It took me a bit, but I think I've found my latest nutty FIFA challenge: I'm going to try and get the San Jose Earthquakes from the English Championship to the European Champions League. Seems fitting for an entry that is so weirdly America-centric.
Weird quirks like the ability to put the Earthquakes in English (or in Japan) have long been what's kept me engaged with FIFA. Some people love FUT; others like The Journey (probably), but I put MLS teams in Europe.
In that respect, the more things change in FIFA, the more they stay the same. And despite a fresh coat of paint and some needed tweaks to the gameplay, they same can be said for FIFA 18. Last year was the big overhaul that brought Frostibite and The Journey. This year is the polishing phase.
But you know what? After a couple rough years, it kind of needed that polish.
Anyway, as usual I'm going to review FIFA 18 from two perspectives: one from the point of view of a newcomer, one from the viewpoint of a returning veteran. Here's how I'm feeling about this year's entry.
For Those Who Are New to FIFA
FIFA is EA's flagship sports franchise—one of the "Big Three" that includes Madden and NBA 2K. It distinguishes itself from its competitors by being perhaps the most accessible sports around. As with the sport itself, all you really need to understand to get started is how to pass and where to shoot the ball.
Of course, the devil is in the details in that regard. While comparatively simple, FIFA puts a lot of emphasis on skill and quick decision making, which can be a difficult hurdle to overcome at first. Still, it doesn't take long to get the hang of the basics. There's a reason that FIFA is considered to be one of the major factors behind the sport's popularization in America (other factors: wide availability on TV, soccer scarves are fun, the NFL is terrible).
Compared to Pro Evolution Soccer, its primary competition, FIFA is less fluid and realistic, but also arguably more fun. That's because it moves at a much faster pace than its rival, especially this year. FIFA matches are breakneck affairs in which you never know when your opponent will suddenly beat your defenders and go one-on-one with your keeper.
This dynamic has made it the world's favorite couch multiplayer game for close to a decade running now, and FIFA 18 doesn't do much to shake up that dynamic. Out of all the sports games currently available, FIFA does the most to capture the old-school fun of hanging out with your friends and playing video game soccer.
For those who don't have any friends (sorry), FIFA's flagship mode is FIFA Ultimate Team—a microtransaction-driven card-collecting game in which your goal is to build the best team possible. Annoying as it is to be pressured to monetize all the time, FUT is probably the best Ultimate Team around these days, as it isn't build on insane amounts of grinding and tedious set completion.
Rather, the pleasure of FUT is in digging through FIFA's enormous wealth of players and putting together a sneaky good team. With so many players to choose from, it doesn't take long to get a good team together; and once you do, the competitive options are robust.
If Ultimate Team isn't your thing, then there's the traditional career mode. It's not overwhelmingly deep—you can't manage a U-18 squad or anything—but it does have a few advantages over its competitors. It's quite flexible, enabling you to build to what amounts to a custom league; it forces you to manage factors like play time and fatigue in an easy-to-understand way, and it nails the tension of the transfer deadline.
It also has certain built-in advantages. Madden might end after winning the Super Bowl; but in FIFA, there's always the Champions League (if you're in Europe). And rising up from the bottom of League 2 to the top of the EPL is its own reward if you have enough patience.
Adding to the pleasure of career mode is a nice presentation overhaul that brings a bit more flair to the proceedings. Transfer negotiations and player signings are handled in a cutscene now; regional leagues like the MLS have their own atmosphere, and breaking news is treated as a mini-video rather than a static image. So if Harry Kane goes to Real Madrid, for example, you'll see him at a press conference holding up a shirt.
It all adds up to a very nice looking game, even if it can't match the sparkle and atmosphere of NBA 2K or even NHL. The Frostbite Engine's power is especially evident in The Journey 2: Electric Boogaloo (okay, it's called Hunter Returns)—a slim but entertaining story mode in which you follow Alex Hunter's continuing adventures as a professional soccer player. You may not be able to make much in the way of meaningful choices, but it sure looks pretty.
This may all seem like I'm damning it with faint praise, but I mean it as a compliment when I say that FIFA is the sports game for the masses—the sim that captures the feel of soccer if not always its particulars.
I don't think I'd ever call it a comprehensive soccer sim, but man is it ever fun.
