The league of extraordinarily highly paid gentlemen
The foot-dudes are back and you’d better believe they’re kicking that ball about again.
“It’s possible to pick a single mode and pour hundreds of hours into it across the year”
If you’ve any interest in football whatsoever, FIFA’s returning campaign mode The Journey will enthrall you. After his breakthrough season, teenage star Alex Hunter’s time at a top-flight British club is up when a bungled transfer sends him somewhere that was never in his plans. Once again you’ll live the turbulent life of an elite footballer, fulfilling manager targets in matches, improving your technique in training, and making ‘cool’ or ‘fiery’ remarks, both in amped-up press conferences and during tender domestic scenes. Hunter’s ascent to mega-stardom is the stuff dreams are made of. He appears on chat shows, hangs with basketball stars on rooftop LA clubs, FaceTimes Premier League legends, and at one point shills his way through a Coke Zero ad. It’s the insider’s perspective that makes The Journey special: the emotional trauma of a career-threatening injury, the ramifications of handing in a transfer request, the heart-to-heart with a failed player-turned coach filled with regret. This offers tantalising insight into football not as a game, but as an industry.
The option to ply your trade in several other countries rather than toil away in the Premier League also gives The Journey freshness – all that sunshine makes a pleasant change from dreary afternoons in Watford. There’s a reduction of filler matches, too. Tasks, such as coming on as an impact sub 20 minutes from time to grab the winner, or telling the boss which player to bring in during the transfer window then forming a telepathic partnership with them, provide tense challenges and help set it apart from Be A Pro.
Okay, performances are more wooden than a post-match interview with a redwood (on one occasion a world-famous footballer sticks his head round the door while you’re chatting with the boss and says what basically amounts to “I like playing with you, bye,”), and Ronaldo channels Tommy Wiseau in his sporadically intonated cameo, but the thrill of interacting with the game’s greats off the pitch is electric. Twitter mentions, team offers, and an ever-growing transfer sum take Hunter from boy to brand. Plus there’s customisation. The Hackney native can rock golden boots, neck tattoos, goatees, and afros. You feel every inch the strutting footballsman
Of course, you could always ignore all that. With FIFA 18, it’s possible to pick a single mode and pour hundreds of hours into it across the entire year. Take Ultimate Team, in which you purchase players and build dream squads. Now there’s even less emphasis on the ‘purchase’ part thanks to new Featured Squad Battles in which you compete against the AI-controlled ranks of real footballers, pro gamers, and celebrities. Win and you’ll get card packs without spending a penny. It’s a time investment, but payouts are surprisingly generous.
Better-organised daily and weekly objectives, meanwhile, award currency
for completing tasks and offer another potential revenue stream. Apply a fitness item or assist a goal with an Argentinian, for instance, and you’ll earn gold on the spot. Whereas before you always felt somewhat pressured into either playing online or forking over real-world funds, now there are welcoming in-roads. Financially and features-wise, it’s the most generous Ultimate Team offering yet, further cementing it as a veritable game within a game.
Truth be told it’s made single-player career modes redundant. Here you’ll either manage or play in a team across multiple seasons, sending scouts to report on prospective talents, developing youth personnel, extending contracts, and giving game time to fringe players before they sulk off. It all feels gloriously official, from rolling reports on fixtures to new video sequences of transfer coups unveiled in press conferences, but it lacks The Journey’s drama or FUT’s addictive gratification. Winning solves everything. Win and you’ll generate money; win and you’ll attract players; win and brand exposure takes care of itself.
Improved transfer negotiations do add welcome complexity, however. The thrill of pulling off unlikely signings is now represented by scenes in which your manager meets with players and representatives in his office and proposes a fee, salary, release clause, and goal bonuses from a dialogue wheel (albeit silently because there’s no voice acting, which adds a certain Lynchian quality). You’ll rarely nab a bargain, which makes all the extra effort a bit superfluous when you’ve got the option of delegating it to assistants, but fighting through each deal’s details in a boardroom battle like a fisherman reeling in a catch makes players feel harder-earned as a result.
Deft and right
If you’re wondering why we’ve left it to the end to talk about how FIFA 18 actually plays, well, it’s because you already know. It’s the usual great game of football. Granted, there are some subtle improvements. Better dribbling replaces redundant no-touch body feints on LB/L1 with close ball control that allows you to deftly navigate tight spaces. It means you can play through danger rather than around it, and although the technique loses effectiveness against the omniscient AI, it makes going up against human opponents more dynamic. In one online match an opponent packs his box with defenders, and where in previous years we’d pass it around the outside before giving up and attempting a shot from distance, now we can twinkle-toes our way through the crowd.
This links up with more explosive player speed. Wrong-foot a defender and you can quickly put space between you and them, which leads to a more elastic game rewarding clever moments and punishing mistakes. It changes how you approach certain players – you’ll want to sit a yard off Messi and Neymar, for instance. Smaller refinements include crosses now whipping in with intent, and the increased tendency of shots and volleys to nestle in the top corner, making the action slightly more exciting. Nimbly Cruyff-turning a defender and unleashing a bullet past the keeper feels sublime.
The Journey and FUT are the key areas of development, though. While FIFA 18 quietly plays a more detailed game of football, it’s modes that truly put it a league above PES 2018. As a package this is unparalleled. It’s deep, authentic, and immensely enjoyable regardless of how you spend your time in it.
With the new close dribbling technique, Antoine Griezmann’s boots hold balls better than a sticky circus juggler.
Licensed Premier League gaffers return. Expect that list to rapidly lose relevance as everyone gets fired for failing to reach unmanageable targets. Unique Player Motion captures the distinct movement of big-name footballers such as Ronaldo and Robben. We wish EA applied it to more players. Reach peak cool and Hunter can adopt this look, one that says “I’ll never need to do a job interview again.” Fans spill from their seats and swarm towards the pitch during goals, and even duck when you fire the ball into the stands. Wahey! A quick sub system lets you set up to three potential players then bring them on without ever entering a menu. No more tinker time. Ah, it’s Bale’s signature celebration, the ‘double C’, in memory of his pet cricket that died, Chris.