A month after launch, FIFA 18 is in an interesting spot.
When EA's gargantuan football sequel came out I, and from what I can tell most people, enjoyed the game. Gameplay changes made for a fun, fast-passing and high-scoring game of virtual football, and some cool new modes meant FIFA 18 felt fully-featured. (For more, check out our FIFA 18 review.)
A month later, and with a couple of patches under its belt, FIFA 18 now has a mixed reputation among its rabid community. I've stuck with the game, pumping tens of hours into this year's FIFA Ultimate Team mode, and I've played what feels like hundreds of online and offline matches so far. So, I thought it would be useful to run through the good, bad and ugly of FIFA 18 one month in - and to offer my thoughts on what happens next.
Passing is perhaps the most divisive aspect of FIFA 18 right now. I love it and hate it (more on the hate part later). Passing is so accurate and fast in this game that you're able to ping the ball about as if it's a pinball. Players control low, driven passes with ease. This passing style means creating chances is easier than it was in FIFA 17, and this combined with what feels like easier shooting makes for plenty of high-scoring games.
After the miserly FIFA 17, I'm still enjoying this new, somewhat silly football simulation. However, it has led to some issues, which I'll get into later.
Squad Battles are a new mode for FIFA Ultimate Team that let you play against computer-controlled teams built by other players. What's great is you get decent rewards (FUT coins and packs) for the time and effort you put in. As a father with limited game time, Squad Battles has made FIFA Ultimate Team a realistic proposition. Just a few matches on an evening a few times a week is usually enough to reward me with enough coins to buy a few Gold-quality packs. And, depending on how well I do in those matches, I usually end up with enough coins to buy a decent player from the transfer market. As far as I'm concerned, Squad Battles is FUT dad mode, and it's fantastic.
FIFA 18's passing is overpowered. It's hard to see it any other way. And this had led some to say FIFA 18 has a skill gap problem. The theory is, FIFA 18 is an easier game than its predecessors, so the gap between so-called casual players (almost always a derogatory term within the FIFA community) and so-called experts has narrowed. While I believe skill continues to win out in FIFA 18, it's hard to ignore some of the complaints around the passing in particular.
FIFA 18's first major patch marked a turning point for many players. Prior to the patch, the sentiment was largely positive. Post patch, well, sentiment nose-dived off a cliff.
The patch notes revealed tweaks to the goalkeepers to make them better at stopping shots and one-on-one situations. It felt like long shots took a nerf, too, which was welcome given how easy it was to score from outside the box prior to the patch. But post-patch, players felt FIFA 18 played too similarly to FIFA 17, with miserly AI defenders who would block shots more often than not. This, combined with the improved goalkeepers, can make for a frustrating experience.
With improved AI defending post-patch came complaints about the computer doing all of the hard work for the player on the defensive side, which was one of the chief criticisms of FIFA 17. This ties into the skill gap complaint. If it's easy to defend (ie, let the AI do the bulk of the defending while you take a strong defensive midfielder, such as N'Golo Kanté, and run around like a headless chicken after the ball), this takes away the challenge of mastering manual defending.
It's safe to say FIFA 18's referees need some work. They're just so inconsistent, and often let what look like outrageous barges go unpunished. It can be pretty frustrating to see your player turfed off the ball with what looks like a rugby tackle, only to concede a penalty for what looks like a tickle.
Also, I don't know about you, but I find the refs get in the way of my players more in FIFA 18 than any previous FIFA.
FIFA 18 feels like it has a real problem with player switching. Usually once or twice a match I find myself hammering the player switch button as I frantically try to get the game to let me control the defender I desperately need it to. In a game with such fast, direct passing, satisfying player switching during defending is key. Unfortunately it falls down occasionally, and for me this usually ends up with my opponent creating a chance or even scoring.
One of the underlying issues FIFA 18 faces - indeed the series as a whole - is a lack of transparency over how exactly the game works. This leads to complaints about everything from the direction the ball moves when you pass it, to theories that revolve around apparent scripting. In short, some players reckon FIFA 18 cheats them. I've seen some pretty crazy conspiracy theories that accuse EA of dipping into matches to distract defenders during injury time, of blowing the ball off course as it rolls along the goal line, or - and I'm not joking here - even tampering with player stats.
Such theories are easy to dismiss at first as an overreaction to a moment during a match that goes against you. And representatives of EA Sports have always said FIFA does not include scripting. That ridiculous rebound that lets your opponent score a dramatic, last-minute winner? That's just football, EA says. That time your defender passed the ball straight to an opposition striker when you're sure you pointed the thumb stick in the opposite direction? That's football. Remember when Steven Gerrard slipped and Liverpool lost the league? That's football.
It's true that FIFA 18 contains plenty of odd moments that really do make you think. The FIFA subreddit and EA's own forum are littered with clips of FIFA 18 not working as players think it should, such as this one.
The problem is we don't really understand how FIFA works under the hood. Sure, we know how team chemistry works, and how player statistics go up or down depending on certain factors. But we do not know how those statistics and numbers and all the rest of it manifest on the pitch where players are clashing and the ball is on the move.
Why did your pass go awry? Why did your goalkeeper palm a shot straight into the feet of the opposition striker? Why did your shot hit the post and go wide? Why did your defender turn a blind eye to the midfielder who burst into the box?
FIFA 18 is a game of skill, but it's also a game of AI management. You control one player at a time, and so the computer controls 10 at any given moment. So much of the play is beyond you, out of your grasp, just outside your understanding, that when things do go wrong, it's easy to blame the computer. FIFA just cheated me. There. Easy. I've said it myself, usually when I've conceded a last minute equaliser online.
This is why FIFA 18's next big patch is so interesting. EA has said it will nerf passing in FIFA 18's third title update, making ground passes and ground through passes less effective when "blindly" passing the ball between 90 and 270 degrees, where zero degrees is the direction the player is facing.
This patch makes me feel a lot better about FIFA 18 and how it works under the hood. It suggests player skill - in this case knowing a pass is more likely to succeed if you don't blindly pass the ball - does have an impact. For all the player statistics and chemistry styles that make the numbers go up and down, making your players pass the ball in a realistic fashion is best - just like in real life.
Despite some of its issues, I'm still enjoying FIFA 18 quite a bit, and with Squad Battles I'll keep coming back for more. Some of the common complaints you see online are overblown (FIFA 18 is still nowhere near as depressing to play as FIFA 17 was), but there are clear problem areas, such as referees and player switching.
It remains to be seen how this upcoming passing nerf will play out (it's out now on PC but yet to hit the console versions of FIFA 18), but my gut tells me creating chances will get slightly harder, and so those high-scoring games I've come to enjoy might calm down a bit. Perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps not.