"The feedback we've been getting is that this is the single biggest leap forward in gameplay."
This is the first, but absolutely not the final time that the attending producers of FIFA 18 tell a small gathering of journalists at Chelsea's home ground of Stamford Bridge, London, that the latest iteration of EA's long-running, all-conquering association football series plays better than it ever has. Matthew Prior, the game's creative director, has been listening to our peers in other stops on this short pre-E3 tour of the game, and is adamant that his team has something special in store for FIFA fans around the world.
"This is a massive year for gameplay," he reaffirms, later in a quite lengthy presentation that covers EA's four key design philosophies—responsiveness, explosiveness, fluidity and personality—and gets into no little depth when it comes to just how detailed 18's player animations, and how smooth the transitions between them, are. His colleague, lead gameplay producer Samuel Rivera, is suitably on-message: "Gameplay is the most important part of FIFA 18."
Is it, though? Yes, and no. FIFA, at this point in its (counts in head; immediately feels ancient) 24-year history, is a slick, studied and sporadically spectacular simulation of soccer. FIFA 18 retains all of those qualities—I know, I've played it. It adds a few nice shortcuts—substitutions can now be made outside of the pause menu, for example—and the game's looking absolutely amazing in the Frostbite engine, with long, evening-time shadows and improved stadium visuals giving the game a level of (albeit from a slight distance) realism that I have never seen in a sports game before.
The crowd is more responsive than it's ever been—run your goal scorer towards them and they'll rush the advertising hoarding to embrace them—and certain superstar players, like the box-featured Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester City's Raheem Sterling, now move exactly like they do on television, the former stooping into his sprints, the latter pushing his chest out and his arms wide. Aesthetically, FIFA has never been better.
But that's expected. Of course each new release is going to look prettier, punchier, grittier than the last—and now that EA have had a year to get familiar with Frostbite, they're seeing terrific results.
Get close up on Ronaldo, Eden Hazard or Paul Pogba and these guys are pretty much pore-for-pore ringers for the real thing. How that drips down to the lower leagues, I don't know, as we only get to play with big teams like Real Madrid, LA Galaxy and Manchester United. I'd love it if Leon Legge, captain of Cambridge United, was more than just a thereabouts likeness; or if AFC Wimbledon's Montserrat international Lyle Taylor celebrated a goal just as he does at Kingsmeadow. But, I'm also a realist, and that the English Leagues 1 and 2 are even in FIFA 18 will be enough for most.
Gameplay, though, is something that nobody needs excessive follicle detailing to deliver. And that is, apparently, what the focus of FIFA 18 is, what it has been. But I just don't see it, or feel it, when I face off in a friendly match against another journalist (and win, natch).
Rivera goes above and beyond his duties as gameplay producer to meticulously break down every single frame of a player's animation, as they reposition their body to unleash a volley (you'll score "more beautiful goals," he says). But in the moment-to-moment action of a match, these improvements are not especially visible, at regular speed, to the human eye; nor do they have an immediately obvious bearing on the core mechanics of the FIFA experience. The buttons do the same things, with the same outcomes; if the timings are tweaked, then the difference is minimal enough to not be noticeable by casual players; and whatever Ronaldo's posture when on the move, if you don't know where to point him, he's as effective as Ali Dia.
Slow everything down, and zip the camera around in instant replays, and yes, all of that extra effort that's gone into FIFA 18's player models, its lighting and its atmosphere, is clear to see. If you fell over, onto and into your TV, you'd taste grass and chalk as much as broken glass. But when I'm playing it—when we're playing it, as these sentiments are certainly shared by others I spoke to at Stamford Bridge—that doesn't register. I'm too busy trying to thread the perfect through ball, or to get a foot in, at all, on a marauding opposition winger.
"The Journey," however, is showing signs of progression where the Main Game isn't. The soap opera-like story mode of FIFA 17, featuring the melodrama-rich rise of young player Alex Hunter (who we interviewed, kind of, last year), is back, and bigger. Prior is promising a more personalized experience this year, with "key decisions" producing "significant impacts." Hunter won't be tied to Blighty, either, as we're shown overseas destinations for his skills. And, as is inevitable since he's the boy on the box, Ronaldo's got a cameo role in the new story. The mode now supports local co-op, and Hunter can be customized with as stupid a haircut as you can imagine. (Pogba's creativity may still find itself compromised, mind.)
That's all great, and builds on what was a fun foundation in FIFA 17. It's not what springs straight to mind when you think about "gameplay" in relation to this series, though. And in that respect, playing FIFA 18 feels a lot like going through motions we've already experienced, just in richer detail, and with some new songs in the background. It's your call, but taking The Journey and updated club rosters out of the equation, there doesn't appear to be a whole lot here to immediately go rushing out for, given FIFA 17 and its recent predecessors still provide very presentable versions of the beautiful game.