FIFA 18 hands-on: Your questions answered on The Journey 2, Ultimate Team, fixed penalties, and more

If you’ve watched the first trailer for FIFA 18 (see below) then you’re already aware that EA is shaking things up with its next instalment of digitised footy: more Frostbite, more Journey, more personality, and – finally! – Ultimate Team legends losing their Xbox exclusivity. But GamesRadar+ can go one better than a short video. Because I’ve played it. 

Below, then, after a day-long hands-on behind closed doors at Stamford Bridge, and interviews with key devs, are my responses to your questions on all of the above and more. This is, right now, every detail worth knowing about FIFA 18…

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Alex Hunter's second season - carried over Mass Effect/MLB: The Show style or NBA2k-style starting again with a new story/player?
Martyn Cox

The Journey’s second season is titled ‘Hunter Returns’, which probably answers this question in two words.

Let’s not leave it there, however, as EA has teased plenty of further details on the return of Adetomiwa Edun’s digital alter-ago. If you played, and completed, the mode in FIFA 17 then you’ll pick up where you left off – Crystal Palace, for me – with rumours of Hunter looking to leave the club, and fans booing him as he prepares to come off the bench during an early-season appearance. From there, EA says you’ll be taken across “the world of football”, with the US (specifically, Los Angeles) and Brazil teased as potential locations in artwork I’ve seen.

The mode is now split into six chapters, each of which features multiple goals. No word on the rewards for those goals, but expect Ultimate Team treats much like last year. It’s Hunter’s story, but you’ll be able to play as other characters along the way – and a mate can jump in to individual games for a spot of co-op if you feel like mixing things up.

While you can’t play as a generic version of you, full user customisation has been implemented. Hunter’s face isn’t changeable, obviously, but in a manner that appears to ape GTA you can switch up any or all items in his wardrobe, such as shirts, hoodies, and shoes. Best of all is the option to amend his hairstyle – Paul Pogba’s leopard print monstrosity is one of the unlockable choices.

Cristiano Ronaldo features in the mode this year – which could mean Madrid is another potential location, or simply that you play Real in a friendly – and EA says that you’ll come across him, and other big names, much earlier in the story. In terms of length, creative director Matt Prior says it’ll be in the 12-15 hour realm, much like last year. 

“It’s of similar length,” says Prior. “Not a kick of the ball is scripted, everything is under your control. But that length is variable. If you don’t do well and you’re in the reserves you’ll skip a bunch of games until you get back in. Do really well and you start every game [prolonging the mode].”

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Has EA fixed how clunky, slow and poor FIFA is? Is the AI smarter, and does it actually represent football in terms of player runs, positioning, etc?
Andy H

Describing FIFA 17 as clunky and slow is a touch harsh, but it’s fair to say that some of its animations could appear stuttery – such as forwards awkwardly shifting their bodyweight to volley an aerial ball. With that in mind, EA has completely rewritten the game’s entire animation model, and is now using a system it terms ‘motion technology’. In FIFA 17, every player footstep triggered a new animation; now it’s every single frame.

As a result, running motions look more authentic, but it’s the feel of the game which – crucially – has taken the biggest step forwards. Attacking players can beat opponents with a subtle change of angle or sudden blast of pace, while defenders no longer get locked into a direction when going in for a tackle. Essentially everything handles more smoothly, on both sides of the ball.

New AI intelligence is another big area of focus, according to EA. In FIFA 17, players suffered from tunnel vision: they’d make what they perceived to be the best run, even if a team-mate was doing the same thing. Now they’ve much more awareness of other team-mates’ off-the-ball movements, and will react accordingly. 

So if you have the ball on the left-hand side, ten yards outside the opposition’s box, you might see a striker make a run in behind, your left winger pull his full-back out wide, and your left-back move into space behind you as a safety option. In practise, it means you always have a tempting attacking choice, and one for recycling possession. That’s great, but in itself poses a fresh challenge for EA: ensuring that online matches don’t turn into ping-pong-passing exhibition games when a team goes 1-0 up with ten minutes to go.

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Can we get dedicated servers and less handicapping/momentum or whatever it is during matches, especially in FUT Champions?
Gavin Bailey

Server amendments – if indeed there are any – are a topic EA plans to discuss at a later date. 

With regards to momentum, it’s something even I swear I’ve come across in FIFA 17 – for instance conceding a last-minute equaliser to Inter Milan goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, in a game where I needed three points to win a FUT offline league. Even so, Prior insists there is zero scripting in the engine.

“There isn’t momentum, or scripting,” says Prior. “It’s something I get asked all the time, and I guarantee that there isn’t. What you will find is that, just like in real world football, there are occasions where things happen that mightn’t be obvious. I’m a Man City fan; last season we played Middlesbrough and had something like 80 per cent possession, yet they scored with their first shot on goal. If that happened in FIFA, the conclusion would be ‘It’s scripted! it’s cheating!’ but the reality is it’s just football. Unexpected moments are part of the beauty of football, and our game is a representation of football.”

What I do notice during my hands-on is that a. I concede multiple goes direct from kick-offs immediately after scoring, and b. Around 50 per cent of the goals I score or let in across the game are from corners. One day’s play forms too small a sample size to reach any conclusions, but it’s something to keep an eye on come the game’s September release.

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Please tell me they have expanded The Journey? Also, have they made it so teams play different styles, like PES teams do?
Jon Ellacott

Yes to your question regarding The Journey, as tackled earlier on.

