FIFA 18's realism is jaw-dropping but doesn't always hit the mark
Just in time for the grueling drudgery of a two-week international break comes FIFA 18, EA's latest iteration of the blockbuster, all-conquering soccer video game franchise. Every game mode you enjoyed is back and beefed up. All the kits and squad lists are updated. And there's an added focus on making the game look so good that it might fool you into thinking it's not a game. But how does it stack up to previous editions?
For a start, realism is the buzzword this year, and that's a good thing. Shirts ruffle in the Bernabeu breeze, hair springs and bobs as you dribble beyond defenders, while every limb and sinew of soccer's elite talents ripple and flex like their real-life counterparts. At times, it looks like a movie, albeit one in which you're struggling to beat Scunthorpe United in an EFL Cup third-round clash.
Where FIFA 17's controls hewed to the old-school in that a simple squeeze of the sprint button was often all you needed to speed through clear on goal, FIFA 18 takes things back in a more pleasing direction. As a result, the game's a lot harder than you'd expect and the learning curve is as sharp as Giorgio Chiellini's jawline.
Let's start with the passing. Personally, I enjoyed previous games where you could simply hit the pass button and your delivery would arrive sweetly on a teammate's instep.
FIFA 17 pushed the envelope by putting a crucial emphasis on the weighting of your passes so that underhit efforts would be smartly intercepted or hoofed away. FIFA 18, however, adds extra intensity in that your directional awareness is also vital. Your 40-yard Hollywood passes often end up drifting out for a throw-in. As in real life, even your rudimentary sideways effort needs to be spot-on to avoid losing possession.
Dribbling has undergone similar enhancements: EA's proprietary tech (something called Real Player Motion Technology) makes even basic runs more fluid and finicky. Mistime your directional changes and you end up looking more Sunday League than Ballon d'Or. Similarly, the sprint button is a privilege, not a right; it's much harder to beat an opponent for pace than it has been in prior editions. Skill and dexterity, not speed, is more valuable though a burst of velocity can be devastating in the right circumstance.
Finally, defending has undergone the biggest upgrade, and it's a welcome challenge. How much pressure you apply in the tackle and your skill in timing an intervention can be the difference between looking like John Terry in his 2006 pomp and John Terry at his 2017 ebb. It feels like actual defending, which is never as simple as just pushing a button.
There's also a fresh chapter of "The Journey," EA's role-playing game with Alex Hunter, your spirited avatar who is trying to make it from the youth team to a lucrative deal with Coca-Cola and a move to Real Madrid. Or Bayern Munich. Or whichever juggernaut is your childhood dream this week.
It's a valiant effort but doesn't come without some clunky and confusing junctions. Alex Hunter's lived several careers in the space of two seasons with some surprising storylines and endless ups and downs; it can be tough to get to grips with his sensational path through soccer (Hey! You're best friends with Thierry Henry! Your big club are giving you significant transfer input!) given the intense attention to realism and detail throughout the rest of the game.
I really appreciate EA's efforts to continue with their RPG-based side-game, and it'll definitely take up plenty of your time should you choose to engage. All of EA's sports franchises are embracing the need for a human element: instead of benignly picking your teams and button-mashing your way to glory, having an emotional backstory can be a winning effort.
But this one still feels blissfully free of consequence: despite some choices presented as "no going back" throughout the course of the game, you never really feel the weight of those decisions. Some of them feel truly significant, too, not that you'd notice while smashing in 30 goals a season for whichever team you end up at.
Similarly, the added RPG wrinkles don't always work across other game modes: try the new transfer system in career mode one time and you'll pine for the automated nature of previous games. Should you negotiate your own signings, prepare for an arduous series of choices and dialog options as you welcome the player and his agent to your expansive office:
"Let's talk about what kind of salary you'd like ...good my client likes that a lot ... now it's time to discuss salary ... yes that's a fair wage for my client's services" and so on. Isn't this why clubs hire directors of football?
(Thankfully, the "assistant manager" option still exists in which they do all the work for you. It's glorious.)
Other game modes like crossing have undergone transformation but it remains as painfully difficult to score from a corner as ever, something you might wish wasn't true when you're playing against top opposition and really need to maximize your set pieces. FIFA Ultimate Team is as addictive as before and will thrill the hardcore online gamer to no end, too.
Overall, FIFA 18 is another decent step forward for the franchise. The attention to detail won't be lost on players of all skill levels and skill sets, nor will it hinder your enjoyment even though the adjustments and enhancements will take some getting used to. But there's still a sense that the push for realism over everything else has left a little to be desired and not every innovation hits the mark.
James Tyler is a senior editor for ESPN FC. He can be found on Twitter @JamesTylerESPN.