Electronic Arts’ FIFA series has a remarkable tendency to become the only video game that players need for months at a time. Perhaps even more so than Call of Duty, FIFA’s collection of modes, particularly Ultimate Team, is both demanding and rewarding, giving the most dedicated virtual soccer stars the chance to prove themselves against the most skilled teams around the world. It can all be a tad overwhelming for newcomers, but FIFA 18 manages to cleverly ease players into competition in a way that few sports game ever do. As you’ll read in our FIFA 18 review, it doesn’t dumb down the experience for longtime fans, instead offering a deep and accessible soccer game that can be enjoyed by just about everyone.
The Journey continues
Last year’s FIFA 17 introduced us to “The Journey,” a story-based mode following the career of young soccer star Alex Hunter. It ended in celebration, and the young champion again finds himself directly in the spotlight for this year’s sequel, “The Journey: Hunter Returns.” Struggling to handle his newfound fame, Hunter finds himself at odds with his teammates – including, at times, best friend Danny Williams – as he attempts to both increase his celebrity status and win a championship in his follow-up season. From the opening moments of The Journey, Hunter is considering a transfer to the MLS in order to become the definitive star of the league, and the tension can be cut with a knife when he’s interacting with his teammates and manager.
There is still plenty of actual soccer to be played in The Journey, and you can take to the field as either an entire team or solely Hunter, who earns points for making good decisions and plays during a match. However, the mode isn’t really about the action on the field: after nearly every match and even some training drills, Hunter will be chatting someone up. Occasionally it’s a member of the press and you’ll have to choose between three dialogue options à la Mass Effect or Life is Strange, but they’re often more consequential.
As with the brilliantly acted “Longshot” mode in Madden NFL 18 , the relationships in Hunter Returns feel genuine, and the sense of warmth between his family members is refreshing – the mode doesn’t create conflict just to create conflict, instead serving as a simple snapshot of Hunter’s young career. At times, it can feel like it’s sequel-baiting, with the real story to begin in next year’s game, but including some of the mundane moments also makes it feel more authentic.
What don’t feel authentic are the celebrity player cameos sprinkled liberally throughout the story. From Thierry Henry to Cristiano Ronaldo and – for some reason – NBA star James Harden, these sections feel out of place and are often cringe-worthy. It would be wise for the next installment to eliminate as many of them as humanely possible.
Where the cleats hit the turf
Once you actually step foot on the pitch and face off against another team in FIFA 18, it’s clear why so many choose the series as their go-to game. From dribbling around opponents to sending a tricky through-pass to an open teammate, everything feels buttery smooth, with a sense of weight and momentum that makes it easier to plan your attacks and choose when it’s time for a slide tackle. Shooting is a bit finicky, as the window between kicking a soft shot along the grass and launching a ball into the stands is extremely limited, but each goal feels earned. Crossing over to a striker waiting to knock the ball into the corner of the net is still a rush after hours of play. Occasionally, we did run into issues with contextual presses leading to inadvertent passes, as crossing and lobs are handled by the same button, but it’s an infrequent occurrence that rarely affected the outcome of a match.
Crossing over to a striker waiting to knock the ball into the corner of the net is still a rush after hours of play.
Last year’s game moved to DICE’s increasingly popular Frostbite engine, offering more realistic visuals and animations, and they’re in full effect in FIFA 18, as well. Apart from a few minor characters in The Journey, the facial detail is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, with sweat glistening on otherwise matte skin. Even the tiny zippers on Hunter’s hoodies are rendered incredibly well. During matches, it’s a little easier to tell that the athletes are video game characters when they’re seen in close-up shots, but it’s impossible to tell when they’re in action.
Collisions look particularly realistic, with players colliding and flipping with accurate momentum, but we did see some inconsistencies when someone was injured. After falling to the ground and holding his knee in pain, a player was removed from the game. His diagnosis? A broken ankle. We also saw a visual bug multiple times that caused players’ shadows to appear in four different directions, as if they had been transported to a galaxy with several suns.
Even more ultimate
The series’ most popular mode, Ultimate Team, once again returns in FIFA 18, but it comes with an addition that makes the mode feel more welcoming to new players. “Squad Battles” allow teams to compare their performances against the same opponent, with those racking up the most points earning themselves a place on the leaderboard. After a few hours, the highest earners are awarded additional Ultimate Team currency and card packs containing star players to improve their teams. It will certainly still take some practice to get onto the leaderboard, but those who prefer single-player modes never have to face an opponent online this way.
Much of Ultimate Team will be familiar to those who played previous FIFA games, and in most regards, this is a good thing. Earning coins from completing matches – as well as new daily and weekly objectives – is as addictive as earning new loot in a role-playing game, and spending coins on new card packs allows you to create the perfect squad.
Short leagues and cup challenges mean that you can accomplish something in just one play session, but if you really want to succeed in Ultimate Team, you’re going to have to put in quite a bit of time. From managing consumable items for each player to just swapping in stars to new positions, the mode’s menus never make the process easy, and a few important options are made needlessly difficult to find. After completing certain chapters of The Journey, you unlock additional players for Ultimate Team, but they’re buried behind several menu options and can easily be missed entirely.
Most of FIFA 18’s other offerings remain unchanged from previous iterations. You can choose a career as either a single player or the manager of a club, responsible both for the on-field action as well as business transactions, and a new “interactive” negotiation process was introduced to make contracts and transfers more exciting. In practice, it’s just a simple dialogue wheel and people miming without actually saying anything, but it does make an otherwise boring process a little more interesting. Unfortunately, there isn’t an option to just play through a single season with a team without worrying about back-end dealings, though you can largely work around this by choosing the “player” option and controlling an entire team each match.
FIFA 18 relies a little too much on back-patting and the illusion of choice during its story mode, but it’s still remarkable how well Electronic Arts managed to tell the tale of Alex Hunter and his family. The soccer on the field more than backs up the writing, with rewarding gameplay that can entertain even those who normally hate the sport. Just make sure that you carve out plenty of time and say farewell to your family members for the foreseeable future, because you’re going to need all the extra time you can get.
Is there a better alternative?
If you’re looking for a soccer game this fully-featured that also includes a story, you’re not going to find it.
How long will it last?
The Journey took us about 7 hours to finish. With its numerous other modes, can easily play FIFA 18 until next year’s game is out.
Should you buy it?
Yes. Few games are as content-rich as FIFA 18, which should appeal to casual and hardcore soccer fans.