EA has just kicked off the E3 festivities with their EA Play press conference, and just like every year FIFA was on stage with the publisher bringing out key devs (including Aaron McHardy) to show off what's new, with almost the entire focus this year being directed towards the newly-acquired rights to the Champions League. EA even went as far as bringing the trophy itself on stage to celebrate their victorious win over Pro Evolution Soccer, which has just lost the rights after years of UEFA cooperation.
More importantly though we actually got to play the game itself at the event, pairing up with our colleague to play a full match in the Champions League setting, which in practice features the iconic music (you know the tune), signs and flags on the pitch and in the crowd, as well as all the bells and whistles you'd expect like banners on the side of the pitch.
Kicking off with a match between PSG and Real Madrid, the first thing we couldn't help but notice is that yet again there's been a visual upgrade. It's FIFA's third year in the Frostbite engine and things have never looked better, and from the glistening sweat on the players to the polished details on their faces, things look great. Even the trailer shown during EA Play showed some sleek looking rain effects during a stormy match.
Within seconds we noticed a big difference in the defending too. Now we can't be sure whether this had something to do with the assist settings in-game, but it felt a lot more difficult to deal with attacks from the opposition, this due to the fact that players don't seem to automatically run to the ball as often as they used to. By that we mean that if a member of the opposition plays a through ball in front of the striker, and your defender is in the same position, you'll have to manually direct them towards the ball to stop the threat rather than the defender automatically going there, which is what we expected them to do given past experiences.
One of our complaints about FIFA 18 would be that crosses occasionally felt a bit floaty and didn't offer the best route of attack, but in our brief session we noticed that crosses were far deadlier than we'd seen before, often finding open players. This creates more diverse attacking opportunities, like Neymar overhead kicking it to Cavani for a volley, or chipping it through to the Uruguayan to glance a header goalwards, as we saw happen during our game.
Those of you who've played the English version will know the commentary team as being Martin Tyler and Alan Smith, which has been that way since 2011, but now there's a change with the likes of Lee Dixon coming in to freshen things up. We don't know if Tyler/Smith are absent from the game entirely, but it's great to hear more voices on show.
The loading screens also gave us a little indication of the gameplay additions, as the "active touch system" has come in to provide better control, creativity, player personality, and fluidity (according to EA at least). It promises to change the way we receive and strike the ball, but we can't attest to how it works from the brief session we played, although we're certainly intrigued and look forward to seeing more.
The change to dynamic tactics, however, is something we did notice during our match. Whereas in previous games pressing buttons on the D-pad brought up a menu that allowed you to choose one of the tactical options therein, now they've been replaced with tactics you can toggle on and off, including options such as bringing the striker back to defend. This gives you the option of choosing multiple options at once on the fly, which works with in-depth tactical customisation pre-match as well. Oh, and we should also mention here that the most extreme attacking and defending options - All-Out Attack and Park the Bus respectively - are now gone too for some reason.
The 50/50 battles between players are also interesting because in these situations on the pitch EA has tried to make it so that user reactions and player attributes are more of a deciding factor when attempting to win the ball, which corroborates with our impressions about the defensive side of the game. Teammate intelligence and spatial awareness are also promised to be improved.
Last up is the inclusion of timed finishing, as pressing the shot button a second time just before the player kicks the ball, according to the loading screen, will help give you 'Perfect' timing with more accuracy, speed, and curve. If you time this action poorly, however, your strike is less effective, thus creating a risk vs. reward factor for players to consider during play.
Right now we've not played much, but what we have seen has given us reason for optimism, especially since EA is building on the very solid base that is FIFA 18. This is now the developer's third year working with the Frostbite engine, and the addition of the Champions League is just another reason for fans to be excited. Time will tell if that excitement is warranted, but watch this space as EA reveals more about this year's game, especially since we know from the press conference that Alex Hunter will once again return in The Journey when FIFA 18 launches in late September. Oh, and it's coming back to Switch too, which is always good news.
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