FIFA has sat atop the football sim mountain for what seems like an age, but the gap between itself and the ever-improving PES has been rapidly shortening every year as Konami’s entry continues to double down on the pure, clinical fluidity of its on-field mechanics.
Modern FIFA still has plenty going for it. All those licences; the immersive, match day pomp of its presentation; the grand, moreish longevity of Ultimate Team. There have been notable improvements on the field too, but these elements have often felt disconnected from one another. Until now, that is.
Even after less than a week in its company, it’s just starting to hit me how cohesive the long-running series finally feels. Changes to animations on the field make the minutia of dribbling, tackling, passing and striking so much more responsive than FIFA 17 and every other entry that’s come before, offering a player agency that’s been lacking for years.
Ultimate Team (FUT) – the bread and butter mode of the FIFA brand – has been tweaked in subtle yet effective ways, such as adding in rolling challenges and rewards to make the time and money it requires you to invest feel more beneficial.
Even The Journey, the returning story mode that debuted last year, feels like a player finally finding their place in a top flight club. It’s not a perfect experience, but it’s one that’s by the most comprehensive football-adoring package EA Canada has ever produced.
So let’s talk Alex Hunter. Last year, The Journey was a risky attempt to bring a more human side to the world of pro football. Back then, it was hard to miss how hard the developer was trying to emulate the narrative success of the NBA 2K series, but it still ended up offering an enjoyable (albeit short lived) experience.
For The Journey: Hunter Returns, we finally get to see something that manages to weave an engaging story with the ups and downs of life at the top of English football.
With a good 13+ hours of play, Hunter Returns expands in all the right places. You get to play in up to three different countries (including a rad opening in Rio de Janeiro that doffs its cap at FIFA Street of old), form bonds (and rivalries) with real-life pros and customize your version of Alex Hunter. Yes, the boy wonder has become an RPG-lite avatar, complete with hairstyles and tattoos aplenty.
Many of the aesthetic alterations are unlocked by specific narrative choices too, offering a cute, if slightly bizarre, extra dimension as you carve a fiery or cool career in pro football.
Having extra challenges to complete during each chapter also keeps things engaging, offering more ways to unlock new boots, clothes, ink and more. It certainly doesn’t match NBA 2K18 for the seamless integration with the rest of the game, but nevertheless it offers an experience you simply won’t find in Konami’s rival offering.
Moyes the pity
Much like Hunter’s deeper journey into the realities of life in football’s highest echelon, FIFA 18’s other modes finally feel like they’re coming together into a unified whole as well.
For years it felt like EA Canada would improve one facet of the simulation while every other suffered in the mire of archaic mechanics. Here and now, the in-house EA developer has brought together its repertoire of improvements to create something that’s as fun to play as it is spectacular to watch.
Animations, once overlong and painfully slow, have now been unlocked, enabling you to react on the fly, changing your tactics regardless of whether you have possession or not.
Finally, FIFA is starting to feel more like a simulation of the beautiful game, rather than its own gamified rules that would often break that match day immersion. You feel in control of every developing moment of the game, creating a sense of player agency that permeates everything from FUT to Pro Clubs.
Players also feel like their real-life namesakes. Take pinup cover star Ronaldo, for instance. The preened wonder now feels like the gilded blade that he really is, slicing through defenses with a precision and athleticism he simply didn’t possess in digital form before. Whether you’re playing a simple friendly or fighting for glory in FUT, these individual stats and styles of play make using key players that bit more special.
Coding in these unique skills, attributes and AI makes FIFA feel more like a simulation than ever. Sure, it certainly makes playing your favorite minor league team a David and Goliath match up when you line up against a Premier League leviathan, but it’s exactly how it should be. Now certain playmaker subs can actually transform the game because of their innate attributes, rather than simply because they're more fresh than others on the field.
Can we just take a moment to appreciate how good FIFA 18 looks? We all thought Ignite would help FIFA shine when it debuted on current-gen tech four years ago and looked dated at best.
Two years into the use of DICE’s ever-reliable Frostbite engine and digital footy land has never looked better. The fact FIFA 18 manages to capture that warm glow of a summer Saturday afternoon fixture, with shadows and gleam in all the right places, is simply staggering.
Likenesses have transcended uncanny, and when you marry that to the tangible match day magic that FIFA has managed to capture in recent years you get something that’ll easily stand the test over the next 12 months. And, as usual, being able to play as Arsenal instead of North London is the licensed gift that keeps on giving.
Of course, this being FIFA, there are problems.
For all those improvements, EA Canada has chosen to focus on beefing up offensive play. In the new setup, strikers are effectively unbeatable gods that’ll carve through most defenders like butter. It certainly makes for entertaining set pieces and breakaways, but it feels oddly imbalanced.
You have all this extra dexterity in how you control each player, but your keeper now acts half asleep and virtually nonexistent at times.
It’s turned FIFA 18 into a goal fest – expect plenty of multi-goal thrillers over the next 12 months – but it often makes playing defense a fool’s errand as you watch your opponent smash a screamer into the net before you do the same the other way a few moments after. It’s fun – and the kind of thing PES devotees will smirk smugly/blow a gasket over – but it ultimately works against the sim improvements the developer has tried to hard to employ with this entry.
Verdict: Play it Now
While its focus on aggressive and showy attack does dilute the welcome changes to AI and player behavior, FIFA 18 still offers the most complete football experience you can buy right now.
Its on the field football might not be as pure in mechanics as PES 2018, but the sheer beauty of its presentation, the depth of its modes and the extra dimension The Journey 2 brings make this another glorious title defense.
FIFA 18 was reviewed on the PS4.
TechRadar's review system scores games as 'Don't Play It', 'Play It' and 'Play It Now', the last of which is the highest score we can give. A 'Play It' score suggests a solid game with some flaws, but the written review will reveal the exact justifications.