Football games remain divisive five months after release; being in the company of one for five days is therefore thin ground on which to make any definitive judgement. As a result, this year’s FIFA review came in two parts. Initially it only covered Ultimate Team and gameplay impressions, based on my first week in its company; after further play, it’s now updated to cover all aspects of FIFA 18.
Cynics may well spit at the notion of covering Ultimate Team at all - for many, it’s a cash cow designed solely to milk unassuming (and, late on Friday night, drunken) football fans dry. But in actuality, last year's card-collecting mode made it easier than ever to make coins via Squad Building Challenges – as detailed here - and this time around, it's expanded further with Squad Battles. They’re an exclusion specifically geared to the offline fan who doesn’t wish to spend real cash: while rankings are online, all Squad Battles matches are offline-only, played against celebrity-made teams. The more you win in a week, the better your rewards at the end of it. We’re talking the chance to score £20 worth of packs without ever being yelled at by a fellow headsetted human being. In FIFA terms, that equates to a miracle.
The other big criticism of Ultimate Team is that its addictiveness off the pitch covers up for FIFA’s failings on it. And certainly, it felt like last year big rival PES edged away with regards to pure football feel. First impressions this year are that while Konami’s offering still feels a tad smoother, EA has closed the gap again by tweaking some key fundamentals. There’s more punch to shooting from distance, more intent on crosses (with genuine whip added to the ball - my favourite of all the new changes), and players are sharper when it comes to breaking onto loose balls or throwing themselves at shots.
It’s impossible to examine every incremental change here, because so many are contextual. No sooner had I penned that line above when, in my very next match, an Exeter vs Forest Green fixture became a comical parade of feeble shooting and overhit crosses. As ever, there’s a small issue with lower-league players handling like hungover part-timers, but the AI does at least vary its tactics team-by-team; something I’ve clamoured about for years. That works both up and down the leagues, and across the globe. Play Arsenal away, and they pass until you (and their home support) are sick of it; host German 3 Liga - this year’s sole new league - team Chamnitzer FC, and they sit deep and look to stifle you into a 0-0 stalemate. Yes, FIFA AI teams finally understand Pulisball.
It’s clear that individual player uniqueness has also been high on EA’s improvements list, with stars given bespoke running styles and decision arcs. Ronaldo, as well as having his robot-gazelle gait, constantly hogs the ball rather than cross, while every Barca player is capable of zipping a first-time pass with Exocet accuracy. Raheem Sterling’s leisurely amble is nicely replicated, as is Arjen Robben’s awkward, left-foot-heavy shuffling motion. Like it or not, these are the pros most FIFA players most want to utilise - so while the focus on them over League Two 'bronzes' is easy to criticise, the imbalance is understandable.
It makes for an experience that feels like a natural, if unspectacular, step on from last year. That will suit FIFA devotees, but immediately rules out the chance of any PES 2018 admirer switching sides. For those torn between the two, story mode The Journey 2 tips the balance in EA’s favour.
Coming in at around the 14-hour mark Alex Hunter’s second season expands his world in both the literal (you get to play in three other countries) and figurative sense. It’s full-on exhilarating when you form a strike partnership with a very famous current pro, but also surprisingly touching in places too. The final chapter drags from too many matches, but its narrative far surpasses standard sports-game fare.
GTA-style customisation options are a hilarious touch, too – and yes, I really did write ‘GTA-style’. You can give Alex tattoos, new hairstyles, and edit his clothing both on and off the pitch, from hoodies and trainers to wristbands and good-God-my-eyes football boots. Cleverly, your conversational decisions throughout affect which unlockables you get. For instance, maxing out the ‘cool’ side of Alex’s personality meter gifts you Coolio-style-dreads, while going the other way and making him fully ‘fiery’ earns a Paul Pogba-esque leopard-print ‘do.
Five-star football all-round then? Not quite. Pro Clubs adds a new match-room layout and extra hairstyles and celebrations, but still feels like an afterthought. Critically, career mode remains in need of a comprehensive overhaul. It does get welcome new features – the clean, list-based transfer hub is a godsend, and negotiating with other real-life managers via interactive cut-scenes raises a smile, or at least has done throughout my single season so far. Very good, then, yet lacking the all–consuming depth, and hard-to-explain magic, offered by the equivalent modes in NBA 2K18 and MLB The Show 17.
Still, even if you only focus your attentions on The Journey 2 and twice-daily Squad Challenge matches in Ultimate Team (which, by the way, gets a genuinely intuitive web app this year that makes Squad Building Challenges even more addictive), FIFA 18 offers remarkable value. PES fans will steadfastly refuse to let it darken their doors, but that’s been the case since the PS2 years. Ultimately, it’s a monster season for both big football games. One where, unlike in Manchester, Glasgow or North London, everybody wins.