FIFA 18 feels like a breakthrough, even if it’s still largely a refinement of things the series has done well through most of this console generation.
Once again, much of the flash in this year’s game is in the story mode, a sequel to last year’s debut of “The Journey.” But there is so much gameplay in the second act for hero Alex Hunter that FIFA 18’s subtler improvements come to the fore and invite the player to enjoy the rest of a very deep game.
Dribbling mechanics and animations may not be the sexiest pitch, but longtime users know that pace has been an issue in the FIFA series. The slower turns and acceleration of years past have been groomed out for the most part, though I had to be mindful of overrunning the play thanks to this newfound responsiveness. But I felt able to burst past defenders without having to use special moves, and stay ahead of them on runs upfield instead of passing the ball in a panic.
First touches feel a little softer, which means even if standard passing still lacks crispness, maintaining possession is easier, provided the ball can get there fast enough. The driven-through pass, a shoulder-button modified pass introduced a couple of editions ago, became a standard move for me. Fortunately, players are much better equipped to receive it than in past years.
The result is that even a basic approach to the game of soccer delivered excitement and goal-scoring opportunities, which still packed plenty of risk but also a ton of reward. Volleying the ball off a cross is a lot more viable, too, now that the user can dial up three different types of crosses (lofted, driven on the ground, or a standard crossing pass). And with yet another adjustment to artificial intelligence, teammates are getting into the attack earlier.
Of course, this poses hazards on defense, too. The nimbler players make timing a standing tackle a bit more of a challenge — to the point where I changed my camera view from the bottom-to-top Pro perspective to the traditional side-to-side broadcast setting, as I was often over-shooting the play in the Pro view.
This was all borne out over roughly two dozen matches in “The Journey: Hunter Returns.” FIFA’s second stab at a story mode probes familiar sports themes of disappointment and redemption, but it’s still a good-hearted narrative that won me over, particularly with an extended play session as my favorite character, Alex Hunter’s good friend Danny Williams. Customization options for Hunter’s look are a nice inclusion, but the main draw is the story and gameplay.
Without spoiling the story too much, Hunter, the overnight sensation of the Premier League from FIFA 17, believes he has a once-in-a-lifetime transfer opportunity to a world-class club. When that chance falls apart, Hunter has no team and must start over — this time in Major League Soccer of the United States. It’s a fast fall for Hunter, but a plausible, if not probable, one. It also sets up a reconciliation with his father, who was largely ignored in last year’s story. And the extended screen time given to MLS was an earnest reminder that Yanks have a league of their own, and can find intrigue in it as much as they can the European leagues, to which Alex ultimately returns.
“The Journey: Hunter Returns” also seems to call out a team’s tendencies or unique playing style, as FIFA 18’s preview material promised. FIFA 18 is touting more distinctive player behavior, too, but unless I was going with or against one of the bigger stars (like cover star Cristiano Ronaldo or any of the numerous big name cameos Hunter encounters), this was largely expressed through players’ speed.
I’m no expert on the differences between American professional soccer and European, but I encountered some middle-of-the-pack teams that seemed very good at maintaining possession, but less so at finishing. That made them difficult to handle in their own right, and it forced me to change up my normal strategy of just overpowering everyone with raw goal-scoring ability. I went from ripping the Vancouver Whitecaps, one of MLS’ better sides in its Western conference, to feeling like I’d forgotten how to play soccer against the Chicago Fire, further down in the standings.
Again, in “The Journey: Hunter Returns,” the user may play as Alex Hunter or as the entire team. Because of the upgrades to teammate AI, I recommend controlling the whole team to take advantage of Hunter’s better anticipation away from the ball, unless you really know what you’re doing at one of the three positions he plays, and where he should be on the pitch at all times to receive passes and finish a scoring opportunity. (FIFA 17, meanwhile, had some AI issues at launch that were eventually patched out.) The result in this year’s version of “The Journey” is that Hunter is more of a well-rounded player, more involved in assists and second-chance goals, and less obligated to do everything himself.
Strategic decisions, such as pressing the attack when behind or parking the bus when well ahead, are not available whether playing as Hunter or the rest of the team. While I understand the player is here to perform as Hunter and not the manager, I still figured that playing as the whole team should offer that control, too. Players will have to go into one of the other modes to see one of the new conveniences of team management: quick substitutes, which allow users to choose from preset substitution choices during stoppages without pausing the game.
While helpful, the preset option more often than not presents a substitution not fitting the current situation. It’s also on the right trigger or shoulder button, which is also the sprint modifier that may be the most used button in the game. There were several situations where I was bringing up the substitute command inadvertently (and even forcing myself into a menu option while trying to take a free kick).
FIFA has long supported its gameplay with best-in-class sound, visuals and game day touches, and that is the case again in FIFA 18. The past two editions of the game focused on Premier League authenticity — stadiums, broadcast overlays and the like — and that focus is now shown to MLS and Spain’s La Liga (likely because both do or can play prominent roles in the story mode). Stadiums are given more definition, thanks to sunlight position and atmospheric effects and even things like debris cluttering the field.
The public address, for example, now can be heard reading out the lineups in the pre-game buildup. The additional polish provides more immersion in the events on the pitch, particularly as commentators Martin Tyler and Alan Smith have authentic conversations instead of reciting off things I already had seen or knew. This is particularly the case in “The Journey: Hunter Returns,” where the announcer team help move that story along.
The other main modes of play, Career, Football Ultimate Team and Pro Clubs, are incrementally improved for the most part. This is fine, as these modes have already been so deep and inviting over the past few years. But it seems “The Journey” has become something of a laboratory for the rest of the game. Pro Clubs mode now has a skill tree similar to the one Hunter advances along in his story. In Career, contract negotiations have more detail and depth, moving into interactive cutscenes rather than menu-driven options. There are also more skills games to train up players in Career mode, though I still would have liked to see a standard free kick practice, not a scoring opportunity, to figure out what I was getting wrong about that in the game.
But FIFA 18 is still seductively deep and delivers excitement. It gave me the feeling that there is still so much to learn about what appears to be a rather straightforward sport, and that the game would gladly help me understand. This is always the time of year when I ask myself why I don’t just spend all of my time playing FIFA, and FIFA 18 poses the question more forcefully than ever.