For Returning Fans of FIFA
Brace yourself: Pace is back.
After the slow, defense-oriented churn of FIFA 17—which one friend of mine compared to running through sand—pacey players once again make all the difference in FIFA 18.
Which is not to say that they're overpowered: defenses are good enough now that it's hard to nail that perfect through pass that springs Aguero or Aubameyang. But when you're chasing a fast player, it can feel like your team has concrete in their boots.
Playing as the USMNT versus Wales, Bobby Wood and Christian Pulisic ran circles around poor James Collins. Chicharito has dominated for me on West Ham, making me all the more annoyed at how god-awful the real squad is. Speed kills in this game; and with crosses being very powerful this year, expect to see lots of speedy wingers whipping crosses to strikers in the box.
There are lots of smaller changes as well, but they're harder to perceive. Some of the bigger teams have distinctive playing styles, whether its a bruising style or the famous tiki-taka of Barcelona. Some famous players do, too. In that regard, FIFA is still well behind NBA 2K (and PES), but this is hopefully part of a broader effort to deepen the individual personality of each team (and league).
Movement feels smoother, and it's much easier to shield the ball against all but the most aggressive tackles. Some of the new dribbles make defenders look positively silly. Something tells me that a lot of games are going to end 5-4 or 6-5.
What's important is that FIFA seems to have fixed the input lag problems that bedeviled last year's version, making it substantially more fun to play. EA has also managed to squeeze quite a bit more juice out of the Frostbite Engine, which is starkly apparent when watching the "Previously on the Journey" recap for The Journey 2.
Speaking of The Journey... it exists? I don't want to be too harsh on it because I really did enjoy my time with it this year, but it sure seems slight after Longshot, doesn't it? This year's version offers some basic customization for Hunter; more Ultimate Team rewards, and secondary objectives to go along with the new story. It also includes a number of surprises, some dumb—Hunter's career would be over in real life—and some really cool. There was one in particular that had me just grinning with delight.
For those who have been complaining about career mode over the past few years, FIFA 18 finally introduces some meaningful changes. In the wake of the Summer of the Release Clause, you can now pay to immediately release a player. There are also sell-on clauses if you're looking to make a few extra bucks. You won't be dealing with anything as interesting visas or financial free play, but that's what Football Manager is for, I suppose.
The most meaningful change is to the way you handle transfers. As I mentioned earlier, FIFA 18's negotiations are now handled via cutscene, meaning no more cryptic emails telling you again and again that you haven't paid enough. It subtly alters the flow of the transfer process, requiring you to do more scouting up front so you know what to offer. It also makes it possible to conclude your business in just a couple cutscenes, taking the edge off the transfer day deadline counter.
For some, these changes might seem slight, but they are needed additions in light of how real-world business is being conducted these days. Beyond that, I think Be a Manager is still pretty good (Be a Player is... way too simple). I love its speed, its flow, its accessibility, and its flexibility, and I like the give and take of managing fatigue in the midst of a packed fixture schedule. It certainly has room for improvement, but the foundation is still really strong.
The same could be said for FIFA as a whole, actually. This series hasn't changed much over the years, and it's certainly not as dynamic and ambitious as it was back in the days of the Xbox 360. But the foundation EA built back in 2010 has held up remarkably well over the years. And with FIFA 18, it goes back to its strengths a little bit after a year that frankly wasn't that much fun to play.
So whatever you want to call it—getting back to basics, a polishing year—FIFA feels as solid as ever to me, much as it has for the better part of the last decade. The more things change...
FIFA is sleek, simple, and easy to navigate. It loads faster than nearly any others sports game. I'm convinced that's FIFA's secret weapon.
The commentary is same as always: bland, simplistic, and repetitive. It really is out of a different era. The stadium atmosphere, however, is far better this year. The exitement of the crowd is palpable, especially in big moments.
4K and HDR really suit FIFA 18, especially in The Journey. Some of the major stadiums, particularly the newer MLS stadiums, really bring out the atmosphere in the way that hasn't been present in previous years.
The action on the field is a bit more nuanced; the presentation has been spruced up; and there's a new chapter of the Journey to digest. But at its heart, FIFA 18 is much the same as its always been: the sort of fast and frantic soccer game you play on the couch with your friends. And that makes it plenty fun.