The expected technological advancements in new sports games are always exciting, but one of my favourite things every year is how developers almost comically destroy their game from twelve months prior. I get what they’re doing, of course. They have a new game to sell, and want to push it as something far greater than last year’s entry. That’s fair. Honestly, though, if I wasn’t told I was playing FIFA 18 during the preview event I was at last week, I may have wondered why a room full of PlayStation 4s had been set up with a game from 2016.
In the presentation given by developer EA Canada, we were told that one of the biggest changes in FIFA 18 was the Motion Technology System. In FIFA 17 every step the players took was a single animation, but in FIFA 18 every step is a frame, making player movement look more fluid than it has before. The examples definitely did highlight the more realistic movement of players, especially when changing direction mid-run, but in practice, it was difficult to tell the difference between new FIFA and old FIFA in my time with it.
On the topic of movement, players are now said to have more ‘personality’ in their running style. In last year’s edition Peter Crouch and Xherdan Shaqiri would’ve plodded along in similar fashion, but a some new animations for FIFA 18 should ensure that those at home should now notice a difference between those on the pitch. They demoed this with Barcelona teammates Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi running side-by-side. Shakira’s husband took longer, larger steps, while little Lio planted his feet in the ground more swiftly, and more often. EA Canada has taken into account how stocky, tall, or whatnot a player is, meaning they should look more varied when making bursting runs in the final game.
While the build I played didn’t have the finished dribbling system that will appear in the final game, we were told when it’s released ‘[players] who are good with the ball at their feet in real life will be able to play animations slightly faster’, meaning Arjen Robben should look a tad better with the ball at his feet than Robert Huth, for example. When playing pacey balls across the deck you’ll have to press a bit harder, however, because there’s more friction between the ball and grass now, which was apparent on the day. While trying to employ a lovely passing game, my balls were failing to meet their intended targets at first, as it took a little getting used to.
Your AI teammates seem smarter this time around, though, placing themselves in better positions to receive the ball. When your man in the middle of the park has possession, you can see forward players running off their markers, and making diagonal runs into space. It’s quite clever. As is the new quick substitution option which allows for a more free-flowing game. Before a ball is kicked, you can set up three substitutions that you expect to make during the match (FIFA 18 will also suggest suitable replacements if you don’t set this up before the game). When the ball goes out of play, you can very easily make the change by holding a button and flicking the analogue stick to the chosen replacement, instead of pausing the action and fiddling about in menus. It’s really slick, but also poses its own problems because you initiate it by holding down the same button as sprint — y’know, the button you are more often than not holding down at most points of the game. While the sub won’t be made without your input, it can get annoying seeing the quick sub menu popping up constantly.
Volleys have been reworked to give a more realistic outcome when foot meets ball, which saw some people score some absolute screamers at the preview event. There’s a potential to score more worldies in FIFA 18 than other recent entries in the series, but it was difficult to truly tell if this will see every match end up as a nine goal thriller, which would obviously become a little tiresome.
Stadiums from around the globe will look more distinct in FIFA 18, too. La Bombonera, home of Argentine club Boca Juniors, looks different to a European ground now because of ad placement on the pitch that we wouldn’t see at Old Trafford, for example. It was said that stadiums from different regions will look drastically different to others, and that was pretty clear on the day, even with the limited selection available. Crowd reaction is a little bit more varied than before also, with fans reacting to what’s happening on the pitch a bit more naturally, rather than doing a synchronised dance routine. When someone scores a goal, you can see the crowd swarm towards the hoarding, aiming to be within inches of Jamie Vardy’s face, while others jump around in the stands. It’s not ideal because you still see pockets of the crowd jumping up and down in their seats, even when there’s nothing exciting happening on the field of play, but it’s better than what’s come before.
One thing that FIFA was applauded for last year was The Journey. At first, many believed this was going to fall on its arse, but it was a quite enjoyable tale of Alex Hunter’s rise to footballing glory. It’s back in FIFA 18 with The Journey: Hunter Returns and this time around you can customise your Alex Hunter. While the base model stays the same, you can now give the promising player new tattoos, some ridiculous multi-coloured haircuts, and a wardrobe that would make Jimmy Bullard proud. The Journey: Hunter Returns is split into six different chapters, each offering separate goals rather than solely focussing on a massive overarching objective, like Hunter’s original story. All the changes sound quite interesting, including the ability to make key decisions that have an impact on other characters in Hunter Returns.
Naturally enough, after the Oscar winning performance from Harry Kane last year, more footballer involvement has been confirmed with fashion icon Champions League winner Cristiano Ronaldo being only one of the names that will feature. As you can imagine with Real Madrid’s star player in the mix, The Journey: Hunter Returns isn’t restricted to just the English Football League this time around. While we weren’t explicitly told about other leagues, if Ronaldo is involved, La Liga is a safe bet to be at least one of the options available to you. And speaking of options, you can now go through The Journey in local multiplayer, and it was teased on the day that you wouldn’t just be playing as Alex Hunter, either. But that’s all we got on that, sadly.
In terms of football video games, you can’t really beat FIFA for how slick it is. Its presentation is visually exceptional, but as a game, it still feels quite slow in comparison to its main competitor. Yeah, there are improvements on last year’s game, most definitely, but as a whole package it feels incremental rather than a giant leap. FIFA 17 felt sluggish, like you were leathering a brick around your neighbours’ garden instead of a size 5 match ball in the Nou Camp. The dressing is nicer, but FIFA 18 feels worryingly similar to FIFA 17.