Over the past few seasons, FIFA–like the football world itself–has become increasingly obsessed with Sky Sports: with snazzy transitions, over-dramatised transfer deadline day coverage, incessant live updates, and below-average punditry. FIFA looks dazzling, but some would say EA has neglected the on-pitch action in favor of replicating the view from the gantry. The last two years have seen PES eclipse EA’s colossus once the ball’s at your feet. PES’s offensive and defensive play might not look as impressive as FIFA’s, but it is closer to the dreams you tried (and failed) to act out as a kid in the park. It’s smoother, quicker, and far less frustrating.
For its part, EA seems conscious of FIFA 17‘s problems. At a recent preview event, FIFA 18‘s senior gameplay producer, Sam Rivera, explained how FIFA 18 would be “more responsive,” how fluidity was one of the main gameplay pillars the team wanted to improve on this year, and how they didn’t want you to feel like you were constantly wrestling with your controller.
“The visuals affect a lot, the gameplay affects a lot, but the other thing that [the audience] really want is that they can perform what they have in mind easily without having to be fighting with the controllers or remembering complicated mechanics,” Rivera told me. “I just want to shoot, shoot now, I don’t want to shoot in two seconds, I want to shoot now, I don’t want you to take a step and then shoot, I want to shoot now. That control is what we know they want and this is exactly our focus in this FIFA: To make sure that it’s responsive, that it’s fluid, and that the user is in control of the situation.”
I want to shoot now, I don’t want you to take a step and then shoot, I want to shoot now.
FIFA 18 senior gameplay producer, Sam Rivera
Unfortunately, in my two hours with the game, FIFA 18 didn’t seem to align with these promises. Passing was still as limp as it has been for the past two years (after all, driven passes were only a welcome addition to FIFA 16 because standard passes have felt anaemic since the same year), and dribbling remains as clunky as before. More fluid movement helps FIFA appear smoother than ever–players move more realistically and the transitions between animations are less jarring–but painful input lag and the world’s heaviest touches mean it still takes far too long for your intentions to be translated to the pitch. Once again, then, the enhancements help how FIFA looks, but not how it plays.
Crossing has been improved, at least: previously, crosses would loop high into the air and take far too long to reach the danger area, by which time both the attacker and defender would have positioned themselves directly underneath the ball so who got their head to it first would be determined simply by the players’ respective heights. Now, standard crosses whip with a finesse and pace that is both closer to real life action and far more satisfying to strike. The improvements mean old-style low, driven balls in are cut, with high crosses (similar to FIFA 17’s loopy attempts) and ground crosses the only remaining modifiers. My two hour demo suggested crossing–along with long shots–might have swung back to being a touch overpowered, but with over three months to go until launch, these balancing issues will hopefully be ironed out.
Other than that, however, I’m struggling to recall a meaningful way in which FIFA 18 evolved on its predecessor. Lighting and the appearance of crowds have been improved, but these have no effect on the game you’re playing and only further reinforce the accusation that EA has become increasingly obsessed with style over substance. That EA is striving for a realistic appearance is no secret; indeed, Rivera himself told me that the team’s primary ambition was to make a FIFA match indistinguishable from what you’d see on TV.
“It’s a very fine line … [but] the main goal is that if one day you put a reel of a football match on the TV here and then you put FIFA here, that it looks the same,” he said. “However, it cannot play the same because one is 90 minutes, one is 12 minutes; one is meant to be fun and the other one is meant to be competitive and professional.
“So there’s a fine balance in there, and yes we want the game to be fun as well, so in that process we have to take certain decisions. For example, if our defensive AI–some people complain about it and I understand why–but if we made AI that was perfect, then you would never be able to score goals. They are always tracking you down, they are always in front, they are so responsive, so reactive, so the game would so close and [there would be] no goals, no fun. So we need to find a way to simulate the mistakes that people make in real life to put them in the game as well. Maybe they need to be a little more exaggerated to make sure in six minutes you see them, but yeah … it’s a balance and our goal is to have an authenticity while keeping a fun game.”
Trouble is, for too long now, EA has prioritized authenticity over immediate input response and satisfying moment-to-moment gameplay–two key areas its competitor shines. While PES is willing to sacrifice immaculate presentation in service of this, FIFA is not. I’d hoped FIFA 18 would see EA reign in its preoccupation with video-realism and focus on making the game feel smoother. Indeed, Rivera seemed acutely aware of FIFA’s flaws and EA is making all the right noises when it comes to improving fluidity. But, so far, that has been translated only in appearance, and not in gameplay. It seems making the game beautiful isn’t enough to capture the magic of The Beautiful Game.