We've just found out this week that Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo will be on the cover of FIFA 18, but we recently went to Chelsea's Stamford Bridge in London to see a bit more of the game for ourselves, as well as witness a presentation as part of the European Producer Tour from creative director Matthew Prior and lead gameplay producer Samuel Rivera. Here we heard about some of the biggest changes and tweaks that EA promises should make the series even more realistic and responsive than it's ever been before.
One of the biggest things Matthew Prior was keen to point out to us in the presentation was that this is the second year of FIFA being built in the Frostbite engine, and the visual jump is pretty noticeable, especially in terms of lighting. FIFA 17 was by no means a bad looking game, but when you look at FIFA 18, you can tell that just a bit more polish has been added with that extra year, and faces especially have a lot more detail and depth to them, helped in part by the improved lighting i.e. the shadows on the face are far more noticeable (buzz phrases like "ambient occlusion" and "dual shadowing" were touched upon by Prior, although not elaborated on).
Gameplay is the most important thing when it comes to a football game, though, and there's a number of changes coming this year, all built around four pillars Rivera outlined to us: responsiveness, explosiveness, fluidity, and personality. A big thing that helps with all of this is the new Motion Technology system, likened by Rivera to the step taken between HD and Ultra HD televisions. To outline what this does, in FIFA 17 each step was an animation, and in FIFA 18 each frame is an animation, so instead of doing a number of different exercises with players like Ronaldo when motion capturing, which can take a few days, EA only needed far fewer movements to then map them onto frames, rather than steps. We were told that this would help with responsiveness, allowing players to change directions quicker by not having to wait for step animations to finish, and fluidity, by moving from one frame to the other seamlessly without jolting in different directions.
How did this new animation system feel when we played it then? Well, we had two writers playing the game at two different events, and one thought it was noticeably more responsive, as Rivera said it would be. The other didn't feel it was as noticeable, however, although that's not to say that they felt there was no change at all, just that it wasn't as much of a leap forward as was implied. The little clips we were shown regarding transitions between movements, however, did show a marked difference, becoming less jagged in FIFA 18, and we did feel there was a touch more control, because a big appeal of the frame-by-frame movement is that you can now change directions much more quickly.
The personalities of big players is something that was undoubtedly noticeable, however. Using the example of cover star Ronaldo, we were told that the different running styles of players would be incorporated into FIFA 18, and we could certainly tell just by the movement of the arms that the player we saw was Ronaldo. This also applies to Manchester City's Raheem Sterling, playable in our build, as his distinctive running style with his arms close to his body was also clear to see, as well as Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben.
This doesn't just apply to big players, though, but also to archetypes that all players fit into, of which there are six: short, medium, and tall in terms of height, and skinny, medium, and stocky in regards to body size. For example, taller players will now take longer strides, but less often, than a short player, so all the players in the game have distinct styles of movement based on the category they fit into.
In regards to personality and distinguishing players from one another, we were also told that related animations will be slightly faster for players who are better at dribbling, i.e. Lionel Messi or Eden Hazard, compared to players who aren't as skilled in that department. We did think in our early builds of the game, however, that the dribbling wasn't particularly polished, and we found our players moving around the ball quite often rather than taking a touch or playing a pass, which wasn't particularly responsive (the same movement you'd expect when circling around the ball to block off defenders). We were assured no-touch dribble will be made better as well, but we didn't get to sample that in our time with the game. Also, explosiveness in regards to dribbling happens in FIFA 18 when you move from jogging to sprinting, and the animations show players leaning into the explosive touch very clearly, a key part of visual feedback showing you that what you're commanding is being translated into the game.
AI seems markedly improved in FIFA 18 as well. In FIFA 17 players worked out where danger was individually, and so moved to danger zones regardless of what their teammates were doing, but now they coordinate themselves as a team to provide different kinds of support, both in attack, like darting runs, and defence, like cover. A way this works is that players are closer to the sidelines, Rivera assured us, and we noticed that when we played, as both teams were spread out to the touchlines rather than all being crammed in the centre. In fact, we felt that playing against AI in general was far more fun than in FIFA 17, because they were that bit more intelligent.
Another really big change we were also introduced to by Rivera was what he called Dramatic Moments, the aim with these being to make wonder goals a bit more common, tuning trajectories to make shots more realistic (i.e. if there's a volley in the box it's now far more likely to go in rather than go high and wide). We were assured that this is all about the context where "beautiful goals" can happen, so it can't just happen anywhere, but we're still a little concerned that these kinds of goals could potentially become a little too common with this kind of change, although we'll have to wait until the full release to see about that.
Through balls build into this as well, and we were really impressed with this side of the game. It seems a lot of the time in FIFA 17, if there's a gap between defenders, your attacker will find one of the defenders or overhit the ball to the keeper when trying a through ball, but in FIFA 18, because of both the changes to through balls and more intelligent runs by AI, you can thread passes in a much more satisfying way now, getting players in behind for better chances.
In regards to crossing, in the presentation we were told that they have much more curl and are more driven, rather than FIFA 17's crosses which could often be far too high and slow, meaning both defender and attacker were just standing there waiting for it. Also, it's no longer triple-tap cross to do a ground cross, instead it's right bumper and cross (which is much more consistent with other types of attacking actions). We have to say, though, when using this in-game it felt much slower than the triple-tap option in the previous game, feeling more like a weak pass than a cross.
Atmosphere is another key part of the change coming in FIFA 18, especially in regards to stadiums. Prior used the example of La Bombonera in Argentina to showcase this, as this now has different lighting and flags to give it more of a South American feel (personality comes back into play yet again). Other little details are also added to stadiums this time around as well, such as debris like confetti on the pitch, and crowds behaving more realistically, as they'll now turn to face the action and push forward if a player comes near to them to celebrate. We appreciated all of these finer details, which gave the experience we had with FIFA 18 that touch more immersion, although we didn't get to sample a variety of stadiums.
The last point that Prior wanted to talk to us about was Ultimate Team, as Legends are now Icons, and they're also coming to PC and PS4 as well as Xbox One, and we know the first player that'll be a part of this: the Brazilian Ronaldo.
One more thing we should mention is the handful of new controls, one of which is quick subs, which allows you with the use of R2/RT to make a quick change of players either from EA's own recommendation based on yellow cards, stamina etc. or your own custom choice. There's also the addition of hard tackles, in between a standing and a slide tackle, where the player will forcefully go for the ball regardless of whether there's legs in the way or not, and this can be done by holding the button for standing tackle. For hardcore players you can also perform a manoeuver where you press a command to move the keeper more towards the far post if a player's coming in at an angle, so you can cover the near post with a defender. New skill moves, celebrations, and skill games were also mentioned by Rivera, but we don't know any details yet.
Overall though we were not only impressed about what we heard of FIFA 18 in the extensive presentation, but also with what we played. It's obviously an early build and not yet perfect, but a lot of the changes are noticeable, and the step forward from last year is most clear in attacking and in the visuals. We played several entertaining matches during our time with this early build, and we hope that continues into the full game later this year.