FIFA 18 Review

FIFA 18’s continuation of The Journey features an early bombshell. Alex Hunter’s team-mate ‘LiLi’ Bernard thinks the moon landings were faked. Luckily the scene ends before we find out his views on jet fuel and steel beams; but I do feel a small measure of sympathy for Bernard. Trying to puzzle out some of the inconsistencies in the FIFA series over the years can make you feel a lot like a conspiracy theorist.

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Shadowy talk about AI scripting and opposing ‘momentum’ casts you as a sore loser at best, and an unwashed man standing in front of a cork board full of mugshots and string links at worst. But at risk of adding myself to that list, we can agree that some weird, observable stuff happens in FIFA, right? Discussions about Chemistry in Ultimate Team were just crazy talk until EA actually acknowledged a pretty significant long-term problem. We’ll come back to this.

If it had hard-cut to the X-Files theme here we’d be looking at a 10/10.

FIFA 18 isn’t packed with banner headline new features over 17 (in fact the marketing was tellingly quiet in that area), but it does bring some significant changes to how the game actually plays. Most notable to most grizzled FIFA veterans will be the return to much more player responsibility when defending. In FIFA 17, you could practically let the AI deal with defending, since it was eerily good at it. But if you coasted through the last game on that basis, FIFA 18 is going to require a few hours of diligent retraining.

In one on one situations, if a striker can jink around your first attempt at dispossessing him then he’s going to be well on his way to goal. Once you’ve lost an oncoming attacker, you’ve got more chance of pulling a corpulent fan away from an enticing half-time pie stall than turning your defender around for another tackle.

Sliding tackles don’t seem to have changed much from FIFA 17 (so yes, 75% of them will just send the ball straight to another opposition player), but the standing tackle has evolved to encompass two forms. Jabbing at the B button (or whatever you’re using) will produce the usual standing tackle effect, but holding it down longer will break out a slower, longer-reaching toe-poke effort. You need to be even better with the timing on that one, but the extended reach has obvious benefits.

Defences on top here, as you can see.

Forcing half the player-base to re-learn defensive techniques means games are currently pretty high scoring. I’m still garbage at it myself, so most online matches have averaged about seven goals (generally not in my favour). But that’s actually fine. Players should absolutely have to be able to defend properly, and I like the move away from having the AI potentially control the entire back line.

The FIFA 18 keepers have been helping to keep the score up too, which is a bit less welcome. This review was largely written before the most recent patch that purports to address this, so I won’t dwell too long on it; but at the time of writing the ratio of ‘shots anywhere on target’ to ‘hey, it’s a goal’ was a bit too high. Hopefully that’s toned down a bit now.

Crossing already seems to have been made a little less dangerous than in the FIFA 18 demo, where at times it felt almost unstoppable. That, like the increased difficulty of defending, seems about right. You can still whip in a cross with more speed than FIFA 17 (a tasty low one is now mapped to double tapping X), and players seem more eager to make useful late runs into the box, especially if you actually tell them to via the tactics screen. So, while it’s not going to be an automatic goal on every cross, they feel much more viable than the previous game where the AI defenders would more often than not crowd you out.

Of course a lot of this also depends on whether you’re playing with full assists, semi, or entirely manual. I play with semi assists on basically everything (auto on the through balls) and stick to either Professional or (sometimes) World Class difficulty, so that’s what these judgments are based on. I’ve left the ‘sliders’ on default for the purposes of review, too.

An unusually low scoring FUT game, but I’m blaming my strikers for that.

So now back to the oddities that might get me branded as a swivel-eyed crazy person. Ultimate Team has a new single player mode called Squad Battles, where you put your own team up against a rotating selection of AI squads of varying theme and (player selected) difficulty. Win enough and you earn points for further FUT rewards. What I don’t really understand is how I can cruise to victory against a highly rated, 100 Chemistry team on World Class difficulty, and then struggle to losses when matched with low-Chem squads on Professional.

My own variance in concentration and skill is a big factor, obviously. So too is the chance that my formation and tactics work very nicely against certain teams. I suppose it’s also possible that EA have just mislabeled things. But the feeling of going from being in charge of an actual football team to one that can barely put a passing move together is something that has been present in the series long before FIFA 18.

Again, it could all be confirmation bias. It’s very hard to empirically nail this stuff down. But even throughout career mode and The Journey, on rare occasions you’ll just find your players unable to connect their passes in the expected manner. Square balls to team-mates a few feet away will be rolling into touch, and you’ll wonder what’s going on. Thanks to the (rather good) new replay system that shows you where your button input was pointing a pass, you actually can see things going awry.

Everything from a player’s vision to their position (and the position of the other player) when they receive and then pass the ball are all important. I know this, and it should never be easy to instantly control a ball from the air and flawlessly play it 180 degrees across the pitch. But when it occasionally happens with straightforward sideways passes, it’s somewhat bizarre.

And sometimes players just flop on the floor like dead fish. Granted, I tell them to do this.

That’s all infrequent enough to remain as background noise, luckily. It’s been hanging around for several installments though, so it’s worth another mention. The Frostbite Engine switch last year would have been a perfect opportunity to clean up some of the legacy code still being used, but it turned out to largely be a graphical make-over and little else. Lighting improvements and player animations have moved forward again in FIFA 18, although the former sometimes gets rather over-aggressive with lens flair and desaturation in certain stadia.

