Since Leicester City won the Premier League title in 2016 the concept of realism in football games has taken on a new meaning.
It’s no longer just about how accurately the developers have managed to digitally recreate Olivier Giroud’s perfectly sculpted hair, or how many official licences the publisher’s cheque book can stretch to. It’s now more important than ever to ensure that almost anything can happen when you pick up a pad and attempt to guide your team into the history books.
With FIFA 18, EA wants to make a game that most accurately reflects the that-wasn’t-in-the-script nature of what happens on football pitches around the world every weekend, with more scope for wonder goals, better crossing and revamped visuals that’ll have even Robbie Savage lost for words (if only).
We sat down with an unfinished version of the game to see what’s new.
Twice as nice
Of course, none of that means that accurately recreating a footballer’s hair isn’t important – and FIFA 18 looks incredible. This is the FIFA team’s second bash at making a game on the Frostbite engine and clearly the practice has paid off.
It’ll be interesting to see if it still looks so dazzling when it’s not running on a PS4 Pro and a 4K TV but in-game replays are practically indistinguishable from the trailer. Players don’t look so dead behind the eyes anymore and beards are rendered magnificently, whether its Sergio Ramos’s young-Stalin chic or Chris Smalling’s tuftankhamun vibe.
That extends to the touchlines too, with Antonio Conte’s hair looking particularly luscious (something that surely only CGI could provide).
Even the shirts, which pick up grass stains and muddy elbows as the game goes on, hang off and cling to the players like they’re actually wearing them, rather than being a load of pixels painted on a human-shaped frame.
Speaking of which, not all FIFA 18 players are created equal. Previously players only really varied physically by height, but there are now five different bodily archetypes: short, medium, tall, skinny and stocky.
These height and build templates can be combined to give each player in the game the correct physical attributes for their body type, so lanky Peter Crouch will move differently to cake-loving Yaya Toure, who will both move differently to the elegant David Silva, who in turn will be distinct from Stoke’s terrier-like Xherdan Shaqiri.
Some players will be even more recognisable. Cover star Cristiano Ronaldo has been completely motion captured, so his distinctive running style will be replicated in the game – fingers splayed, palms facing outwards, arms and knees pumping like pistons. Man City’s Raheem Sterling, who runs like a man who’s just had a freezing cold shower turned on his back, will also stand out from the crowd. The only other player confirmed to get this special running treatment so far is Arjen Robben of Bayern Munich, but expect a couple more before launch.
This not only affects what they look like on the pitch, it changes how they get around it too. More vertically challenged players will take far quicker, shorter strides than lolloping midfield mustangs, with a new animation system making all players look less robotic and clone-like in their movement.
It also means players are more responsive to your inputs, the idea being that the game will feel more fluid to play. EA has also tweaked the dribbling controls to make it easier to execute mazey runs, although that doesn’t mean Phil Jones will now be able to dribble like Eden Hazard.
Finally, any players prone to shooting or dribbling rather than passing to better-placed teammates will be suitably greedy in the game too. We’re looking at you, CR7.
Ultras in HD
It’s not just players that EA wants to give more individuality to. When you play games in various stadiums around the world in FIFA 18 it should feel different. After all, going to the match at River Plate’s El Monumental is rather different to planting your backside on one of the padded seats at the Emirates and having a little snooze.
During our time with the game we took to the pitch at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid and LA Galaxy’s StubHub Center at dusk. But the one that had us unfurling a flag and reaching for a drum was El Monumental – home to Argentina’s famous River Plate.
With an almost Instagram-esque tone to the South American sunshine (something that could do with being toned down a bit before release), the edges of the pitch were littered with streamers and confetti, while huge inflatable boots could be seen lashed to the running track that surrounds it.
A constant cacophony of drums soundtracked the match, while certain camera angles allowed us to appreciate the activity in the stands, with flags waving and banners draped from top tier to bottom behind the goals.
This kind of window dressing is all very well but when you’re focussing on the action on the pitch, what’s the point of it all? EA has worked hard to bring the crowd to life too, with celebrations now looking less choreographed (and we don’t mean in the Italian tifo sense).
Score a goal and pockets of fans will surge into the aisles and towards the front of the stand. Others will scramble over seats to get closer to their goalscoring hero. We never worked out how to do it but gameplay producer Matt Prior told us it was now possible to run to the stand and celebrate among your adoring fans. Whether you can also reveal a pair of sponsored pants and get fined £80,000 by UEFA might have to wait until FIFA 19 (or the Nicklas Bendtner special edition that surely can’t be far off).
