FIFA 18 is what I wanted FIFA 17 to be. After EA finally decided to overhaul the series last year, outfitting it with DICE's Frostbite engine and a single-player story mode, it was a big step in the right direction after a couple of mundane years for the publisher's premier franchise. Now its sequel has built upon that groundwork, resulting in a true return to form that is undoubtedly one of the best FIFAs yet.
The success of FIFA 18 hinges upon vital changes EA has made to the action on the pitch, which have combined to drastically improve the fluidity of player movement, dribbling and ball control in general; EA call it "Real Player Motion Technology," which is convoluted PR jargon for "everybody moves better now," but nonetheless it works wonders. The system introduces frame-by-frame animation for player movement, made possible by comprehensive motion capture, which means that players can now pull off subtle actions on the ball that make all the difference when attempting to dupe the opponent's defenders. This makes all the difference when mounting an attack, with movement on the ball now more intuitive than ever before.
While FIFA 17 focused upon improving player physics and placed a much higher level of importance upon player positioning, the end result led to routinely frustrating moments where the ball would bobble around your players before making its way to your opponent's feet. While bellowing "I didn't want that pass to go there!" is a prerequisite when playing a football game, in FIFA 17 we were telling the truth: a significant percentage of the time we didn't want the ball to go there, or we wanted it to reach our teammate a little faster, or we didn't want it to randomly roll directly to the feet of a rival, but it did so anyway. Such changes were made in the pursuit of realism, but in FIFA 18 they've been complemented by additional frames of movement, that makes each player on the pitch more adequately respond to controller inputs.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game's skill moves. In previous FIFA games skill moves have been far too robotic, requiring precise flicks of the right analog stick to pull off a roulette turn, ball feints, heel flicks and so on. The skill rating assigned to each player ultimately just decided which moves they could each pull off, rather than making them feel uniquely gifted at being able to manipulate the direction of the ball. This ensured that even if you were playing as Cristiano Ronaldo, pulling off a high-rated skill move didn't look or feel any different to pulling it off with another player with the same skill rating, which is no longer the case in FIFA 18. Now, the added frames of animation make each move feel individual to the player pulling it off, and for those like myself who could never be bothered with using them to try to get around an opponent, the system is now much more fun to use, and finally feels like a natural extension of its gameplay rather than an additional thing to remember. It also — whisper it — feels a lot more like PES. Which is a good thing, for those unfamiliar with Konami's rival series.
The Journey: Hunter Returns
The improved skill system is acknowledged in the opening match of The Journey: Hunter Returns, the next chapter in FIFA's single-player story mode, which briefly sees Alex Hunter and enemy-turned-best-mate Danny Williams playing in a FIFA Street-esque arena in Brazil, requiring players to make use of their skill moves in order to best their rivals. Much like last year, The Journey serves as an excellent tutorial for those who want to get acclimatized to FIFA 18's changes, and it was only after playing this opening match in Brazil that I noticed the renovations made to the game's skill moves. Aside from being very useful for those just starting out with the game, The Journey: Hunter Return is also enjoyable in its own right, and a notable improvement over its predecessor.
EA's first attempt at a FIFA story mode was surprisingly good, with Alex Hunter proving to be a likeable protagonist and his rags-to-riches story engaging, if very familiar. EA had spent the years prior to FIFA 17 desperately attempting to recreate the look and feel of the football you see on the TV, and by doing so the series had grown increasingly bland, with the Sky Sports-ification of its presentation undermining what actually makes football great — the raw emotion. FIFA 15 and 16 had both been guilty of making the series more predictable and repetitive, which wasn't at all emblematic of a sport that can see Leicester becoming Premier League champions, or "AGUEROOOOOO!" snatching the title from out of Manchester United's hands in the closing minutes of the season. The Journey used that emotion and passion as its focal point, seeing Hunter rising through the ranks to earn a spot on the team at his beloved Manchester United, while Hunter Returns sees him facing new challenges as a rising international star.
Thankfully, Hunter Returns rids the story mode of some of the problems that marred EA's first effort: the often ridiculously ambitious objectives laid out to players during a match are now mostly absent, there are no more overly unrealistic story beats such as Harry Kane moving to a low-tier Premier League team out of nowhere and the quality of voice acting has been kicked up a notch. While the core cast knock it out of the park (or pitch) once again, FIFA 17 featured some very questionable performances from footballers who understandably weren't so gifted at the whole acting thing. FIFA 18 mostly features some agreeable work from the likes of Thierry Henry and even Cristiano Ronaldo, helping to bring the next chapter of Hunter's story to life.
Like last year, you also have the option to shape Hunter's career to some degree by way of his off-the-pitch interactions. During these moments you'll have the option to either react coolly, fiery or take a more balanced approach, though only the first two choices will reap you any rewards. Players can now customize Hunter's appearance and his wardrobe, and maxing out his fiery and cool meter will allow you to unlock specific styles. There are very few options in this regard, and they don't alter the campaign at all, but they still only reward players going all-in on one personality. It's a sports game, so I can forgive its simplicity when it comes to conveying a varying range of its emotions in its story, but the majority of Hunter's fiery reactions are so incongruous with his character throughout the rest of the game that it's jarring.
Career mode quibbles
Unfortunately, while Hunter Returns provides a great single-player option, the career mode is still underwhelming and features only one core improvement this year, that won't exactly set the pitch alight. Whereas previous managerial activities took place solely through text boxes, this year EA has introduced a transfer negotiation system that sees your manager meeting with another in order to acquire / sell a player. During this encounter you'll work out transfer fees and clauses, before then having a sit-down meeting with the player and his agent in order to discuss wages, bonuses and so on.
Initially this is a neat feature, but there are a very limited amount of options in regards to how these transfer negotiations play out, and they are largely free of the high drama that accompanies such scenarios in reality — don't expect to see your player pulling a Tevez and hiding out in another country because they want to leave your club. After a little while I found myself skipping through these segments, and you can delegate them to your assistant manager if you don't want to handle them. It's a good idea, but one that could have been fleshed out more and will ultimately take up too much time in your transfer season.
Best Ultimate Team yet?
Ultimate Team is also more of the same, though this time around it offers players the ability to face off against custom teams offline created by other notable players, EA or celebrities. You can bag yourself some healthy rewards by defeating these teams, though fans of the mode are inevitably going to spend most of their time playing online, which remains the same card-grabbing, microtransaction-hungry feature it has always been. Though it remains to be seen how it shakes out when the general public get their hands on the mode, the improved attacking mechanics have contributed to the fast-paced Ultimate Team being even more of a goal-scoring frenzy than in previous years. Perhaps it's just because the vast majority of my games have been against the AI, which has had its penchant for hogging the ball toned down aggressively since last year, but Ultimate Team in FIFA 18 could well be the most exciting version of the mode yet.
Though problems with some of its various modes persist, for my money FIFA 18 is the greatest package the series has offered since EA's last overhaul in the form of FIFA 12. The differences in FIFA 18 aren't immediately noticeable, and it'll take some getting used to before veterans of the football franchise realize how much of a dramatic effect they've had on its gameplay, but this is the most refined version of EA's efforts to date. Bolstered by a graphics engine that brings the on-pitch action to life with more realistic player animations, uncanny likenesses, improved weather effects and impressive attention-to-detail across its various stadiums, FIFA fans are in for a real treat this year.