Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3, PC, and Nintendo Switch
Last year, EA introduced the biggest innovation to the FIFA series since Ultimate Team in the form of a cinematic single-player narrative titled The Journey. The mode was a huge success and had critics (such as like myself) raving about the emotional, no pun intended, journey the player goes through when playing as young up-and-coming football star Alex Hunter. It shocked everyone and EA’s gamble paid off, they even went as far as including a campaign mode in Madden 18 which was also received with high praise for its incredible storytelling.
Alex Hunter returns with a surprisingly dramatic, intimate, and well-written story:
With FIFA 18, EA continues the story of Alex Hunter and even introduces a couple new modes in the famed Ultimate Team. In this year’s game, players will find Alex returning to a new season in the Premier League hot off his incredible debut in 2016. The soccer community expects big things from Alex and is watching to see if he’s just a one-hit wonder or a legend in the making. Things seem to be going pretty well and after an encounter with the soccer god Cristiano Ronaldo and a potential offer from Real Madrid, rumors of Hunter being transferred begin to swirl.
These rumors allow players to get a glimpse of some of the politics and inner workings of the sport and get an idea of just how stressful it can be. My club was Manchester United and once they caught wind of my transfer, they put me on the bench and the fans turned on me, questioning my loyalty. As the story continues to unfold, Alex continues to get kicked while he’s down as things spiral out of his control and put him in a unique situation.
On top of all of that, some story threads from FIFA 17 continue and old wounds are reopened for better or worse. While this game is rated E, The Journey gets pretty heavy at times by dealing with a rather personal family matter. For spoiler reasons, I can’t dive into it, but EA manages to tell a deeply personal and intimate story without succumbing to really bad cliches. At the end of the game’s third chapter, roughly halfway through the game, the story has a really great moment that will truly surprise players. It’s brief but it’s really wonderful and lays the foundation for where FIFA 19 may be headed.
New features in The Journey are subtle but welcomed, old features don't see any innovation:
Players in The Journey can also have their friends help them out via a 4 player local co-op mode. I didn’t personally get to experience it, but before every match, you’re given the option to add controllers so you can have some proper teamwork which can be really helpful since some of the AI is wonky.
The Journey also allows players to customize Alex’s clothing, hair, and more. It’s somewhat limited but it’s a welcome inclusion that I’d like to see get expanded upon next year. There’s not a super wide variety of shoes (outside of the cleats you wear on the pitch, there may even be too many of those), shirts, pants, or haircuts. There’s enough for you to want to actually change his appearance but it would be appreciated a lot more if they added more options.
Another feature in The Journey is the dialogue tree similar to that of a game like Mass Effect. It hasn’t been changed at all from last year and that’s sort of frustrating. The dialogue wheel always gives you three options, “fiery”, “cool”, and “balanced”. It tells you which one is which before you pick it so you always know exactly how people will perceive your comments. There’s no ambiguity when it comes to Alex’s choices in conversations, it’s all very straightforward. Some may appreciate this but it would be far more interesting if you as a player were picking what he said without knowing that you’re going to come off as super arrogant, it would your ego to come out naturally rather than forcing it and gives the conversations more of a realistic, dynamic feel. It makes more sense to have to actually think about what you say or having to deal with the consequences of what you say instead of just knowing how people will react before you even speak.
Inconsistent gameplay causes rage-inducing moments:
FIFA 18’s gameplay still brings you the fast-paced, anxiety-filled experience that no other game can match but there are some issues. One of the most important elements in soccer is having the ability to pass the ball efficiently in order to move it up the pitch and sink it into the net but in FIFA 18, the passing is flawed. For some reason, sometimes when you pass the ball it will pass it to someone else entirely different causing the entire play to be ruined.You’re expecting it to go one way because that person is open and the game will end up passing it the complete opposite way to someone who may have heavy opposition. It also creates confusion and disorientation as your brain tries to figure out what the hell just happened. The game seems to target players in a strange, frustrating way and it’s not accurate at all, hopefully, EA will put out a patch to fix this in the coming weeks.
There’s also a strange difficulty “wave”. I would use the term spike but it’s not really a spike because it’s not super easy and then hard, it’s super easy, hard, then easy, then easy again, and then hard. Each match is really different in terms of difficulty and it doesn’t seem to naturally increase or decrease, some matches I was scoring as many as 12 goals because it was way too easy. Other matches had me scoring 4 or less which is more normal and then some were just near impossible to score at all.
Most of this comes down to the AI on both teams, it can get ridiculously difficult as you get closer and closer to the goal to the point that there’s almost no possible way for you to score for an entire match due to how aggressive the enemy team gets. When it comes down to your friendly AI, they can sometimes come off as absolutely incompetent to knowing exactly how a play should unfold and positioning themselves accordingly. There were multiple times where I would be moving up the pitch with the ball and was expecting my teammates to run along with me and get open for passes but they would just stop running and hang back for no reason whatsoever. I played the game on a couple different difficulties to see if there was any difference and while some were harder than others, the lower options were a bit too challenging for what they were supposed to accomplish.
Modes like Ultimate Team and Career mode have had some new features included like Squad Battles in FUT which allow you to take on other players’ created teams in a single player match. Players will be ranked on a leaderboard and given rewards based on how well they did and the difficulty they play on, it’s nothing revolutionary but it’s a nice touch for those who want to play FUT without getting slaughtered by FIFA veterans.
Career mode has also seen some changes but it’s not really enough to make you want to play it alongside The Journey, it feels very minute in comparison and lacks the overall depth. It would be much better if EA merged the two into one mode, combining the best of both worlds.
EA's attention to details is unprecedented:
The attention to detail in FIFA 18 is absolutely exquisite. EA has done an excellent job at making sure every single detail from markings on the pitch to the broadcast overlay is unique to just about every individual match. The pitch gets torn up a bit as you play, bits of confetti from opening ceremonies will stay on the pitch as you play, white marks made by the referee to position players for free kicks and whatnot don’t disappear, it feels like you’re watching a real match. The addition of very specific broadcast overlay packages and moment to moment commentary also helps build immersion, sometimes another commentator watching another match will occasionally chime in and give you updates on the score of another game.
EA also took it to the next level by capturing subtle details of individual players like Ronaldo so fans will notice his personal mannerisms and types of movement such as how he moves his arms or how he sprints. There’s a lot of care put into the smallest little touches of detail and longtime FIFA players will definitely appreciate it.
While FIFA 18 doesn’t innovate as much as its predecessor, it excels in building off the groundwork laid in FIFA 17 by expanding on Alex Hunter’s incredible story in unexpected ways. It’s genuinely surprising that the developers of a game that holds its gameplay on such a high pedestal were able to deliver a compelling story off the pitch. Sadly, the inconsistent passing, AI, and difficulty feel like a bit of a step back and cause an intense amount of rage. FIFA 18 is worth playing but these issues may lead to players dropping off the game sooner than normal if they’re not addressed soon.