Yes, also, to making teams adopt varied tactics, at least in theory. Every one of FIFA 18's teams is assigned a specific attacking and defensive style, as outlined by lead gameplay producer Sam Rivera: “There are hundreds of teams in the game, so we cannot have [a completely unique style] for every single team. Instead, we are focussing on five different attacking styles, and five different defending ones.”

“For attacking there’s Tiki Taka, Long Balls, Counter Attack, Dribbling and Crossing, and a more generic mix of the above,” continues Rivera. “For defending we have Catenaccio, Harass, Double Contain, The Turtle – which means everyone staying at the back – and, again, a more generic style. Our data collection will look at every team, and then match the styles to each team in the game.”

I’ve played with, and against, eight teams – Chelsea and Man City at the top end of the game, Toronto and LA Galaxy slightly further away from the elite – and can report that each feels less predictable than in FIFA 17. Chelsea shift the ball wide to wing-backs Alonso and Moses impressively often, as in real life, while Sterling and De Bruyne are keen to run at my full-backs for City. Fitting, as Rivera is keen to point out that further differentiation between teams will come from specific individual traits.

“Within those team attacking and defensive styles, individual player skills are going to be considered,” he says. “For example, Barcelona will play Tiki Taka, but once in a while Messi will beat five players without passing. You will see that [player individuality]. Ronaldo will try to dribble and shoot, and do everything by himself. That type of personality will affect team [uniqueness].”

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Have you sorted out the FIFA 17 penalties?

Um, I personally haven’t. Mercifully, EA has. The penalties technique used in FIFA 17 returns, but without the need to push forward on the left stick to begin your run-up, and with a much more forgiving aiming model. You still put the ball wide if you aim too far right with a club-footed full-back, whereas the best takers are likely to find the corners of the net rather than punt the ball towards the corner flag. Rivera says his team is still working on the perfect balance, but the mechanic already feels much less punitive than in FIFA 17.

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Any Scottish stadiums this year?
Owen G

There’s nothing to report on grounds north of the border, but Prior has confirmed two new stadiums: Brighton’s Amex Stadium, and Huddersfield’s John Smith's Stadium. Here’s our news story with more details. Los Angeles’ Stubhub Center is also 100 per cent in – one of the matches I played during my hands-on was LA Galaxy vs Toronto, in that digitised location. And with bespoke MLS-style presentation overlays, which look bold and colourful and as American as a Hacksaw Jim Duggan chant. In the best way possible.

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Is FIFA 18 going to be more rewarding to play this year? FIFA 17 gameplay was not fun at all. Journey and presentation was top notch though.
Mike Kebby

I thoroughly enjoyed my first day with it, but – cards on table time – played much more FIFA 17 than PES 2017. (600+ games of Ultimate Team, to be precise.) So I won’t commit just yet to saying it’s the game that’ll make you switch sides. 

EA says it’s targeting four specific gameplay pillars: responsiveness, explosiveness, fluidity, and personality. There’s evidence of all of these as I play, to varying degrees. As mentioned above, fluidity is delivered by the new, seamless motion system, while Messi and Ronaldo and even Raheem Sterling scream personality – they finally feel like the individual players they’re supposed to represent. The challenge for EA will be filtering that down to, say, Championship or Scottish Premier League level.

‘Responsiveness’ is the feature I’m most impressed by. I’ve spent years frustrated at FIFA’s inability to get a shot away the instant you press square/circle (depending on your control scheme) – now everything feels seamless. Get an inch of space in the box and you can have a pop before a defender can recover. Similarly you can cross immediately after beating a man, rather than the game giving your opponent an extra split-second in which to catch up with your inputs. It’s hugely refreshing.

It’s not quite so simple to pin down ‘explosiveness’ at this stage, but the ability to beat a man with a sudden change of pace certainly fits into that category.

One additional thing I’d throw into the mix is visuals. Year two of Frostbite makes the game look astonishing, and that’s a claim I don’t make lightly. We expect annual upgrades in this department, of course, but FIFA 18 goes above and beyond. 

Player likenesses in replays pack incredible detail – Eden Hazard’s facial bumfluff looks like you could stroke it through the screen – while stadiums sing with lifelike touches. Right down to individual members of the crowd: run to the ad hoardings after a goal and you now see them run down steps or leap over seats to try to hug you. I do this a dozen times across the day, grinning like an idiot on each occasion.

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If FIFA Legends finally coming to PS4?
John Bourne

Yes! After years of Xbox exclusivity, Ultimate Team legends are bound for PS4 and PC. And the first to be revealed is a biggie (and not only in terms of his post-career hamburger munching): three-times world player of the year Ronaldo. As in, Luís Nazário de Lima rather than Cristiano. Here's the full lowdown.

More Ultimate Team details are expected ahead of Gamescom in August, but this is a hugely promising start. It’s also only the beginning of GamesRadar+’s coverage; we’ll have plenty more on FIFA 18, including every exhaustive detail I can muster on FUT and The Journey 2, between now and its September 29 release date.

The Journey 2 isn't the only big interactive tale coming to an annual sports game – click here for extended details on new Madden 18 story mode Longshot, direct from developer EA Tiburon.

Ben Wilson

I'm GamesRadar's sports editor, and obsessed with NFL, WWE, MLB, AEW, and occasionally things that don't have a three-letter acronym – such as Chvrches, Bill Bryson, and Streets Of Rage 4. (All the Streets Of Rage games, actually.) Even after three decades I still have a soft spot for Euro Boss on the Amstrad CPC 464+.