The latest iteration in EA (Electronic Arts) Sports’ best-selling FIFA series shuns genuine innovation in favor of a few arbitrary gestures at realism that do nothing to solve the franchise’s long-standing issues.
It’s something of an irony, given its cover star, that FIFA 18 will not be setting the footballing world alight. For a game graced by Cristiano Ronaldo’s visage, this year’s FIFA is surprisingly unremarkable. The developers at EA Sports have decided against any major changes, like we saw with the introduction of ‘The Journey’ in FIFA 17, instead offering crumbs of alteration that are about as satisfying as they are meaningful.
But this doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, you might argue, since fans of the series weren’t asking for upheaval. They just wanted more of the same things, done better.
For many gamers and football fans, FIFA is comfort food. It will never disappoint, it will never let you down, it will always be something you know and love. There’s no point changing the recipe, but there’s always scope for adding little bits of novelty just to give it that extra edge.
Except it’s high time that we address the recipe’s faults, and nowhere are these more prominent, and frustrating, than in FIFA 18. This time around, however, there are no big changes to mask the problems at FIFA’s core.
The great exhibition
Let’s begin with what FIFA does best. No other game quite captures the excitement and spectacle of sport, let alone football, like it.
The broadcast packages, most notably in its Premier League and La Liga games, but also in its own, fictive ‘EA TV’ matches, are visually and aurally magnificent. From team line-ups boasting the now iconic ‘turn-and-fold arms’ move fans are so used to seeing every Saturday, to the markedly believable commentary delivered expertly by Martin Tyler and Alan Smith, FIFA manages to really get to the heart of the match-day experience, both at home and on the ground.
The sights and sounds of stadia the world over are portrayed with excruciating detail. The developers have genuinely made an effort at distinguishing between sets of football fans, meaning that an away fixture at Anfield feels noticeably different to a game at the Mestalla. English stadia tend to be quieter, with the fans more volatile and likely to turn on their players, while Spanish grounds exhibit a wall of constant sound.
Granted, you’ll become bored of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ after you’ve heard it for the hundredth time, but that doesn’t detract from its place in EA Sports’ brilliant creation of atmosphere. Moreover, as a Birmingham fan, it’s especially gratifying to hear chants of ‘We’re Birmingham City’ ringing out at home games, emphasizing EA’s dedication to the footballing experience right down to the EFL.
Football is a cruel game
It’s a shame that FIFA’s gameplay manages to let all of this good work down. Without major updates to distract us in FIFA 18, the series’ old issues resurface, becoming more frustrating than they have been in a long time.
What little change there is can be boiled down to two simple mechanics: crossing and quick substitutions.
Crossing was desperately in need of improvement, the system in FIFA 17 meant that far too often wide players looped the ball into the box with little pace, making it easy for goalkeepers to come and collect without challenge. In 18, gamers have far more crossing options, including an excellent and much-refined ground ‘ping’, and the ‘normal’ cross (mapped to square on the PS4) that players can perform now which exhibits far more whip.
Quick substitutions, on the other hand, feel like an arbitrary inclusion that seems to exist for no other reason than so EA can say they’ve done something new.
Frustratingly, the button to instigate these changes is mapped to the same one that controls the sprint function. This meant that on a number of occasions I accidentally substituted a player because I had held down the sprint button from a previous play, and proceeded to mash ‘x’ in order to skip a replay.
Bye Sam Gallagher, it’s not like your height would have been useful for that corner anyway.
The real problem with these quick subs, though, is their pre-emptive nature. They have to be planned before the start of a match in the team management screen, meaning that players are forced to perform some kind of psychic ritual in order to know how the game might progress. Anyone that knows anything about football will tell you that it’s unpredictable, so picking substitutions designed to change a game before it happens is about as helpful as an ashtray on a motorcycle.
Where crossing was a necessary improvement, quick subs are an unnecessary innovation. Yet neither are able to detract from the problems with FIFA’s core gameplay.
Professional players, with the exception of the world’s elite (and who wants to play as them, right?), still dribble like new-born giraffes playing Sunday league, and for the most part, they have a tendency to chop down on the ball as if it’s constantly trying to blow away from them.
