Published on by tm1985 100 Comments
EA’s recent press tour for FIFA 18 saw them stop at Stamford Bridge, the home of the Premier League Champions, for their UK leg and we were in attendance, along with many other members of the UK gaming press. (although I don’t really put myself in that camp).
The setup was standard stuff for an EA press tour, a short presentation on the new features, or at least the ones they’re talking about at this stage, followed by the opportunity for plenty of hands on time with the game. There was a little bit on The Journey: Hunters Return, covered here, and outside of that it was offline Kick Off matches, either against the AI or whoever you happen to be sitting next to and that’s it. No Ultimate Team, no Career Mode, no Pro Clubs at this stage, just a decent look at the new gameplay features.
Being the sociable type, after a few games against actual human people I buried myself in a quiet corner and settled down against the AI for a few hours to maximise my time with the game. As with any early look at FIFA, or any game, there were bugs, there were elements that still needed work and there are things that may still change.
The key talking points that EA brought to the table centred on it being year 2 of their move to frostbite, making an effort to reference the dividends that would pay off with the new engine. Creative Director for FIFA 18 Matt Prior was keen to emphasise that a shift from one engine to another was tough, but that this had been a positive one, and in fairness to FIFA 17, the shift to frostbite was nearly seamless in comparison to past engine migrations.
The standout change for FIFA 18 for me was a new animation system that is typically tricky to explain in words, without the aid of test bed videos shown to us on the day that we can only hope EA choose to share in trailers.
The crucial thing to take away from this change is that more points of animation, and more available animations, allow for more to happen, so an example given was from FIFA 17 where 2 players of differing height running alongside each other would still touch the ground with their feet at the same time, each stride in tandem, obviously wrong. The comparison from FIFA 18 showed Messi running alongside Pique with Messi’s feet touching the turf more often which seems obvious enough and simple enough but it’s a tech advancement that will bring some really positive changes. With animation cycles being shorter you’ll be able to “change your mind” quicker, because there’s now an animation to actually play out what you’re trying to achieve, whereas previously you’d make a decision, start an animation cycle and pretty much be stuck with it until there was an opportunity to break out of it.
That running example might seem like a small one, but it’s part of a bigger system that will hopefully allow us to see players able to deal with situations they weren’t able to previously, things I could reference positively were players taking the ball out of the air defensively in a much more natural way with high blocks and certainly more occurences of players intercepting balls running past them. Think of all the times your defender has stuck a leg out only to see the pass find its intended target anyway, I saw a lot more instances of players being able to intercept passes that would run past them in FIFA’s gone by. One last example I can think of seeing the new animations shine is with chips shots whilst running, I scored an absolutely beautiful little dink over an onrushing Oblak with a first time chip that I’d have never gotten away with before.
The new animations also allow for better trapping in tight areas, a new half tackle that somewhere between standing and sliding, sharper dribbling without the need for modifiers, it felt pretty nice to run at people with nippier players and EA noted that no touch dribbling had been tuned but to be honest, I still won’t use it.
Dribbling has been apparently overhauled, EA’s words not mine, and it is better, slow dribble is on RB and you should see more personality in dribbling, coming from the addition of 6 new “Player Archetypes” which they sadly didn’t go into much detail on, but as an example in a situation with Verrati trying to take the ball off of Hummels, Hummels feels a bit chunkier whilst Verrati is obviously a lot more nippy, again, seems obvious but it was good to see a noticable difference between different physicalities.
It’s been done to try and provide a distinction between certain types of players beyond just their stats and from what we saw it was pretty good, Marcus Rashford felt very “Marcus Rashford like”, and the system extends as far as unique running styles for different types of players, think Raheem Sterling’s arms, and in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo, they went as far as packing up all of their motion capture gear and chucking on a plane to Madrid so that they could capture him fully and replicate his unique movement and running style in game completely as seen in the reveal trailer.
Crossing has been reworked too with the pre-existing triple tap ground cross being moved onto RB + cross (or double tap cross, oddly) and a high cross being available via LB + cross which feels really loopy and probably best used in desperation when pushed right to the touchline. I was particularly fond of this change, as it not only makes different variations of crosses easier to instigate, but it also shows that EA were aware that crossing in FIFA 17 was a bit shite.
There’s also a new quick sub option that sits on RT when the ball goes out of play, so it’s only useable when the pitch resets for a corner or goal kick, that may change, but we couldn’t invoke it from throw ins in the build we played. Regardless, when it’s available because the ball goes out of play, you’ll now be able to hold RT to bring up the quick sub pop up and flick through up to 3 pre-selected “quick subs”. You’ll be able to set these up pre match in the team setup menus, pre-programming 3 quick subs that you can select from in game, or if you don’t set them up you’ll be given a single, pre-set option. You can turn these off, certainly in kick off matches, seeing as they have the ability to act like a replay for a little wind up opportunity, I timed them. Its 8 seconds before they time out.
