Right now a lot of people are probably eyeing up FIFA 18 and asking themselves the annual question of whether to upgrade. In much the same way as the iPhone 8 which arrived last week, it’s difficult to weigh up the improvements and justify the cost for anyone who purchased last year’s edition.
Afterall, with FIFA 18 everything is still intact from last year’s outing: the slick menus, extensive team line-ups, diverse soundtrack, polished player animations, depth of gameplay modes, and a vast library of commentary. But FIFA 18 continues to gradually improve on these features, the results of which are immediately obvious in the opening minutes of the game.
Once you get past the loading screen of an angry looking Ronaldo, you are then confronted with another screen of Ronaldo, also looking really angry. While the game loads in the background, you are chucked into a playable match which sees two of Madrid’s best teams – Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid – go head to head in a high-stakes derby.
At first you’re forced to watch a sequence of highlights from the first half, most of which revolve around Ronaldo (he is certainly the star of the show in FIFA 18) and his well-crafted calf muscles. But at around the 60 minute mark, with the game drawn at 1 - 1, Ronaldo is brutally chopped down just outside the penalty box.
This is where you step in, taking control of the Portuguese number 7 as he lines up his awarded free-kick which could potentially turn the tide of the game. Whether you convert it or not, you then play out the remainder of the match. It’s during this that you start to appreciate some of the features introduced in FIFA 18.
For the first time in the series, the action off the pitch is finally getting as much attention to that on it. Crowds and spectators are now more dynamic than before, moving out of the way of wayward shots that rocket into the seats, with individual characters featuring more animation cycles than ever before. The result is a backdrop that more closely resembles a living, breathing stadium filled with passionate supporters.
Another new feature that you’ll notice immediately is a cleverly designed fast substitution system. In the second half, or if one of your players gets injured, you’ll notice a small indicator in the bottom right hand corner of the screen that pops up when the ball goes out of play, such as a throw-in or goal-kick. Holding down a button brings up a suggested substitution, which you can bring in with another tap.
It’s not just a quick way to bring on a fresh player from the bench, but it also acts as a handy reminder to consider a change of personnel for your team. Of course you can still open up the proper menu to manually update your team and change players if you want that full control.
The game engine – which has been solid since FIFA 16 – is again fine-tuned from last year’s release. For those with good dribbling stats, getting the ball off players seems harder than ever, allowing your star striker to pull off eye-catching darting runs into the box. But this goes both ways, adding a challenge for your back four to not just dive into a tackle, but to track and hold attackers.
FIFA 18’s extended animation arrays means that you’ll see all of this fancy footwork and touches of the ball in more varied detail too, giving the game its most realistic look to date. Player likeness is improved and a wealth of additional facial animations also helps keep things out of the “uncanny valley” which was often distracting in previous FIFA games. Sure there are still the occasional zombie faces with their dead eyes and slightly off expression, but they now only seem to appear on linesmen and lesser known players in low ranked divisions.
The Frostbite 3 graphics engine does an admirable job with the lighting as well, and thankfully players don’t seem to look as plastic as they used to. But the lighting engine still isn’t perfect – in fact it’s almost too over the top at times. For example, an Asian Cup match that I had in Saudi Arabia bathed the entire pitch and players in a yellowy dusk-like light filter which made it almost impossible to tell the difference between my team wearing yellow, and the opposing team in white.
Speaking of differentiating players, can someone at EA please explain to me why a team’s goalkeeper would ever appear in the exact same colour as my opposing team’s strip? Sometimes when you play an A-League match, your keeper insists on wearing an identical uniform as the other team. Such as below, where your goalie wears all red despite playing against Adelaide United who have an all red strip. It makes for some super confusing corners.
It’s been this way for years in FIFA and it’s beginning to feel like it’s been done on purpose to mess with the New Zealand and Australian audience. On this note however, A-League fans will be pleased to hear that all the teams have been updated, including the new season strips and rebrands of clubs like the Wellington Phoenix FC.
Last year’s FIFA introduced an all-new story driven single player mode and FIFA 18 continues it with The Journey: Hunter Returns. For those who played the original story, you’ll begin at the same club with any achievements carried across such as a Premier League title or maybe a FA Cup win. Those new to the mode will see a montage of key plot points before selecting from any current English Premier League side as their starting club.
The Journey mode revolves around an 18-year old Alex Hunter, and while FIFA 17 locked Hunter to the English Premier League and Championship, in FIFA 18 players can now experience new locations such as Brazil and the United States. Along his journey to football super-stardom you’ll encounter a number of famous players who lend their voice and likeness to their in-game equivalents – and as you’d expect, one is Cristiano Ronaldo. Of course.
The Journey: Hunter Returns is similar to the previous game, with cut-scenes and playable matches in between - except now the story is broken down into shorter chapters which have more consequences as you progress through each one. There are a few surprise moments where you can play as special cameo characters, and you can also give Hunter different hairstyles and tattoos now. But for obvious narrative reasons - The Journey mode still has to be played as Alex Hunter, rather than your own created character. For that, the Career mode experience, kept intact from last year’s game, allows you to take your own customised player or manager through season after season.
FIFA is one of the longest running game franchises, appearing almost every year for 25 years. For die-hard fans, buying every new edition is just a way of life – and with improvements across the board, they won’t be disappointed this year. However for more casual players who purchased last year’s FIFA 17, all you’ll really be missing out on is the new player rosters, strips, and a few extra nice-to-haves.
Angus received a digital copy of FIFA 18 from EA for review.