playing 3v3 soccer in a Brazilian favela, which would have been a fantastic, fun, and fresh addition to the game if it was a playable mode.
But as always, the charm and successes of FIFA 18 stem from the fact that there is a set formula in place by EA Sports that only gets sensible changes. Rarely are things ever changed for the sake of change, they are changed with the hopes of making the game a little better. At the end of the day, it’s still a FIFA game, and that is why it succeeds.