Ideally, we should be allowed to approach reviewing the endless barrage of FIFA games in the same way EA Sports actually creates the games themselves – copy and paste last year’s review, improve it a bit in some areas, try too hard and unintentionally ruin things a little in other areas, and slap on a new score. But we can’t do that, can we? So instead we ramble on, once again, about what is (as always) an incremental upgrade on last year’s release. For what it’s worth though, FIFA 18 is bloody fantastic.
The fact that it’s not vastly different from FIFA 17 shouldn’t take away from the fact that this is a simply stunning football game. But it does make you question whether it’s worth shelling out another fat wad of cash for so little in the way of advancement. Here’s a fun drinking game: go and read all the FIFA 18 reviews you can find, and drink a shot of Jägermeister every time you see the phrase “evolution, not revolution”. You’ll be wasted by tea time. There’s truth to it, though. FIFA 17 had some big headlines to flash at us. The Journey, for one. The Frostbite engine was another thing worth shouting about. FIFA 18 has very little to get very excited about, yet it’s the refinement of the core ideas which makes this probably the best FIFA I’ve played in years.
The Journey is back, and it’s again central to the single-player experience. When they told us FIFA 17 would have an actual story mode it sounded ludicrous. Now, I can’t imagine FIFA without it. The Journey: Hunter Returns continues the story of our lad Alex Hunter, another season of somewhat predictable television drama ups and downs, but you can tell that EA Canada have more confidence in their creation this time around. The showrunning has more swagger and substance to it. The Frostbite engine makes light work of creating these narrative set pieces, and while the vibe of the storytelling is laced with camp melodrama, it works.
On the pitch, some issues have carried over too, mostly regarding how Hunter’s performance is rated through each match. It feels inconsistent and sometimes unfair, his rating taking hits for things beyond your control. It’s a minor frustration though, and one mostly averted by choosing to control the whole team instead of Hunter alone, allowing him to run into space more effectively as you work the ball up the field. The Journey: Hunter Returns has its flaws, but it brings much-needed personality to the sports game genre. It’s no surprise EA decided to implement the concept in this year’s Madden as well.
Regardless of how you feel about a storline in a sports game, the single-player component of FIFA 18 goes a lot deeper than the Hollywood stylings of The Journey. The flash may be in The Journey, but the heart of it is in the career modes, championship modes and the enthralling FIFA Ultimate Team mode. The Journey is the daytime soap your mom watches. Ultimate Team is Game of Thrones.
It’s a concept EA has been refining since FIFA 09, and it almost carries the franchise on its own these days. The sense of excitement that comes with opening new player packs, the daily challenges to earn extra coins – there’s a sense of wonder here, like it’s been designed by people who used to sweat excitedly while trading football cards in their school days. It’s palpable and intoxicating. So much so that I’ve caved on more than one occasion and paid real money to buy gold card packs. And you know what? I don’t regret a cent of it.
FIFA Ultimate Team is even better this year thanks to the addition of Squad Battles, a stroke of genius – especially if you don’t enjoy the suffering and misery that comes with playing FIFA online with people who apparently do nothing else with their lives but slam goals into the top corner while you weep into your lap. Think of it like the football version of Forza‘s (horribly named) Drivatar concept. With FIFA 18, you can now take on AI-controlled versions of other FUT players’ squads, so you get the play bonuses without having to battle it out with real people (and be sworn at by horrid teenagers). Your squad plays for you while you’re away too, earning bonuses while you’re doing something useful with your life.
Obviously all the gameplay modes and features in the world would be worthless if the action on the pitch wasn’t strong. And here again, FIFA 18 comes up looking golden. FIFA has had a pacing problem for years now. It’s always too fast or too slow. FIFA 18, in my opinion, is a Goldilocks moment – it’s just right. For the first time in forever, your players no longer turn like 1960s Buick convertibles. That pervasive sense of sluggishness has been whittled down to feel more responsive (but not to the point of feeling twitchy). The Frostbite engine also brings a solid physicality to the game, with players carrying a real sense of presence on the pitch as they thunder into one another or fall over each other’s feet.
The same goes for basically every aspect of the visuals and general presentation here. As far as sports games go, FIFA 18 is just beautiful. The facial modelling is superb, almost freakishly so – these guys are skating right on the edge of the uncanny valley. Stadia look better than ever before thanks to small design nuances, subtle improvements in atmospheric lighting effects, little droplets of detail that often go unnoticed. EA Sports games are a masterclass in presentation and FIFA 18 is no exception. Madden has a more glossy feel to it, but FIFA 18 feels more real and visually substantial.
It’s a substantial game in just about every sphere. FIFA 18 delivers a wealth of content for both the lonesome gamer who just wants to work Bristol City to the top of the Premier League, and the all-night marauder who wants to dig deep into the competitive contests or cooperative leagues. It’s content-heavy without being overwhelming.
Football is about passion – just ask the guy from the Cape Flats with the Liverpool “You’ll Never Walk Alone” banner in his car’s rear windshield. FIFA 18 does well to weave that passion into game form. From the drama of The Journey, to the childlike joy that comes with building your Ultimate team, to the brilliantly weighted on-pitch action, there are few missteps here. I wouldn’t say it’s an essential upgrade if you already own FIFA 17, but it’s astounding how this game captures the feeling. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Refined, evolved, exquisite.