You could say that Halloween is the time of year when FIFA and Madden get a little goofy.
Both dropped their Ultimate Team Halloween promotions today: Ultimate Scream for FIFA, and Most Feared for Madden. As usual, Madden 18's Most Feared players will morph into 99 overall monsters around Halloween, becoming either terrifyingly tall or terrifyingly strong. FIFA 18 will be more conservative: You won't see any of them become seven foot behemoths, but they will nevertheless receive substantial stat boosts.
The way that Madden and FIFA approach their respective promotions underlines the differences in how they handle their Ultimate Teams overall. Madden is big and messy, leaning heavily on grind heavy solo challenges and complicated sets. FIFA is considerably slimmer.
Madden's Most Feared alone will have 21 solo challenges, multiple daily challenges, and 12 sets requiring tokens that can only be found in packs. Between Team of the Week, limited edition 24 hour releases, programs like Football Outsiders, and the new upgradable sets, practically every player in the game is available in multiple forms. It's frankly dizzying.
FIFA, by comparison, is far slighter because it can afford to be. Its Ultimate Scream program is presented as one Team of the Week and Squad Building Challenge called "Dracula's 11," which awards you with a Premium Gold Pack. You either pull your Ultimate Scream players from a pack or buy them at the Auction House, just as you always have.
At first blush, this may seem like a significant downgrade from Madden 18. After all, more content is always better, right? But FIFA Ultimate Team has a way of making more out of less, whereas MUT has a way of doing the opposite.
I've played a lot of both since their respective launches, and I've really come to admire how smart and targeted FUT is this year. Where other sports sims have leaned on progressively more content, FIFA has become more restrained, and the result is considerably more rewarding.
This year's Squad Battles are emblematic of FIFA's approach. In essence, they are daily challenges in which you take on up to four CPU-controlled teams pulled from the cloud. There are no fancy objectives involved—all you have to do is win at the highest possible difficulty level. Doing so earns you points toward moving up on the leaderboard, with rewards being doled out based on ranking.
I've gotta say, I'm embarrassed by how addicted I've been to this mode. It's still as much of a grind as ever, but it works because it doesn't lean on stilted and rote mission objectives. It's just pure, unadulterated FIFA: play a game and try to win. And it's fun! Say what you want about FIFA, but there's a reason that it's so consistently popular, and it's not just because it happens to represent the most popular sport. It's fun to roll through against challenging CPU opponents, earning tons of packs and coins along the way. It makes each week into one big loop, with tantalizing rewards waiting at the end.
Squad Battles is one of a handful of distinct pillars in FIFA Ultimate Team, the others being Single-Player and Online Seasons—modes where you try and get promoted to higher difficulty levels and rewards by beating opponents across discrete "seasons"—Squad Building Challenges, Weekend League, and the FIFA Draft.
Online Seasons is a FIFA staple going back years now: a cleverly designed mini-season in which you try to win enough to win "the title" while avoiding relegation to a lower tier. It makes for tense and challenging online matches, as you can't help but be constantly aware of how your standing will be affected by the results. Just last night I squeaked out a last-minute game-winning goal to guarantee that I would at least avoid relegation. It was thrilling.
Weekend League is another spin on Online Seasons: a top-level competition which requires you to win one of a handful of weekly tournaments to enter. The competition is intense, but the rewards are once again excellent, and even making it into the Weekend League competition speaks to your skill level. I've yet to make it into a Weekend League myself—I'm usually too absorbed in Squad Battles to make the time—but it's something I aspire to accomplish one day. It's what keeps me motivated to continue building my squad and working on my skills.
As for the Squad Building Challenges, these are FIFA's take on Madden's sets, but with a few crucial differences. First, it plays on FIFA's massive player database by forcing you to meet particular requirements, such as only using players from Colombia, or having players from multiple leagues. Second, it's presented like an actual Starting XI, meaning you have to take into account mechanics like chemistry and team overall. It seems simple at first, but it's easy to get suckered into spending thousands of coins on what should be an "easy" SBC. It provides clever players with a large collection of otherwise expendable cards an outlet to potentially earn really great rewards, including hard-to-get variants on rare players. It's also a great investment opportunity: successfully predicting featured SBCs and buying up players in advance can earn you plenty of rewards.