As far as passing is concerned, EA remains incapable of developing a system that feels like it is being played on a football pitch and not in treacle. The mechanic is desperately slow, often frustratingly turgid, with even football’s best passers plagued by an inability to zip the ball to the feet of a teammate.
Through balls, like crossing, were in dire need of an update, but FIFA 18 doesn’t seem to have provided any, meaning that these threaded passes are snapped up by defenders just as frequently as they were in the last game. This is largely due to players’ inability to play the ball into space, or to play it with sufficient pace—this becomes a particularly tangible problem when it comes to looping through balls. Those floated passes only ever result in a defender heading clear without too much trouble, having been forced to backtrack for no more than a few steps.
However, FIFA 18’s real problem lies in its defending. EA made much of its latest title’s new and improved attacking fluidity mechanics, and while these do make for exciting moments going forward, defending really suffers. Attackers glide past even the most stalwart defenders with ease and rarely do FIFA’s often lumbering centre-backs have any chance at catching a striker when he or she has passed by their paper-thin attempts at a tackle.
As has been the case with FIFA for a long time now, pace is king. As a result, defending is almost exclusively reliant on whether your fullbacks have the speed to catch the opposition’s wingers. This, of course, is not particularly far from reality, but my suspension of disbelief began to fragment when I realised in my Career Mode with Birmingham that Jota, arguably one of the Championship’s most formidable and effective attacking talents, was a liability as he didn’t have the necessary pace to beat a defender. This diluted all of his other attributes, which are stellar on a real-life pitch, and made him totally redundant in my team.
FIFA also misguidedly uses pace as a differentiator between top teams and lower league sides. It can be downright comical to watch professional footballers devolve into a languid team of pub landlords, utterly devoid of speed and stamina when they come up against a side a couple of leagues above them—a bit problematic for a game that prides itself on its own purported realism.
Career mode: For real this time
Enter Career Mode, and its new transfer system: ‘This will make you feel like a manager,’ cries EA.
In reality, the interactive cut-scene that forms the negotiation is just as shallow as quick substitutions and becomes boring after the first few occasions. While it does speed up the transfer process, it’s unlikely to keep players invested.
If nothing else, this new negotiation system proves how shrewd EA can be. This summer, transfers became a particularly hot topic, especially the controversial ‘buy-out clause,’ and EA seems to have jumped on that bandwagon with great effect.
The true appeal of Career Mode will likely never change, and likely never dampen: fans want to play as the club they support, or even to have sovereignty over a club in a meaningful way. They want to pick the team, they want to buy the players that most clubs have only ever fantasized about bringing in. Career Mode offers the unequivocal satisfaction of these desires.
FUT and the uninspiring journey
Ultimate Team’s appeal is equally safe, no matter what transformations occur. That feeling of trading cards in a school playground remains and is no less gratifying in FUT’s latest incarnation.
The two major introductions are ‘Icons’ and ‘Squad Battles’. The former invites gamers to play as (you guessed it) football’s most iconic players, complete with their own stories and milestones, while the latter allows players to take on other teams built in the FUT community.
Both are competent updates: ‘Icons’ lets you play out football’s romanticised history, while ‘Squad Battles’ is perfect for players who prefer FUT’s single-player content to its online game modes.
Meanwhile, Alex Hunter returns in ‘The Journey’, in a ‘story mode’ that cannot really be described as anything more than okay. The acting is passable at best, and your dialogue choices don’t really have much of an overall impact, but ‘The Journey’ does offer some longevity to FIFA as a whole—it’s something you can easily come back to, or play on the side.
The devil you know
Nevertheless, despite all of its issues, FIFA remains the quintessential ‘7/10’ game. The problems with its gameplay will never overwhelm the appeal it has to football fans. Its turgid passing can be forgiven so long as it retains its licenses for new Premier League shirts and stadia, its lackadaisical defending will be completely forgiven if it continues to update transfers.
FIFA 18 is like a new iPhone. It’s basically the same as those that have come before it, with a slightly bigger screen—and that won’t stop people from buying it.