FIFA World Cup 2018 verdict: what does the FIFA 18 expansion reveal about FIFA 19?

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If you were ever in doubt as to the power wielded by GamesRadar in virtual footballing circles, then study the image below and rejoice. Yes, just as we requested – nay, demanded – back in April, FIFA 18’s official World Cup DLC finally fixes Mo Salah’s hair. His is one of more than 30 revised or new player likenesses added in time for the tournament, and cosmetically this gets everything right: all 12 Russian venues hosting the finals are in, along with home and away kits for all 32 teams, and broadcast-style overlays to match those you’ll see in the real thing. 

None of the above will surprise those aware of EA Sports’ history with regard to major tournament tie-ins. This is the publisher’s sixth, and going back to World Cup ’98 it’s always delivered from an aesthetic standpoint. This effort differs markedly from its predecessors, however, in that it’s free: own a copy of FIFA 18 and it’ll download when you next start the game, assuming you’ve not done so in the last week or so. That makes it difficult to review and score in the conventional manner – so instead I’ll assess when it gets right and wrong, and which elements EA Canada would be sensible to carry forward for FIFA 19.

Two modes provide the DLC’s focus, with longstanding fans most likely to be intrigued by the traditional World Cup finals recreation featuring all those real nations and strips. Speed-play through a tournament without giving much thought to formations and line-ups and it’s superficially enjoyable, particularly on seeing your team of choice lift the famous gold trophy. But scratch below the service and a flood of design oversights will have you exiting the mode permanently, before the real competition has even begun.

Two modes provide the DLC’s focus, with longstanding fans most likely to be intrigued by the traditional World Cup finals recreation featuring all those real nations and strips. Speed-play through a tournament without giving much thought to formations and line-ups and it’s superficially enjoyable, particularly on seeing your team of choice lift the famous gold trophy. But scratch below the service and a flood of design oversights will have you exiting the mode permanently, before the real competition has even begun.

For starters, there’s no option at all to select a 23-man squad: you can pick who you want from each nation’s considerable player pool (England has 40) for each game. Forget needing to monitor stamina levels during or after matches, too. Despite fixtures being only a handful of days apart, every player starts every match at 100% fitness, obliterating the concept of squad rotation. Subs benches are made up of seven rather than 12 players, and the option to customise the tournament is limited by team availability: you can only swap in sides already on the FIFA 18 team list. This may be EA’s first free World Cup sim, but it’s also the first to block you entering the tournament as minnows such as Macau or American Samoa. That’s a shame.

The other marquee mode is an international edition of FIFA’s fabled (yet often maligned) Ultimate Team. It operates similarly to the club version – win matches to score points to spend on packs of digital cards – but a key difference is that the smaller player pool, coupled with more generous pack weightings, means anyone can build a super team within a few days. 20 matches in I have Manuel Neuer in goal protected by Laurent Blanc and Jan Vertonghen, with a midfield partnership of Toni Kroos and Diego Maradona supplying Timo Werner and Alexandre Lacazette up front.

One lesson EA can learn from this and help inform FIFA 19 is that public perception changes greatly when everyone can land elite players with minimal effort: the mode has been widely praised among the community for eliminating the pay-to-win shortcuts possible in the domestic version. But it also suggests that the publisher is right to make top-tier players hard to acquire; just a week after release it feels like the mode is already on the cusp of burning out, with 90% of the teams you meet online loaded with superstars. After three outright World Cup wins I already feel like there’s little left to achieve with that Neuer-dona mega-squad.

What’s keeping me playing despite longevity concerns is the way FIFA 18’s on-pitch action has been refined for World Cup mode. It’s still ostensibly the same game, but with its overall speed reduced by something like 25%. The upshot is that midfield play feels significantly less soupy, with your central players afforded time on the ball rather than being constantly pressurised to offload it, and attributes other than Pace matter. A prime example is my left-midfielder Ivan Perisic; next-to-useless out wide in the club version given his lack of elite speed, but exceptional here as high dribbling and passing stats score additional focus.

AI improvements are noticeable too, in particular the variety in opposition approaches – a longstanding issue for FIFA, where you see little strategic difference between Manchester City, Millwall and Macclesfield Town. Spain, for instance, look to pass rather than hoof every goal kick, and almost never whip the ball into the box at a corner, instead going short to David Silva or Iniesta in order to build possession. That kind of detail is easier to implement for 32 national teams than 700 club ones, but the fact it’s at last high on the developer’s priorities list is a big positive, and bodes well for FIFA 19. 

A smattering of other small-yet-smart tweaks also debut and can be expected to carry through to the next year’s game: the keeper forcefield on crosses isn’t as powerful and they sometimes miss them under pressure, while the added-time clock which appears on 45 and 90 minutes makes the referee’s final whistle feel less scripted and arbitrary. As a standalone mode World Cup 2018 has its shortcomings, but the elements it gets right show that the studio is listening - and responding - to even its most critical fans, making the official announcement of FIFA 19 expected at E3 all the more intriguing.

GamesRadar expects FIFA 19 to be released on PS4 and Xbox One in September. While you wait, check out 11 key changes it needs to make according to fans.