FIFA 18 Review
FIFA has always been good at pushing the technical boundaries but this feels like an evolutionary leap forward and, dare I say it, one step closer to the “uncanny valley”. Several times my flatmates walked past the screen and thought a real match was on the go before realizing otherwise. Facial animations and detail are improved, and the presence of sweat is more realistic as the match wears on. Lighting is better, the picture is crisper and subtle motion blur adds a different sheen during goal celebrations. Then there are the small things, like hitting a perfect finesse shot and seeing your player’s back foot curl. By the same token, those end-of-season trophy presentations suddenly look the part, replete with exploding confetti and cheering crowds.
In Career mode, the visual improvements have allowed EA to flex even more muscle, letting us in behind the curtain as managers, players, and agents come together to hash out transfer deals during carefully-orchestrated cutscenes. There’s no dialogue during these exchanges but it’s exactly the sort of escapism a soccer fan is after, and even if the novelty wears off, you can delegate transfers to your second-in-command.
The other major visual improvement concerns the crowd. No longer blurry cardboard cutouts, the faces in the stands actually resemble real people, while the stadiums are as meticulously recreated as ever; flags fly high, chants ripple across the pitch and loudspeakers spark to life asking so-and-so to pick up lost property from ‘gate one’. Cleverly, EA shows restraint. The new and improved crowds don’t feature all that often, but when they do, they add another layer of immersion to an extraordinarily pretty game.
So what’s it like to play? I went back to FIFA 17 to compare the two and noticed an immediate difference. Players in 18 move more dynamically. Sometimes they canter at the kick-off, other times they perform a little hop and a skip. They amble, remonstrate realistically when they miss an open goal and contribute to the realistic ebb and flow of a real soccer game. These are not simply floating heads moving around a chess board.
FIFA 18 is also more fun. Scoring is a lot easier this time around, not least because crossing has been hugely improved. You can actually put a decent ball into the box and it looks fantastic to boot, full of swerve and curl and menace. Low crosses are initiated with a simple double tap (mirroring the double tap of a low shot), but I’d argue that crossing is perhaps too good. Even on legendary, I was scoring four goals a game and on lower difficulty levels, the ballooning scoreline killed the immersion.
On the flipside, you’re going to concede more too. Attacking players make better runs and there always seems to be space on the wing for an opportunistic forward. Tackling is much harder too, and requires a curious combination of timing and luck. I’m not entirely convinced I like the system – and I’d hate to be a defender on 11v11 mode – but if you’re really struggling, you can always blow the cobwebs off Legacy Defending.
Corners remain unchanged but penalties have been made easier. This time, a marker shows you where your shot is going. I still don’t like the resulting animation – and this isn’t helped by the fact you can change your starting position once again – but it’ll likely be an area of focus in the inevitable sequel. A clever new addition is the ability to make substitutions without having to resort to the menus. The game will pop up with a suggestion, which you can take advantage of by pressing a button. Alternatively, you can let the game know (before the match even starts) who you might want to yank off. They’re small additions, but when you’re in the middle of a frantic game it’s far better to depress a trigger and hit X than work through the menus.
Online, “Seasons” mode returns alongside the ever-popular “FIFA Ultimate Team”. “Seasons” is your bread and butter, but “FUT” is the gourmet dish and is buttressed by a new mode called Squad Battles, that acts as a singleplayer alternative to “FUT Champions”. In “Squad Battles”, you play against community-built squads controlled by AI characters, which is great if you’re pressed for time and don’t have the zeal to compete day in day out. “FUT Icons”, meanwhile, lets you add iconic players (such as Ronaldo) to your squad. Each “Icon” is represented by a card at three separate stages of their career (with a different rating in each card to boot). They’re yet another sweetener in the FUT merry-go-round, and their ratings will be a source of lively debate.
In the end, expect FIFA 18 to offer up goals aplenty. After the stodginess of FIFA 17, that’s fine by me. If anything, it’s fitting: this is a celebration of the sport and the excitement it brings; of its celebrity and pageantry. The FIFA brand, with its curated endorsements and recognizable faces, is an indelible part of the football fan’s arsenal and a very real extension of the real game. And heck, if the visuals keep improving at this rate, it won’t be long before we can’t tell the difference between the two.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by Electronic Arts.