Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp once compared his brand of football to heavy metal.
“I always want it loud,” he said in 2013 when describing the differences between his all-action Borussia Dortmund side and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. “He likes having the ball, playing football, passes. It’s like an orchestra.”
If Jurgen picks up a copy of FIFA 18 he’ll discover that it’s possible to have both, because playing EA’s latest football sim is very much a game of two halves.
Symphony of destruction
Against computer-controlled teams, EA has made a football game that rewards confident passing and considered but incisive build-up play.
Teammates make probing runs, intelligent movement will get you everywhere, and pace is a weapon - but not one without counter. Hold on to the ball until just the right time and you can play defence-splitting through-balls that will give Andres Iniesta a touch of the green-eyed monster. There’s your orchestra.
Go online, however, and FIFA 18 is basically all about running at the opposition shouting. Pace rules as opponents relentlessly sprint at your defence, deploying the same few skill moves over and over again until they can get one-on-one with your goalkeeper and shoot for goal. There is very little nuance.
With defenders comparatively slow to maneuver their bodies, and often a bit on the clumsy side, nimble forwards are often in behind with relative ease. We’ve even seen Brighton’s Glenn Murray beat his man with a sudden burst of pace, and even the man himself will admit that’s probably a stretch.
Online FIFA isn’t just heavy metal, it’s got those awful twiddly guitar solos that go on forever.
If looks could thrill
Regardless of whether you’re playing online or offline, yet again EA has absolutely nailed the presentation in FIFA 18. In fact, it’s never been better.
After a hectic intro sequence, the first thing it gets you to do is stand over a free-kick during the Madrid derby. You are Cristiano Ronaldo with the ball at your feet on the edge of the 18-yard box, but because it doesn’t know you play with alternate controls (you're not a heathen), you dink it gently into the arms of the waiting Jan Oblak.
It’s not the best start, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the life EA has injected into the Bernabeu, or almost any one of the countless other real-world stadiums that are featured in the game, particularly when you run into the crowd to celebrate.
Flags and banners cascade down from the upper tier at Boca’s Bombanera, LA Galaxy’s Stubhub Arena is bathed in Californian sun, and even the more run-of-the-mill grounds get localised advertising hoardings to really add to that sense of immersion.
In fact, branding is everywhere in FIFA 18, just like the real thing (depressingly). Play a match between two Premier League teams and the graphics even include the necessary hashtag, but it all works together to create a package that practically reeks of football - at least of the televised variety. Sometimes it’s barely distinguishable from the product that Sky and BT sell you every weekend.
Of course, there are some elements of realism that don’t necessarily add to the game for the better.
Career mode now includes a ‘brand exposure’ expectation from your club’s board, so if you’ve taken charge at Manchester United, presumably you’ll be required to secure an official breadsticks partner for Estonia as well as winning the Premier League title. Sometimes it’d be nice to forget that side of football.
The most noticeable change, though, is the addition of interactive transfer negotiations, in which you sit down with the opposition coach and thrash out a deal through RPG-style dialogue trees, before doing the same with the player and his agent.
This will be a welcome addition if you’ve ever wished FIFA could be a bit more like Skyrim - although with Wayne Rooney only recently returning to Everton for the twilight of his career, you might need to look elsewhere to sign an orc - but we can see it getting tiresome quite quickly. At least you can skip through the cutscenes and just get down to business.
These meetings also offer a good chance to inspect player and manager likenesses up close, although it’s only during matches when players are in short sleeves that you’ll get to see an accurate recreation of someone like Nicolas Otamendi’s A to Z of rubbish tattoos (hardback on shelves in time for Christmas).
Animations have come on a step, though, and it’s easy to get lost watching endless slow-mo replays of your goals. Fewer limbs seem to merge with torsos, and the way players tangle in the air as they rise for a header lends the game a real sense of physicality, which isn’t always delivered believably through the rather odd ‘hold the left trigger to be strong now’ mechanism that was added a few FIFAs ago. It still often just seems to make players get their feet muddled. Besides, do human beings really just turn strength on and off like that? Pro Evo’s more organic approach to using a player’s power seems more natural to us.
In general, movement can still be a bit skatey, particularly without the ball, and defenders still insist on using their feet to pass the ball back to the goalkeeper when their head would make much more sense.
Perhaps that’s for the best, because when the ball is in their hands they can still be infuriatingly slow to get the ball out to your back line. Those looping throws that hang in the air just long enough for the opposition to intercept are still all too common.
As the ball breaks to the ref from a corner and you rage at him for not controlling it, you’ll also realise that EA still hasn’t fixed that thing that sometimes makes him wear a shirt that’s almost indistinguishable from one of the teams on the pitch. Seriously, how difficult can it be?