More than perhaps any genre, sports games are released alongside a barrage of developer-speak, seemingly to cover up the fact that changes are often so minute (which isn’t to say unmeaningful) that they’d mean practically nothing to anyone without a degree in “making iterative sports titles”.
FIFA 18 is no different. At a preview event last week, we were given a 40-minute walkthrough of jargon and bluster. Crucially, however, I then got to play several matches of the game’s exhibition and Journey modes, giving us an actual point of comparison with last year’s entry. With that in mind, here are a few features that will actually make a difference in this year’s FIFA.
Movement on the ball is probably the hardest thing for football game devs to capture correctly – it’s almost as hard to explain. Our pre-hands-on presentation of FIFA 18 went into great detail as to how animations are now modulated frame-by-frame to increase responsiveness, showing untextured behind-the-scenes comparisons and repeatedly using the nonsense buzz-phrase “Motion Technology System”. It was with some surprise that, once I played the game, I understood exactly what the devs were talking about.
I suppose the easiest way to put this is that, in most football games, I feel as the though the best way to beat a man is to modulate pace: jog up, trap the ball, shift position, burst past, rinse, repeat. It requires a left stick, two shoulder buttons, and maybe the right stick if you throw a trick in there for good measure. Within a few minutes of playing FIFA 18, simply using the left stick felt both easier and more natural.
Regular movement now feels immediately responsive. Players naturally twist, tap and squirm as you do the same on the analog stick, without the long animation-related delays of the last game – the best players feel beautifully mobile when you’re using them, and horribly elusive when you’re in defense. This isn’t to say it won’t cause its own problems – passing games could become less useful for better teams, or defending could feel underpowered – but there’s no doubt this feels different, almost immediately.
The Journey – Season 2
In a basic sense, The Journey’s second season – or the hilariously dramatic The Journey: Hunter’s Return as we’re supposed to call it – is a simple continuation of the first FIFA story mode. Boy-done-good (or boy-done-average, if you’re me) Alex Hunter is back and, through the miracle of save transfers, is beginning his next chapter with your chosen club.
EA’s touting the main change as the fact that you can now customise Alex, gearing him up with the best sports-casual clobber and a ludicrous haircut. It hints at sections where you play as different characters, and nods towards the lure of football outside of England with the inclusion of Cristiano Ronaldo as a voiced character.
To me, though, it’s the change in tone that feels different. The first Journey was all about being in the ascendency – a no-mark kid rising up the ranks, overcoming the sheer, horrifying ignominy of having to maybe play for Aston Villa for a bit to become loved by the nation. In my hands-on with the sequel, the first thing that happens to Alex is that 60,000 people boo his being subbed on. There’s a pantomime thrill to the idea of becoming a footballing hate figure, and seeing how that plays out, and I’m very much hoping that’s the crux of (sigh) Hunter’s Return.
I can’t say I ever thought I’d have a warm feeling about a place called the StubHub Center, but LA Galaxy’s home stadium reflected MLS’ later kick-off times with Golden Hour sunlight streaming over the pitch, and players’ long shadows flitting across the grass. FIFA’s shot for authenticity with its stadia before – the right look, the right chants – but this time they’re aiming for something less tangible: the right feeling.
That’s pushed for partly by making clear the differences between countries’ approach to watching the game. South American crowds, for example, are peppered with gigantic, multi-tier flags, their stadiums lit to look warmer than their Western European counterparts.
The crowds themselves now feel more like a group of people than the bacterial, uniform 2D sprites they once did, too. They’ll swarm towards celebrating players, even climbing over seats to get to a prime hugging position – it looks almost unnerving compared to the stately, respectful crowds of old.
This is a bigger change than it has any right to be. Playing FIFA with friends almost always means foregoing substitutes, because of flow-breaking menus and complex ethical disputes about when it’s cool to press pause. Inevitably, games slow down as entire teams get tired, and quality drops.
FIFA 18’s solution is remarkably simple. As games wear on, any break in play will see an unobtrusive bar pop up, suggesting a possible substitute, perhaps to replace a tiring winger or a yellow carded defender. Hold right trigger, press A and the sub immediately comes on.
The developers promise that an algorithm is working out who’s ripest for swapping, but that players can also set preferred subs before matches or in the edit menus. This also sounds excellent although, anecdotally, when my hands-on partner tried to set a preferred sub, he accidentally put Cesc Fabregas in goal for Chelsea without realising and I absolutely smashed him. Make of that what you will.
“Second year on Frostbite, and we’re really starting to see the power of that engine come through now.” Engine improvements are perhaps the most nebulous developer promises we’re given each year, but EA has gone some way towards proving its claims. A picture of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard in FIFA 17 was flashed up during our preview, followed by the same player in FIFA 18 and the crowd – made up mostly of tired men who have been to years’ worth of these sorts of demonstrations by this point – actually gasped.
Much is made every year of FIFA’s perceived style-over-substance philosophy – but it’s impossible to deny that there’s some real substance to its style this time around. 18’s Instant Replay feature looks more like Uncharted 4’s photo mode at this point, with beautiful lighting and depth-of-field effects playing across pitches full of immaculately sculpted, sweaty people. A fair portion of my time hands-on with the game was spent inspecting moments I’d already played – not least when I watched Real Madrid’s Pepe get smashed full in the face with the ball, scream, recover, and then scream again as he realised my Atletico Madrid team had scored in the interim. Gorgeous stuff.
A small caveat – we were shown the game running on PS4 Pro, and it wasn’t clear how much extra work the upgraded console was putting in behind the scenes. I look forward to investigating that point a little further.
In the interest of balance, here are a few features EA made a point of telling us about, but which I saw no real evidence of in my time playing:
Wonder goals: EA claims that FIFA 18 will accommodate the scoring of more spectacular goals, through a mixture of off-the-ball AI and animation work. In my time with the game, I never saw this explicitly. Of course, there’s always the possibility I was squandering opportunities I never knew I had, but this doesn’t seem to be a feature we’ll truly be able to assess until we’re a few hundred matches in.
Improved pass detection: We also heard that work is continuing on making passes go where you expect them to, both in terms of players and free space from through balls. In my time with the game, I still ran into a problem I had frequently in FIFA 17 – opting to hit a harder, faster pass would often see the game assuming I wanted to pass to a player who was just further away, regularly breaking down the move I was planning on making.
A bug where cameramen started walking across the field: Honestly, I’m pretty sad about not seeing this one.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s UK News Editor, and he cannot fully assess a football game until he’s absolutely sure that Tottenham Hotspur have been underrated again. Follow him on Twitter.