Tuesday nights in mid-summer are usually non-eventful in footballing terms, but not this week – as EA unleashed a comprehensive scouting report on FIFA 18 Ultimate Team.
It included new features such as Icons finally being available on all formats (as GR+ announced back in June), squad battles, and a 'Champions Channel'; you can browse all the changes here. But what exactly does it mean for the most colossal mode in the world’s biggest-selling sports game? With 750 FIFA 17 Ultimate Team matches under my belt, I've sought to pick apart the key messages delivered by EA – and assess how they'll effect the game on a day-to-day basis. Kicking off with a major controversy over a certain Frenchman's stats…
1. Thierry Henry is rated 90 – and the controversy over it is nonsense
For FIFA 18, Icons replace Legends – and are no longer exclusive to Xbox. That’s fantastic news; but in some circles it's been tempered by the first batch of confirmed player ratings. These Icons will be available in three flavours; young, old, and prime. And there’s been a fair bit of internet pant-wetting about Thierry Henry’s 'old' card only being rated an overall of 90. (His 'young' card is even more modest, at 87.)
Here’s why it’s absurd: overalls are merely a rough guide to a player’s in-game abilities, and rarely tell the full story. Back in November, EA released a silver in-form card – Mike Jensen – which was, at the time, the 38th best in the entire game, despite a lowly OVR of 74. Similarly, it revealed to ESPN that Thomas Muller’s OVR of 87 is effectively an artificial number which his in-game stats don’t quite live up to.
Henry’s card should be judged, then, on how his key abilities handle in game. With 90 pace, 87 dribbling and 91 shooting, I’d suggest that’ll be ‘pretty damn well’. The proof will be in the crème brûlée upon release.
2. EA must be careful not to brick Squad Building Challenges
Squad Building Challenges – from here on referred to as SBCs – are the best element of FIFA 17. They mean every player you pack has value at some point of the year, and as such have made it easier than ever to make coins, as I wrote about in depth last March. EA has added a new twist for next year: ‘Bricks’, which form placeholder cards of a specific nationality and league to build around.
On the one hand this adds variation in terms of challenge structure, but it will also enable EA to control the market more closely. For instance, if the CAM 'brick' in an SBC is an Englishman playing in the MLS, you’ll need to hunt down Bradley Wright-Phillips, Dom Dwyer, Jay Simpson or Ben Polk for a perfect chemistry match at ST, instantly causing the value of those cards to skyrocket. (And therefore tempting more people to spend money in packs in the hope of scoring those cards if/when they go extinct.)
The hope is that EA resists such temptations, enabling those who play the market honestly to continue amassing coins through intelligent, effective SBC analysis. Otherwise it’ll have broken something that categorically didn’t need a fix.
3. Ones To Watch cards should be expanded to Silvers and Bronzes
Ones To Watch cards get automatically upgraded when a player appears in any Team Of The Week squad – and with Alexandre Lacazette, Romelu Lukaku and James Rodriguez among those already confirmed, they’re going to be lip-smackingly attractive (and wallet-smackingly expensive) come August. Like SBCs, they enabled FUT 17 to sing, and will maintain player interest long into next summer.
The concept can, and indeed should, be expanded to include Silver and Bronze players, however. With a lack of tournaments offered for those card types, the fun quickly went out of building Bronze and Silver squads in FIFA 17. Ones To Watch cards in these classes would instantly restore it. Newcastle's 2016 summer signing Dwight Gayle, for instance, would have gone from 73 to 81 across the course of the season, delivering massive value to those who packed or invested in his OTW card earlier on. Let’s hope for positive news on this front as additional OTW cards are announced.
4. Walkouts look spoil-the-bedlinen amazing
As someone who refuses to spend real money on FIFA – and therefore only acquires gold packs through SBCs – my walkouts this year have been limited to Arjen Robben, Cesc Fabregas and Robert Lewandowski. Exciting, sure, but I never really understood the fuss – until I watched my little brother drop £35 on FIFA Points one drunken night, then cavort across the living room when he, too, unlocked Lewa. Turning real money into elite players in this way should mean maximum pomp and circumstance, and on that front FIFA 18 delivers.
Just take a look at Ronaldo’s walkout animation above. The instantaneous appearance of electronic boards, the elaborate pyrotechnics, his signature celebration after entering stage right: it’s all utterly preposterous, but in the most exciting, satisfying way. Antoine Griezmann’s walkout, also unveiled last night, is no less spectacular. It won’t convince me to drop additional quids/dollars/krone on packs, but gives those who do chase digital superstars with real moolah extra bang for their buck. Quite literally. And Youtuber pack openings are guaranteed to do greater numbers than ever.
5. More ways to play offline are a Godsend
FUT has, quite understandably, been geared towards the hardcore player over the past couple of seasons. It takes serious ability to qualify for the FUT Champions tournaments which happen every weekend, and – at 40 matches across a Friday-to-Sunday period – serious attrition to compete with the elite. That causes casual players to shy away, and inevitably lose interest when they realise they’re well off the pace in online terms.
Expanded offline features within FUT will change that. One, as previously mentioned, would be the return of dedicated Silver and Bronze competitions; EA hasn’t yet ruled out such a move, so keep all digits crossed. What it has confirmed are Squad Battles, in which you’ll be able to face teams built by real-life footballers, Youtube influencers and other experts, without having to worry about competing with their real skills – as the matches themselves take place against the AI.
It’s a super neat idea that expands upon ‘Play A Friend’s Squad’ from FIFA 17; and EA says victories will trigger unique, as-yet-announced awards. Big, big thumbs up for this.
For more in-depth FIFA 18 coverage, check out GR+s piece answering your questions on The Journey 2, Ultimate Team, fixed penalties, and more. It's released on 29 September.