Prior talked a lot in the presentation about “dramatic moments” and “wonder goals” and to facilitate those they’ve worked on through balls, player runs and volleys. We did find as we played and, more particularly, as we watched others play that longshots were ridiculous and utterly unstoppable. It’s not unknown for EA to “turn up” new features in the early stages and press tours to better show off some of the changes, but I would probably wager that 85% of the goals I scored and saw scored on the day were from outside the box, often well outside it.
The improvements to through balls were pretty impressive, with runs being much more direct, particularly coming from wingers moving back inside behind full backs, from an attacking point of view they were a dream, but only time will tell if they become a problem defensively.
As you’d expect AI has been worked on, with a focus on team AI and players thinking together, or at the very least, considering the players around them more when making decisions. In FIFA 17 and back players made decisions regarding their positioning individually, not really considering where their team mates were and deciding where to place themselves based on that. Now they will take a lead from what’s going on around them. This plays into attacking too with players now using this hive mind AI system to make sure there’s always a passing option and will co-ordinate around you to offer space and support.
Elsewhere on the AI front EA talked about putting the changes to use in Career Mode to offer more variable team styles from your opponents, which is something they've struggled with in the past, so hopefully this will allow different teams to have different identities. There was also talk of humanising the AI, which basically seemed to revolve around locking them into decisions for longer, to make them feel more “human”.
It can be challenging to separate how new features feel individually vs how they fit into the overall gameplay of FIFA but the new animation changes are certainly strong, slowing the game down ever so slightly, in a good way, however I would say that oddly player momentum seemed to have suffered, with players over running often. I made a point of noting that down so I’ll mention it, but in hindsight it’s possible I was sprinting too much.
The new animation system simply enabled more to happen, with players turning to take the ball in their path as it drops, rather than waiting to control it, then turn, and the ball moved a bit better too, looping from deflections in a more natural way and it had a more realistic pace on the deck, with EA noting in their presentation that they had tuned the grip of the pitch.
There was a definite positive to be taken from the runs and positioning too, with a safe passing option being available pretty much all the time and through balls feel a lot smarter and a lot more dangerous, but only when invoked from close range. Through balls from further out will still result in a foot race between defender and attacker, but from the edge of the box player runs behind defenders were a lot more threatening.
I still struggled with player switching although no one else on the day mentioned it. It’s something I have a big hang up with in regards to FIFA, so I was hoping for a positive change on that front, but even using RS instead of player switch, I found it missing my intended target often.
The dribbling improvements were really positive too, especially for me, as I’m someone that doesn’t make full use of dribbling modifiers it was nice to feel the difference between the different player types and how they handled.
A last word on gameplay, I was able to speak incredibly briefly with Samuel Rivera, who’s the gameplay lead on FIFA 18. Knowing I’d have a chance for a chat with him I wanted to focus on eSports, and more specifically how the success of FUT Champions had shaped changes to gameplay this year. Sadly I barely got more than a few minutes into our chat before the PR rep was tapping his watch, and we were moved along for the next interviewee, so the best I could get from Samuel was that they had been paying attention to these aspects in regards to gameplay and had also been engaging with pro players to seek their advice for areas of improvement, which can only be a positive thing.
Moving on to the dressing and cosmetic touches, in addition to the obvious new celebrations and skill moves, which EA will no doubt talk more about in the run up to release there’s other smaller stuff like single players taking kick off instead of 2, a new lighting system which is very sexy indeed, some of the lighting in stadiums as the sun is setting are genuinely incredible.
There’s been an upgrade to player models to just put more detail on their faces really if you should ever find yourself looking at them close up as you'll have seen in the reveal trailer, and the crowd looks less generic, so you’ll see less of the same types of character in the crowd close to one another.
The crowd move about now too, jumping up and rushing into the aisles when important goals are scored which means you can now draw them out when celebrating. Similar to the way running and celebrating into the camera on the touchline was recently added, you can now run over to certain sections of fans to get mobbed. I guess to add to that broadcast aesthetic EA are chasing you’ll also occasionally see close ups of the crowd a ’la Sky Sports and some of the pre match setup, like the players to watch screen has been updated to include that familiar “player turning and stepping towards the camera” bit that’s currently very popular.
In addition to that, EA talked about prioritising regionalisation, noting that in previous FIFA’s pretty much every stadium felt the same in terms of crowd etc. but they’ve worked on that to include regionally focussed pitch ads, different lighting for different continents and smaller touches like paper or toilet roll on the pitch in certain parts of the world too, going as far as having things around the edges of the pitch in certain stadiums like inflatables and even cars which I didn’t know was a thing. So that all comes under a header of “energetic atmospheres” and it’s all pretty impressive, particularly the lighting, it looks really natural and whilst it obviously doesn’t add anything to the gameplay, the game is still better for it.
That’s all I saw in a meaningful enough way to be able to discuss but hopefully it’s provided you with an idea of the direction the game is headed in this year, and we’ve still heard nothing as yet regarding Career Mode, Pro Clubs, Ultimate Team or even EA’s plans to take their eSports offering to the next level but all in all, it was a positive event, the new animation system does open some doors so now it’s just a case of hoping that EA fully capitalise on the tech and use it to build a bloody lovely football game.