My old favourite Career Mode still contains passages of news and match report text that were already clunky back when they were in FIFA 12, but it has gained a couple of useful additions and also benefits from a universal one. Pre-selected quick substitutions are now a thing in the non-FUT modes, which is ideal for Career Mode. Set up three players in advance who you may wish to quickly sub in, and you can do so during stoppages without pulling up the main menus. Great.

The big new things specific to Career Mode are transfer negotiation scenes. When you’re trying to organise a signing, you can opt to carry out talks ‘in person’ which sends you into an amusing little sequence where your managerial avatar has a chat with an opposing club representative. Besides some entertaining facial expressions this doesn’t add a whole lot (and you can delegate negotiations to happen off-screen if you want), but FIFA 18 has included the ability to include sell-on clauses to contracts, which in itself is pretty neat. Not sure what happened to the useful ‘option to buy player after loan spell’ clauses though, they seem to have vanished.

There’s also a more consolidated Squad Hub now, which makes it easier to quickly see things like your top goalscorer in all competitions. Not a huge change, but the old squad screens were a mess in comparison. Requesting extra transfer funds from the board, removed in FIFA 17, is still missing, sadly. And while I’d probably need to play some games outside England’s League One to test this fully, EA’s claims about AI teams having a greater range of tactical personalities seems to just have been smoke and mirrors.

Look at his little face, he’s heartbroken about this loan deal falling through.

That brings us to The Journey, the latest installment of which finds Alex Hunter winding up in the USA after a series of internal misunderstandings. Aside from LiLi’s implied addiction to nootropics, the second outing for EA’s narrative-focused mode plays it fairly safe. The structure; bit of story, far too many boring training sessions (christ EA, please end this), a match or two, a bit more story, and so on, remains the same. As does the fiery-to-cool ‘personality’ bar that changes with certain dialogue options.

The main differences are the changes of scenery, some unlockable fashion options, and a few choices that actually alter the direction of the story. Early on, you get a chance to sack your agent. Do so, and he won’t show up again, plus a few lines of dialogue will acknowledge his departure. What The Journey can’t cope with in FIFA 18, though, is if you played the first installment at a club who are now relegated.

My FIFA 17 Journey was at Middlesbrough, but EA apparently can’t imagine anybody opting to play outside the Big Teams™. After porting over my Hunter stats from 17 (a nice inclusion), I rolled up at Huddersfield instead. The club seemed convinced I’d carried the team last season and won the FA Cup. Who am I to burst such a sweet illusion?

Best of all though, the awkward all-star cameos are back. Once again, they provide a convincing showcase for why most footballers should never go anywhere near voice acting. Ronaldo delivers his lines like a energy-sapped cyborg, and Thierry Henry (who I know can speak like a normal human being if he feels like it) appears completely disinterested with the whole affair. It’s left to Rio Ferdinand and LA Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes to bring a little bit of pride back to the profession. The main cast, returning from the first installment, are all pretty solid performers again.

Decent result for Huddersfield, there.

As mentioned, the major addition to EA’s ever dependable mixture of football and psychologically exploitative card pack opening is Ultimate Team Squad Battles. The rest is largely unaltered since FIFA 17, save for the curious omission in FIFA 18 of Guest Play in FUT Seasons. That’s not something I personally used, but I can see why people are upset about that one going. Look out for it as an exciting never-seen-before feature in FIFA 19, I suppose.

Server connections between players are acceptable as long as you keep an eye on the strength indicator presented before you commit to a match, and avoid anything below orange. Don’t be like me and accidentally wind up in a game with somebody who was clearly still using dial-up. That game ran like someone making their way very slowly through a flick-book. Oh, and Alt-Tabbing out of an online match will make you automatically lose again for some reason.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Seasons and Pro Clubs are basically identical too. The latter has a more Journey-esque skill tree this year. Seasons on PC suffers from a much smaller player pool (I saw about 1,000 on at the weekend, and 300 this evening) than FUT, so be aware of that if you’re a Seasons-only fan considering this version.

PC releases of FIFA have been fairly dependable of late, and FIFA 18 fits into that category. The persistent problem of recent editions has been the insistence of locking menus and certain in-game actions (goal kicks, etc) to 30fps no matter what frame-rate cap (or lack of cap) is selected in the settings. It’s even harder to get around this year, and possibly impossible on older AMD cards. Nvidia users should unlock the frame-rate and utilise Adaptive Vsync in their GPU settings. For AMD, if you have a card with Enhanced Sync (and, again, unlock the FIFA 18 frame-rate), that’s said to work. RadeonPro’s bag of tricks no longer seems compatible with FIFA 18, so I think I’m stuck with 30fps menus on my 380X. Unfortunate.

A late look at the Career Mode ‘Squad Hub’ because it’s quite useful.

There’s a fairly familiar (albeit shorter) list of things in FIFA 18 to sigh about and wish EA would use some of their ample resources to fix, even if you ignore my paranoid suspicions about bouts of idiocy from otherwise competent virtual footballers. But I must admit that this installment’s renewed emphasis on tricky defending and darting midfielders getting on the end of crosses makes it a fair bit more engaging than FIFA 17 felt on launch. It’s building on where that game left off at the end of its life-span, so if you’re already appreciative of the FIFA ‘feel’, and can cope with more involved defensive duties, you’ll find it suitably inviting. I complain, but another several hundred hours in FIFA 18 inevitably await.

Reward EA for improving defending and the overall ‘feel’ of FIFA 18, or scold them for going extremely easy on any major innovation? Both, I think. It’s a pretty good release this year; just expect the odd resigned sigh at familiar woes.

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