In the Age of the Internet, where we demand everything faster and our attention spans shrink to that of a goldfish, it's interesting that both PES and FIFA are slowing down. It's a trend aimed at making soccer games more realistic, but upto and including FIFA 17, it had caused EA's series to suffer, with every title since FIFA 15 feeling less responsive than its predecessor. Finally, with FIFA 18, the franchise has managed to arrest its decline, and while the series' latest entry still feels slow, it at least feels a little more responsive, and less frustrating as a result. Combined with outstanding presentation and more ways to play than ever, FIFA 18's on-pitch improvements represent the beginnings of a recovery for the series.
FIFA 17's problem, I realized after far too many sleepless nights, was that it slowed players' turning speeds to Titanic levels but left much of the rest of the game at a higher velocity. That meant you could sprint pretty quickly, but would take an age to accelerate or change direction. This is still a problem in FIFA 18, where players' continued slow turning circles and lengthy animations can feel like there's a split-second of input lag--but their slower sprinting does mean the game's speed as a whole feels more consistent.
This results in a more thoughtful game that's less concerned with beating defenders using trickery or pace and more about--as your youth coach probably told you every week--letting the ball do the work. AI teammates now make more frequent and intelligent runs to give you greater options when you're on the ball, and players' first touches keep the ball closer to their body, finally making driven passes a viable option in the attacking third. Unfortunately, however, non-driven passes remain as limp as before: long passes and chipped through balls still slowly float towards their target before inevitably getting cut out, and ground passes are similarly weak, rarely possessing enough zip to carve a defense open.
Many attacks end in your wingers or full backs crossing the ball into the area or an attacking midfielder having a pop from the edge of the box. It's a good job, then, that these are the areas that have seen most improvement. Shots carry a little more weight than before and are responsible for the game's most satisfying moments--seeing a volley fly into the top corner is a great feeling, and it happens far more frequently in FIFA 18 than last year. Crosses, meanwhile, have been reworked, dropping the old low cross in favor of a new three height system: holding R1 / RB while crossing produces a driven, ground cross; L1 / LB creates a floaty ball similar to FIFA 17's efforts; and just the standard X / Square input whips the ball behind the defenders with pace. Crucially, unlike last year, it is now actually possible to score by crossing it into a target man or poacher, and doing so feels better than it has in any FIFA to date.
Players' continued slow turning circles and lengthy animations can feel like there's a split-second of input lag
That doesn't translate to set pieces, however, which are still useless--even if penalties are slightly less complicated than FIFA 17's approach, which felt like trying to solve a Rubik's cube with your hands tied. They're still unnecessarily obtuse, requiring you to be mindful of shot power, direction, and height, as well as your run-up, all at the same time, but at least you now have time to think about your approach, rather than the run-up being mapped to the same stick as shot direction.
Elsewhere, EA has finally got the balance of individuals' pace just right--slow players feel slow and fast players feel fast, and utilizing the latter no longer feels over- or under-powered. However, despite the numerous small-but-important enhancements, there a number of lingering flaws holding FIFA back. Different players still don't feel unique enough: other than Ronaldo and a handful more of the world's elite, every footballer in the game feels roughly the same, the vast majority of them displaying the same animations and only feeling different in their heights and speed stats. This year's gimmick, quick subs--which allow you to press R2 / RT during stoppages in play to substitute a player without having to pause the game--are a nice touch that is limited by the fact you can only apply it to three pre-planned changes organized before the match or go with the game's suggestion. That suggestion is rarely a good fit for the situation at hand, and mapping it to the same button as sprint meant I was constantly activating it by mistake.
If FIFA 18's on-the-pitch showing is inconsistent, its presentation--the area in which the series has progressed most over the past few seasons--continues to set the standard for sports games as a whole. While it may sound like a boring, granular change, the prettier and more versatile lighting really helps make each match feel unique. It's aided by more realistic and enthusiastic crowd reactions, and different kinds of atmosphere depending on where in the world you're playing. Spanish matches are scored with the distant beat of drums and constant, partisan noise, whereas English crowds are more likely to taunt the away team over their lack of support. Club-specific chants are common for the bigger sides, though Liverpool fans may tire after Anfield's 200th rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone.
In addition there's official league-specific branding and graphics, lineups being read out by stadium announcers (even in the lower leagues with less well-known players), and largely excellent commentators discussing real-life transfers and results. Together they make a game that replicates the experience of watching football and interprets the culture around the sport--the media, the fan adoration and anguish, and the obsession with following your team--more immaculately than ever.
FIFA 18 replicates the experience of watching football and interprets the culture around the sport more immaculately than ever
As FIFA continues to almost become a sports channel in itself, it also expands its repertoire of game modes every year. This year sees the narrative-driven Journey mode return for a second season, with Alex Hunter now a world-famous prodigy. The Journey sees few improvements over Season 1 beyond some greater customisation options (you can now change Hunter’s apparel and hairstyle, among other minor tweaks), and its cast produces the same mixed performances as last year. It remains a unique mode, but think of FIFA 18's Journey more similar to the second run of a middling TV show than anything else: it's the same, just more of it.
Elsewhere, Pro Clubs remains largely untouched--save for a Journey-style skill tree in which you need to acquire certain traits before others are unlocked--and Ultimate Team's winning formula has also been left mostly alone. The few new additions include Squad Battles, where you play a number of matches against other Ultimate Team clubs controlled by AI, before being ranked against other real-world players for the amount of wins you manage. They're a perfect alternative to the online FUT Champions for those who don't want to brave the wastelands of online multiplayer, or for those who don't have the time to commit to the latter's grueling schedule of qualification rounds and weekend tournaments. Meanwhile Daily Objectives, in which you're rewarded with coins or packs for, say, winning by over two goals or for scoring with a Serie A player (among other challenges) offer welcome new bonuses, particularly for Seasons players who have traditionally been subject to meagre rewards.
Finally, The Journey's influence has spread beyond Pro Clubs and into Career Mode, whose transfer negotiations have been overhauled--aesthetically at least. Instead of submitting your offer as an email, transfer talks are now conducted in real-time through interactive cutscenes. It's a largely superficial change since the only actual new feature is the ability to add release clauses and sell-on percentages to signings' contracts--the rest of the process is exactly the same, except with a human face rather than an inbox in front of you--but it's at least more exciting than seeing the same offer letter template written down for the hundredth time. Otherwise Career Mode is the same as ever, with the player conversation system feeling most stale--the emails players send to you are identical to the ones they've been sending for years now, and there's still no way to reply. It would've been nice to be able to speak with your team in a similar vein to the transfer negotiation cutscenes, though maybe that's a feature for next year.
Career Mode, Pro Clubs, and Ultimate Team's new features are undoubtedly incremental, but that's largely because what was already there was excellent. They each offer an entirely different way to play, with Career Mode offering the chance to control your favorite team, Pro Clubs being a great way to play with friends, and FUT being by far the most addictive and fun--especially for those who collected football cards as a kid.
It's off the pitch that EA excels. From the variety of game modes on offer and how everything's presented, to the constant updates in FUT's Team of the Week, Daily Objectives, and discussion of real-world happenings in commentary, FIFA 18 captures the world of football and confidently translates it into a video game. On the pitch, however, EA's soccer series is still lagging far behind PES 2018's more fluid, satisfying football. This year's improvements are welcome, but more needs to be done in the coming years if FIFA is to be a world-beater once again.