To some, Fifa is life.” This may sound like hyberbole from the game’s creative director Matt Prior, but he has a point. Electronic Arts’ football series operates on a scale beyond the dreams of most video game developers. Last year’s entry achieved sales of 1.1m in its first week – 300,000 more copies than Adele’s 25, the fastest-selling album of all time.
For a sizeable number of those 1 million Fifa 17 customers, a big attraction of the game was The Journey, a Mass-Effect-style story mode with branching elements, putting you into the boots of a young pro, Alex Hunter, looking to make it in the Premier League. Unlike anything previously attempted by any football title, it was also successful – Prior says 30 million people worldwide have played it. A follow-up felt inevitable, then, and sure enough one of Fifa 18’s marquee features is Hunter’s return.
It’s far from the only step-change, however, as we discovered during a five-hour hands-on session at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. Here are all the key takeaways from a day training with Fifa 18.
The Journey gets a second chapter
The sequel to this unorthodox career mode exhibits lots of familiar elements. Popular characters such as Hunter’s mum, granddad and agent all return and there are plenty of dialogue choices (for instance, Hunter stubbornly telling his coach “this is my club” when he’s booed warming up on the touchline) which involve you in the world but appear to have little tangible effect.
Prior insists, however, that those decisions will sway the story in meaningful way this time around, teasing the possibility of taking Hunter to the US or Brazil as you explore the wider world of football. If you played last year then you’ll pick up at the club where you left off, with numerous customisation options among the most intriguing new features – from training wear to Hunter’s hairstyle.
Fifa 17’s The Journey put players in the boots of a young pro, Alex Hunter, who returns for this year’s title. Photograph: Electronic Arts
Ultimate Team legends get rebranded – and become multi-format
Arguably the most popular element within Ultimate Team, Fifa’s ever-popular (and lucrative) card-collecting mode, is the ability to play as past favourites such as Pele and Ruud Gullit. As long, that is, as your console of choice is an Xbox; previously, these names have been exclusive to the Microsoft machine. That finally changes for Fifa 18.
Now rebranded as Icons, these heroes of yesteryear will be multi-format, in the process making their debuts on PS4 and PC. The first confirmed is Ronaldo – not the reigning world player of the year (although he is this year’s cover star, and has had his inimitable running style motion-captured), but his senior namesake, capped 98 times by Brazil. Prior won’t be pressed into dropping additional Ultimate Team details, but says more are likely to emerge at August’s Gamescom show, in Cologne.
The AI is intended to show human traits
Especially noteworthy during this first play is the less robotic AI. EA has given each team one of six attacking styles and one of six defensive ones, in an attempt to eliminate the lack of variety in AI tactics. A match against Manchester United presents an opponent that’s tough to break down, yet slow to build up attacks, while crosstown rivals City work the ball wide to De Bruyne and Sterling and repeatedly attack with directness and speed.
Even so, lead gameplay producer Samuel Rivera is aware those styles don’t completely solve the issue, and much development time has gone into individual player choices. “We lock the AI into certain decisions [upon receiving possession], the same as a human would do,” he says. “In Fifa 17, it was changing its mind all the time. Now it will think, ‘I’ve got the ball, I’m going to sprint down the wing and put in a cross.’”
“Instead of reacting, it makes a decision, creates an objective, and then tries to complete it. That allows us to increase personality.” It means that while Barca’s play style is set to tiki-taka, Lionel Messi still likes to run at multiple defenders rather than follow a pre-programmed instruction. Tailored opponent strategies are one area where rival PES has outplayed Fifa of late, so it’s encouraging to discover that it’s now an EA priority.
With more Frostbite comes more fluidity
One gameplay pillar both Rivera and Prior frequently talk up is “fluidity”. It’s one of the worst words in video gaming, but their confidence in it is borne out – this is a much, much smoother experience compared to its predecessor. Rivera says that’s down to a system EA calls motion technology. New animations are now triggered with every frame – whereas in Fifa 17 it was every footstep – making motion seem more natural, and reaction times to your inputs practically instantaneous. No longer do defenders nip the ball away as your striker charges up a shot, for instance.
According to Rivera, it’s a change that wouldn’t have been possible without the 2016 switch to Battlefield’s Frostbite game engine. The same is surely true of the some genuinely astonishing visuals: lighting is again improved, with the 5pm sun setting behind a South American stadium magnificent to behold. As is the detail within said stadium: colossal flags pinned across entire tiers, ticker-tape strewn from touchline to touchline, cars parked on the athletics track around the pitch. Perhaps meaningless when compared to gameplay, but another step towards the sense of a believable footballing world.
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Last year’s least popular mechanic has been fixed
Ronaldo is this year’s cover star, and has had his inimitable running style motion-captured.
The revised mechanic feels familiar – hold the left stick to aim, and the shoot button to power up – but its improved accessibility is immediately clear. In two human v AI penalty shootouts, every shot in our control hits the target, with elite strikers such as Messi and Aguero easily able to find the top corner. The only issue? David De Gea, whose incredible reactions mean a succession of spot-kick defeats.
Balance is a key developmental focus
This first play throws up an impressively wide variety of goals, particularly from corners and long shots, both of which felt underpowered in Fifa 17. Dribbling is also friendlier, thanks to that retooled animation system. It’s now possible to beat a man through a sudden burst of pace, rather than Olympian right-stick abilities. But the natural offshoot is to wonder how much fun online games will be if defenders are unable to combat all these new offensive options. Are conservative players going to be punished?
“It’s definitely important to have defending be very balanced, so it can match the attack,” responds Rivera. “We’ve introduced a new feature called the hard tackle – halfway between a slide tackle and a standing tackle. We also have those team personalities in defending, and the new motion technology helps. It means you can change your path and get [immediate] responsiveness in your movement.”
Some of this isn’t overwhelmingly evident upon first play, but Rivera says he’s aware of that and it’s all a work-in-progress. “We’ll look again at the stats when it ships: how many goals are scored, how many successful tackles are made, and so on – so we can balance again if attacking is too powerful.” Indeed, both Prior and Rivera press hard that this early code is a long way from the finished article. Yet there are enough signs of hope here to suggest Fifa 18 will be more than a glorified roster update – and that makes it worth keeping tabs on.