The only aspect of FIFA Ultimate Team that feels a little weak is the FIFA Draft: a Hearthstone-like draft mode in which you pay either a nominal fee or 15,000 coins to draft a squad. Its main problem right now is that it's only worth it if you manage to win every one of your games, making it a little bit of an afterthought. Actually, the draft modes introduced in FIFA and Madden are busts in general, mainly because the rewards aren't strong enough.
Otherwise, all of these modes are pretty great, and a big reason that FIFA Ultimate Team is so successful. But it also has one major advantage that other sports sims simply can't match: its gigantic player pool. With players representing a dozen or more leagues from around the world, it's possible to put together all sorts of interesting combinations, with plenty of gems to be found in South America, Russia, and even MLS. Even if you stick to the major leagues—France, England, Germany, Italy—that's nearly four times the teams that you will find in other sports sims.
This innate advantage is why FIFA has been able to avoid leaning on creating so many variants of different players to stay interesting. Yes, there are the special in-form cards, legends, and "Ones to Watch," but it will never have to lean on the ridiculous player evolutions that have made Madden a ridiculous collect-a-thon.
Even FIFA Ultimate Team's relative weaknesses have been addressed with this year's version. Daily Objectives reward you with tons of contracts and fitness items, making it much easier to keep your squad at peak efficiency, while keeping prices reasonable in the Auction House. (Rest in peace, Bronze Pack Strategy.)
But what I like most about FIFA Ultimate Team is that it puts the most important element front and center: the actual games. Yes, trolling the Auction House and sniping great deals is still a big part of the community, as is ripping open a pack and getting a top player. But here's the biggest difference between FIFA and Madden: In Madden, you spend most of your time completing sets and grinding really basic solos. In FIFA, you spend most of your time playing the actual game.
In short, it understands Ultimate Team's original purpose: to give the multiplayer structure and extend the game's life well beyond the month or two after launch. And FIFA Ultimate Team does that extremely well.
The Good and Bad of FIFA Ultimate Team
Of course, FUT shouldn't be lionized too much. It's still a mode built around monetization. It's designed with the intention of getting you to spend as much money as possible to get a great team quickly. And many people do (full disclosure: I've yet to spend a dime on FUT).
But in an environment in which monetization is everything in sports sims, it's worth highlighting the fact that FIFA manages to strike the best balance out of all of them. It also manages to avoid the niggling irritations of other Ultimate Team modes. It's not the ridiculous collect-a-thon that Madden has become; it isn't saddled with the cumbersome UI of NHL, and it isn't a total afterthought like in NBA 2K and PES (NBA 2K prefers to focus on Pro-Am, PES is still stuck in 2008). NBA Live is still painfully limited.
Really, the only Ultimate Team that comes close is MLB The Show's Diamond Dynasty—an entertaining team-building mode that is nevertheless hampered by atrocious online lag and the rather obnoxious need to build uniforms and logos from scratch (would it be so hard to just make all of the minor league and major league uniforms available out of the gate?). It also takes a long time to complete individual games, which makes it feel like more of a slog than it should.
Of course, when it comes down to it, every sports game is subject to the quirks of the individual game that it represents. And the reality is that you're going to gravitate toward the Ultimate Team in whatever sports game you like the most. But as someone who plays pretty much all of the sports games there are to play, I find that FIFA Ultimate Team is easily the best. It's the most streamlined, the most rewarding, the least grindy. It's not constantly begging me to spend money, and it puts the focus where it should be, which is the gameplay.
Besides, you have literally dozens of really wicked kits and crests to choose from. Who doesn't love a shirt with a with big 'ol tiger on the front?
There are plenty of people who will complain endlessly about how FIFA Ultimate Team steals resources from career mode, which has barely been updated since 2013, and that's their right. But for the most part, it's about the least evil example of monetization I've seen in a year that's full of them.
Take note, sports devs: this is how you do Ultimate Team right. Still.