One of the biggest criticisms of FIFA’s offline play was that every AI team tried to play the same way. It was as if they’d all watched Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team of 2011 and decided that anything Xavi could do they could do too, even if they play in League One. Or have Wes Brown at centre-half. Or both if you’re Blackburn Rovers.
Anyone who regularly watches lower-league football (or Wes Brown) knows that’s not particularly realistic, so EA has introduced a new Team AI system. Having identified five main styles of attacking play and five ways of defending, each team now has a distinct identity when with and without the ball, so you can expect more hoofing and less tiki-taka the further down the leagues you go (and at West Brom).
Teams will also offer support more effectively too, with teammates moving into position to offer a safe passing option, trying harder to lose their markers and making more intelligent and well-timed runs beyond the defence. Wingers will get chalk on their boots by hugging the touchline, opening up the pitch and hopefully preventing the midfield stodge that often plagues FIFA 17.
We were only able to play multiplayer games, so couldn’t try this out but it’s certainly something that needed addressing.
Goals, goals, goals
So what’s changed in terms of sticking the ball in the onion bag? It would seem the FIFA team has been sneaking in a few games of Pro Evo during lunchtimes at EA HQ, because some of the proposed changes are straight off PES’s team sheet.
Through-balls are supposed to be more effective, and where crosses used to be high and floaty, the default trajectory is now much flatter and more dangerous, allowing players to attack the ball rather than just see it won by whoever can jump the highest.
If you do have a man mountain as your number nine, though, holding the left bumper when you cross the ball will put it in high, while holding the right bumper will keep it down low. A Pro Evo style double tap of the cross button will also execute the latter.
The much-maligned penalty system remains, although associate producer Sam Rivera assured us they’d be tweaking it slightly to make it easier to get to grips with.
At the other end of the pitch, there’s a new type of tackle that sits somewhere between the standard foot-in challenge and a full-on sliding tackle. You’ll stay on your feet but if there’s an opposition player between you and the ball when you hit that button, they might not. Not one to be deployed too liberally in the penalty box, then, but should be useful when someone in an online game takes it to the corner flag with 10 minutes left on the clock.
There’s also a new quick substitution system that allows you to make personnel changes during replays. Simply hold the right trigger and it’ll suggest a change to make based on things like tiredness and yellow cards, or you can set up your most common subs in the tactics menu before the game.
Of the 22 million people who played FIFA 17, 13.5 million of them pulled on Alex Hunter’s boots and took part in The Journey. That’s nearly 5 million more than the finale of season six of Game of Thrones, so it’s no wonder it’s coming back with a new six-chapter story.
EA is saving a lot of the details for Gamescom at the end of August, but we do know you’ll be able to play as other characters at some point during the game, it’ll branch out away from just the Premier League and the Championship and there’ll be an option for co-op play during actual matches, so a friend can take control of one of Hunter’s teammates.
Switch it up
While it shares the same title as its PlayStation and Xbox counterparts, EA's FIFA 18 for Nintendo's Switch is a completely different beast and that's mostly a good thing. While it's not built using the Frostbite engine, so doesn't look as impressive as its other incarnations, FIFA on Switch makes full use of the console's portable charms. You can play on your TV or in tabletop mode, and both offer up a solid game of football. Even when you're using two Joy-Cons as individual controllers.
Aside from a few minor tweaks, the game's mechanics are almost identical to 'proper' FIFA whether you're swinging in a corner or lobbing a through ball over the top of Chelsea's defence. Almost all the game modes you'd expect are included too, including Ultimate Team, seasons and friendly, so this isn't a game you'll only play while stuck on a train. The Journey is missing due to graphical constraints, but we reckon you get enough versitility in return to make up for Alex Hunter's absennce.
What's likely to be a greater gripe for hardcore FIFA nuts is the game's AI, which lacks the finesse of its cousins for more powerful consoles. Overlapping runs by your teammates are hard to come by, and that means you can struggle to create a free-flowing attacking blitzkrieg that's fitting of the game's roster of superstar teams. Real Madrid end up playing more like Reading, even if that's to be expected. So while FIFA on Switch is by no means the diffinitive version of the game, it's more than distinctive to stand on its own. We can see ourselves having a lot of fun with it at the pub after few beers.
FIFA 18 initial verdict
The first few hours with a new version of FIFA can only tell you so much, especially in unfinished form. They’re games that often take a few weeks to fully reveal themselves, but the stuff in FIFA 18 that makes an immediate impact is very promising indeed.
Sure, it lets in long shots a little too easily and players can sometimes feel as if they’re skating around a little too much but it would appear to be addressing the biggest issues that people had with FIFA 17, namely the congested midfields, one-dimensional opponents and useless crosses.
Throw in the new lighting and animation systems and the overall feel of the game takes a real leap forward.