FIFA 18 cannot fail. With Cristiano Ronaldo emblazoned on the front cover, a quickly evolving esports scene and the continued adventures of Alex Hunter, the series will continue to dominate the sales of competitor PES 2018 without needing to work too hard.
At this point, the plethora of real-world licences, player likenesses and branding deals almost secures the market on its own, but it would be doing EA Canada an injustice to suggest the developer is resting on its laurels. FIFA 18 ushers in plenty of change to the on-pitch action, making this a more technical and tactical game than before.
Short passes remain zippy and often faultless, meaning quick interchanges can open space in an instant. Buildup play is most effective when it's pacey, giving gamers who utilise a pass-and-follow style a surefire way of maintaining an attacking threat. FIFA 18 has been earmarked as slower than its predecessor, but in these moments, the ghost of FIFA 17 can still be seen.
However, noticeable adjustments have been made to long passes and cross-field balls. Last year, barely any power was needed to ping possession from one side of the pitch to the other, a pressure-relieving move that took little skill to pull off.
This year's title challenges players with being more precise, both in terms of direction and the power needed to land the ball at your colleague's feet. Such passes take longer to execute, but when delivered properly, they can open an avenue of attack that was nonexistent in FIFA 17: crossing.
Unfortunately, last year's most effective route to goal was working the ball wide and utilising a low cutback for the tap-in. High crosses were almost always nodded away by defenders, with many pro players bemoaning the ineffectiveness of strikers who constantly failed to attack the ball. Crosses can now be whipped with greater pace, which when combined with the AI's more aggressive attacking runs, provides an improved chance of nipping in to head home.
This will feel unnatural to players who have become used to eliminating crossing from their arsenal, but there are situations wherein the tweaked mechanics are slightly overpowered. Headers from corners—particularly if you play the ball short and then curl a cross in—have a noticeably high success rate if you've got an aerial specialist on the end of it.
As such, physical forwards take on major prominence. Players such as Romelu Lukaku are excellent at holding the ball up and laying off a short pass to onrushing team-mates. Like PES 2018, it's a viable tactic to play into the feet of a hulking centre-forward and then find support with a quick pass.
Shielding remains an overpowered method of shrugging off the nearest man, despite the ball's diminishing willingness to stick to feet. Dominance is established by body position and balance, although there's a slight unresponsiveness when breaking out of the shield and trying to pass. This kind of control is slightly looser than it was last year, which provides a decent opportunity to look at arguably FIFA 18's most important new addition.
The implementation of a powered tackle command provides the chasing team with an interesting way of winning back possession. Pressing the standing tackle will go for the ball as normal, but holding the button exerts further physical pressure and the chance to break up play in true Jose Mourinho style.
The longer you hold the button, the more likely it is you will overstep the mark with a strong shoulder barge, push or lunge. Possession can also be won simply by putting your body in the way—avoiding any tackle command at all—meaning a more diverse battle ensues across the pitch.
Passive defending developed into a huge problem throughout FIFA 17's lifespan—it was far more effective to keep defenders in position while dragging midfielders back to tackle—so it's clear EA Sports is keen on ensuring a skill gap is brought into this facet of the game.
Players who nail timing and have the nous to work dangerous situations in their favour, such as committing a tactical foul at the right time, should hold a clear advantage when playing multiplayer. It will be fascinating to see whether the strength of AI defending continues to dominate the online arena, though.
The atmosphere of each match encourages proactive play. Crowds clap clever passes and smart interceptions, providing a sense of increasing momentum when you gather the ball and move towards the opposition's goal. The fan response is a useful method of providing confidence-inspiring feedback, especially in difficult matches wherein every crunching tackle or moment of respite is vital.
This is carried into "The Journey: Hunter's Return," which follows Hunter in the second season of his professional career after FIFA 17's breakthrough campaign.
A nearly identical formula is followed: training sessions and matches break up cutscenes that push the soap-opera narrative along, but a handful of tweaks and a tight script make this a more gripping story than last time.
Without spoiling the many twists and turns of Hunter's story, the mode provides an eye-opening take on the world of untrustworthy agents, transfer deadline day dealings and the pressure of playing in front of a hostile crowd.
Hunter's character and supporting cast are already well-developed, meaning this year's tale wastes no time in unleashing the drama, both in the starlet's private life and on the pitch.
Players now have the option to change Hunter's hair, kit him out in branded apparel and give him tattoos, but it's the addition of story-changing decision-making that will excite most.
The likes of Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand and Thierry Henry have lent their acting skills to the plot, but most of the famous performances are slightly cheesy. Not enough to take away from the experience, mind, but it will take the most unforgiving CR7 supporter not to crack a smile when he delivers his opening line to the starstruck Hunter.
Friends can now join Hunter on his journey, making each match multiplayer if so desired. However, the AI lends itself to playing solo, as it's noticeable how aggressively Hunter bursts forward when controlling the entire team. This is a smart way of keeping him prominent when players decide against only controlling the English forward.
Although mostly a smooth experience, a couple of technical oddities arose during Hunter's story. Most notably, the "create two chances" objective wasn't marked as completed after two assists, slightly souring an excellent performance. There was also a moment when—chasing a late goal—my attacking-midfielder version of Hunter was placed into a back three while defender Marcos Rojo was pushed up front for Manchester United. Even by Mourinho's standards, that's bizarre.
Similar to Hunter Returns, minimal tweaks have been made elsewhere on FIFA 18. Career Mode remains largely the same, despite interactive transfer negotiations grabbing headlines ahead of the game's release. Sitting down to negotiate with a player and agent is entertaining, if a little freaky as they continue to silently mime the subtitled script on screen.
The series' greatest success, a certain Ultimate Team mode, has received one major new feature in the shape of Squad Battles. This is an interesting addition and one tailored towards those who want a shot at big prizes without participating in the ultra-competitive Weekend League.
Instead of needing to qualify by winning an online tournament and then playing 40 matches against human opponents for huge rewards, this is an offline mode that tasks players with beating an ever-changing array of Ultimate Team selections.
Points are awarded after each match, with higher scores dished out on tougher difficulties. The Weekend League ranking system is implemented to dish out rewards, meaning there's a decent amount of coins and packs to be won. This is a much-needed feature after the intense multiplayer push of FUT 17.
However, the continued lack of support for online bronze and silver tournaments remains massively disappointing for those who want to work away from gold items. Ultimate Team is best when it caters for all, so this remains an oversight.
EA Sports certainly appears to be consciously thinking about how FIFA is going to develop as an esport.
The changes made throughout FIFA 18 are designed to separate the good from the great, and moving forward, the added complexity to tackling is likely to form the base of the series for years to come. It's encouraging to see the developer testing things out at this early point of gestation for virtual football as a competitive sport.
FIFA 18 is a well-rounded package, crammed with subtle tweaks that will force players to improve their game by finding an identity. EA Sports' juggernaut is truly rolling, but as ever, months of play will define whether these changes really deliver.
FIFA 17 played massively differently at release than it does now because of early patches, something that FIFA 18 looks set to avoid with a more robust and versatile style.
Game Summary: Gameplay: 8/10, Graphics: 9/10, Modes: 9/10, Overall: 9/10.