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FIFA 18 review - A significant improvement on the pitch

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 27/09/2017 By Tom Hoggins


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Telegraph rating: 4/5

It is the atmosphere that hits you first in FIFA 18.

The latest in EA’s behemoth football series drops you straight into the Santiago Bernabeu and the heat of a Madrid derby. “Hala Madrid” rings around the cavernous stadium as Real and Atletico warm up, the perfectly sculpted digital visage of Cristiano Ronaldo blinking into the camera under the floodlights. It is rocking. Loud, proud and electric.

It continues through the game too. Crowd roaring as Los Blancos surge forward, the camera shuddering at the explosion of noise that greets Karim Benzema smashing home a loose ball.

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As first impressions go, it’s clear that FIFA has lost none of its knack for pomp and circumstance. EA’s ability to recreate that ‘matchday experience’ obvious for all to see. That atmosphere has been there for a while, of course, but it feels more tangible here, in both sights and sounds, as if you are within touching distance of the writhing mass of white shirts jumping around in celebration.

I know what you might be thinking. EA’s glitz and glamour distracting from the real business on the pitch with the hollow ring of modern football’s excess. And if the developer’s intention is to bamboozle you with pretty lights and pizazz then, well, it works. But the enhanced aesthetic also talks to something more significant. This is FIFA’s second year in EA’s proprietary Frostbite engine and the extra experience shows both in visuals and, here comes the important bit, on the pitch.


FIFA 18 is a significantly better football game than its predecessor. I was rather fond of FIFA 17, but despite the engine overhaul it was still beholden to some of FIFA’s more long-standing issues. Animations taking too long to unfold and delaying your move; wrestling to control unresponsive players; a lack of individuality from player to player. FIFA 18 has addressed these issues quietly but confidently, like a successful team signing a full-back under the radar because the previous one kept picking up daft bookings.

In fact, there is very little in the way of back of the box bullet points when it comes to FIFA 18’s improved gameplay. EA has made a little fuss over its ‘Real Motion Technology’ which has motion-captured players to recreate their movement, but that is more like frippery. Where it counts is that individual players skills and traits matter more on the pitch. That Ronaldo runs like he does in real life is … nice, but it is far more important that he will tear you to pieces with his strength, precision and athleticism you if you give him a sliver of space. Romelu Lukaku can be a powerful spearhead for attacks. Sergio Aguero a darting menace.

Player by player, then, individuality is more defined and more important. But where FIFA does continue to struggle, particularly in comparison to its big rival PES 2018, is in making teams feel like definable units. Sadio Mane flies about the pitch, but Liverpool don’t necessarily feel like the fearsome, high-pressing swarm they can be at their best. Anyone that saw Manchester City demolish my beloved Watford recently (as I did through splayed fingers), will recognise Kevin de Bruyne pulling the strings but not necessarily the team pulling the opposition wide and creating gaps to ruthlessly exploit.

The broad strokes are there; delve into a League One match and the game becomes scrappier and less precise than when playing with the top teams, with far more turnovers and the need for more direct football to force goals. But in the details, FIFA still can’t quite match the tactical variety or rich unpredictability of its main competition.


But while it perhaps isn’t as mechanically impressive in some areas as PES 2018, that doesn’t necessarily make it less fun to play. FIFA 18 has real fizz to proceedings, balls pinging off boots with satisfying and believable heft. A thunderous shot cannoning off a desperately sprawling keeper into the back of the net is an absolute pleasure and the whole game is more responsive. Players are faster to react to your button inputs, interrupting fancy control animations to make quick lay-offs or change direction, while crosses and long balls feel more accurate and controllable. The more nimble attackers does make defending, which remains largely unchanged, somewhat trickier. But in its favour, more flexible controls makes it easier to nick loose balls away, while physical play is both well-represented and duly encouraged.

The net result, though, is a football game that is much more goal-packed than its often gristly predecessor. Almost to a fault, as games between capable teams turn into 4-3 thrillers more often than you might expect. The emphasis on attack has seemed to have spread to often hapless goalkeepers, who too often take up poor positioning to leave gaping areas of the goal to aim at.

Some balancing to be done, then, but FIFA 18’s energy and finesse makes for one of the more purely pleasurable football sims in a while. Even if its instinct is to lean towards a more Hollywood highlight-reel vision of football.

Which is an ethos that spread into FIFA 18’s cornucopia of modes. Not least The Journey, of course, the cinematic story mode that made its debut in FIFA 17. This earnest sequel, continuing the nascent career of Premier League starlet Alex Hunter, isn’t vastly different in terms of structure. Watch a smartly produced cutscene in which you can choose Alex’s dialogue, do a bit of training and play in a bunch of matches. There are a few ‘junctions’ this time around, in which Alex can make major decisions that will affect the story and characters around him.

Other choices spread throughout the story do give a different flavour, while being able to customise Alex’s look gives The Journey a more personable feel. Largely though the story is set, starting with Alex agitating for a move away from his current club. After this August’s prolonged transfer sagas (Sanchez and Coutinho we are looking at you), this narrative seems neatly relevant. It also swings the viewpoint to the player, something which is rarely dwelled upon when these scenarios occur in the real world.

Its intriguing stuff, even if there is the air of Sky Sports sanitisation stopping it becoming too interesting or making much of a comment. That does sand off some edge to the Journey, which is a shame, and leaves some beats feeling not entirely wholesome. Like a scene in which Alex shoots a TV advert that looks like it’s about to make a point and then … doesn’t... instead just hawking you a well-known fizzy drink.

There is some vague warnings about the perils of youthful fame which isn’t explored quite enough either. It can’t strike the balance it needs to stop it feeling tacky at times, but with some decent variety, gainful performances and some satisfying beats, it’s still a gently compelling and involving distraction.

Some of The Journey's influence has crept into the Career mode too. When you are manager of a team, you can now take part in ‘interactive transfers’, which take place in animated conversations between you and the selling club’s coach. After a successful bid, you go through the same process with the player and his agent in contract talks.

It is a bit of a gimmick, with dialogue trees standing in for standard transfer and contract options and little else. But it’s a nice touch and, in a practical sense, means you can progress transfer talks then and there. No more waiting for days to hear a response. In most senses, career mode is much the same as previous years, but cosmetic changes like this (and a little animation of a new signing holding up the team’s shirt) help to involve you beyond selecting options on a menu.

Online matchups are as solid and varied as ever, with games quick to start and rarely prone to connection issues beyond huffy quitters. The monolithic time-sink that is Ultimate Team, meanwhile, has had some positive tinkering. It’s a little easier for newbies to dive into, while old hands will be delighted with the extra squad-building challenges and widespread introduction of ‘Icons’. The card-trading mode has proven an enormous success for EA and, while the needling to buy new packs for real money can grate, the developer’s commitment to improving structure, progress and offering stuff to do makes for a terrific segment in its own right.

While there perhaps isn’t a huge amount of headline features to shout about in FIFA 18, its nip and tucks make for the most-rounded and compelling FIFA in a good few years. Both on and off the pitch. Frippery some of it may be, but EA when a football game has made significant progress on the pitch, as FIFA 18 has, you are more inclined to appreciate its indulgences too.

Where to buy FIFA 18

Tesco

  • PS4 £49.99
  • Xbox One £49.99
  • Switch £59.99
  • PS4 1TB Console + FIFA 18 bundle £259.99

Amazon

  • PS4 £49.99
  • Xbox One £49.99
  • Switch £45.99
  • PS4 1TB Console + FIFA 18 bundle £259.99

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