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).