FIFA 18 on Nintendo Switch is a curious beast: a game not quite last gen, not quite current gen. It's a game that on the face of it looks significantly inferior to the PS4, Xbox One and PC versions, but viewed as a portable game is pretty impressive. It's a game I'm happy to play on a bus, but I wouldn't want to play it on a big telly at home. Indulge me the appropriation of a football cliche: FIFA 18 is a video game of two halves.
I played FIFA 18 on Switch at EA's big Los Angeles event yesterday, and can report it certainly feels like FIFA. But there's no avoiding the big issue here: it doesn't look anywhere near as good as the other versions (check out my early impressions of FIFA 18 played on a PS4 Pro for more). FIFA 18 on Switch is not built on the Frostbite game engine, and so none of the fancy new graphical features that you'll see on the main version of the game are included. It looks pretty plain by comparison, with an almost flat feel that lacks depth and atmosphere. The crowds and grass suffer in particular. Clearly, FIFA 18 on Switch is hamstrung by the lack of the Frostbite engine, but the game plays nicely and feels at least as responsive as FIFA 17.
After playing in handheld mode, my colleague Chris Bratt and I played with the Joy-con detached. This is a particularly fiddly experience made just about bearable by slotting on the Joy-con extenders to make pressing shoulder buttons easier. When you play FIFA in this way, the game triggers a four-button control scheme and displays helpful input commands that pop up above the selected players. I didn't enjoy using the Joy-con detached, but I can see them doing an okay job if I were killing time with a friend on a train.
After my hands-on, I sat down with producer Andrei Lazaresco to get more detail on FIFA 18 on Switch. Lazaresco works at EA's Bucharest, Romania studio, which has for some time now worked with the main development team in Vancouver, Canada on the many versions of FIFA that come out each year. Lazaresco speaks passionately about the version of FIFA 18 his team has built, and stresses two things to me as I challenge him on the specifics: FIFA 18 on Nintendo Switch is best thought of as a portable FIFA, and you can now play FIFA Ultimate Team, FIFA's most popular mode, on the go. This, I think, is where FIFA 18 on Switch shines.
So yes, you can buy and open FUT packs on a plane, if the airline you're travelling with has Wi-fi. And yes, you can manage your team and transfers in a coffee shop, if there's a hotspot. Over to Andrei Lazaresco.
How exactly is the Nintendo Switch version of FIFA 18 different than the other versions?
Andrei Lazaresco: This is a custom-built engine for the Switch. It's completely different than the PS4 and the Xbox One.
So, it's not Frostbite.
Andrei Lazaresco: It's not Frostbite. It's custom-built. The whole engine is entirely new to the platform.
It's not Ignite [the engine used for the last-gen version of the game]?
Andrei Lazaresco: No.
Does it have a fancy name?
Andrei Lazaresco: No. When we first started looking at the platform and asked what are its unique features and what can it do, we decided to build a custom version of an engine. We felt the experience we were going to build would be the best by doing that, and leveraging what is unique about the platform.
We're using physical-based rendering. The crowds are 3D. The grass is 3D. The lighting is new. And on top of that you'll have Ultimate Team for the first time on Nintendo - and for the first time you'll be able to take it on the go. You'll be able to play on a plane, on a bus, even from just a hotspot.
Does it have Icons?
Andrei Lazaresco: It does. Ronaldo is the first Icon.
Does FUT on Switch work exactly the same as it does on the other platforms?
Andrei Lazaresco: Almost the same. There won't be any Champions on Switch.
Andrei Lazaresco: For the first year we put in Draft Mode, Squad Building challenges, Seasons, Tournaments, Team of the Week challenges - all of those are there. Remember, this is the first year we introduce Ultimate Team to Switch players. We're taking it gradually. We're going to announce more about Ultimate Team at Gamescom later this year.
Will you be able to buy packs in the same way on Switch?
Andrei Lazaresco: Yeah, in the same way, but through Nintendo, obviously.
So, FIFA coins?
Andrei Lazaresco: Yeah. The core of Ultimate Team, everything you know about Ultimate Team is retained within Switch. Imagine, for example, an airline that provides Wi-fi - you'll be able to connect to Ultimate Team. Sure, maybe we won't be able to play a match together, but you'll still be able to connect for the transfers and manage your club.
FIFA 18 on PS4, Xbox One and PC draws a new animation every frame, whereas FIFA 17 draws a new animation with every player step. Does the Switch version have this improvement?
Andrei Lazaresco: No. We used the fundamental base of FIFA code and innovated it. These are normal animations, so we're not using that new system.
So, it'll be more like last year?
Andrei Lazaresco: Yeah, if you want to make a comparison. But everything you see is custom-built, so I wouldn't compare it to anything else, because there is no reference point. This is the first game we put on Nintendo Switch. It's not that game downsized. It's not gen three up-rezzed. It's something that has been built with this console in mind entirely.
FIFA for me has to be 60 frames per second. Is it on Switch?
Andrei Lazaresco: It is, 100 per cent. Without 60 frames per second, you wouldn't be able to enjoy the game.
FIFA 18 on PS4, Xbox One and PC has great atmosphere effects for the stadiums. You can even go into the crowd to celebrate. Does the Switch version have any of that?
Andrei Lazaresco: No. Those are all powered by Frostbite. They do not live outside of the Frostbite engine.
You've overhauled the crossing for FIFA 18 on the other versions. Has it been changed on Switch also?
Andrei Lazaresco: Yep. This is entirely new crossing as well. Same control mechanic.
That version has a new hard tackle, too. Is that in?
Andrei Lazaresco: Yep. You can power up the tackle and release it at the right moment.
Does it have the quick substitutions of the other versions?
Andrei Lazaresco: No. I'll put it on the list.
I bet you have a long list.
Andrei Lazaresco: Yep, a very long list! As this was built almost from scratch, it sets a really good foundation base for the future for us to build upon. That's what we're excited for.
What challenges did you experience bringing FIFA onto Switch?
Andrei Lazaresco: Every time you put a new game on a new platform for the first time, it's not easy. There are technical challenges. There are design challenges. What we've ended up with, what we're going to launch in September - it's going to launch at the same time as all the other platforms - I have absolutely no worry saying we've built one of the best games you'll be able to play on the Switch. Even putting aside graphics, even putting aside gameplay, it just feels right.
You must know some Switch owners will say it's not as good as the other versions, that it doesn't look as good graphically and doesn't have the same features. What do you say to those people?
Andrei Lazaresco: I look at this as being on a very different console. It's a completely different experience than what we have on the PS4 and the Xbox One. This is a FIFA experience for people who play on the go.
So you're looking at it very much like a portable game?
Andrei Lazaresco: It's a portable FIFA. It's the best portable FIFA we ever did. It has a lot of features and you can play in all of the possible configurations the console has. You can play handheld, docked, with a single Joy-con, with dual Joy-con, with a Pro Controller. And if you have a console and I have a console, even without an internet connection we can play with each other. We call it Local Seasons. It's basically a five match season that we together can play even without an internet connection. It's sort of local Wi-fi.
The Switch version does not have The Journey. Can you explain why?
Andrei Lazaresco: The Journey is powered by Frostbite. When we looked at the platform and its unique features, we made the choice of custom-building the game. And while it doesn't have The Journey, it's still the best portable FIFA experience we ever did. It has Ultimate Team, which is our most popular mode. It has Career Mode, and you'll be able to play as a manager and a player. It has local seasons, kick off, tournaments, seasons, it has all of that.
I would definitely not get hung up on the fact it doesn't have The Journey. I would take this as a completely different FIFA experience on a completely different platform.
You talk a lot about Frostbite not being on Switch and that's why you don't have those features, but why can't you get Frostbite on there?
Andrei Lazaresco: It's not that you can't get Frostbite on it. It's just that we felt this custom-built engine would build the better experience.
I'm not a tech person. I create games. I know what the game should feel like. Me seeing people actually enjoying the game, for me means the world.
Do you think in the future FIFA on Switch could reach parity with the other versions?
Andrei Lazaresco: I wouldn't close the door on that. But I wouldn't make any promises either. We need to see where the platform goes from here.
From a technical standpoint, the platform is not on a par with the PS4 or the Xbox One. You can't just take that [the PS4 version] and put it here [on Switch]. It doesn't work like that. But, I get the question. When people get their hands on it, they will enjoy it. Regardless of The Journey or not, this is packed with features, and all of them you can take them on the go. That is by far the most important thing.