Multi-platform development sits at the heart of the way games are made today, with code and assets shared across multiple platforms - and this puts Nintendo Switch in a difficult position. It's highly capable bearing in mind its mobile chipset, but it's not quite potent enough to power cutting-edge triple-A titles, explaining why FIFA 18 is somewhat different to its PS4 and Xbox One counterparts. EA has promised a custom-built experience but to what extent is this really a bespoke edition of the game? Is it indeed built from the ground up with Nintendo's hardware in mind, or is it more like a custom variant of the last-gen versions? Yes, remarkably, PS3 and Xbox 360 still get annual FIFA updates.
It's a distinction we've been looking to hammer down for some time, especially in light of Peter Moore's reaction to a tweet from Eurogamer's Tom Phillips. Our news editor suggested that the Switch game was indeed built on last-gen foundations, while Moore doubled down on the 'custom-built' marketing. But what if we were to say that to a certain extent, both of them are correct? We laid down £54.99 (!) of our own money for the Xbox 360 game and can report that the Switch version does indeed use the last-gen assets as a base, and it also plays a lot more like the Xbox 360 game than the current-gen versions. However, describing it as a straight port would be unfair: the customisations are extensive and more is being made of the Nintendo hardware so to that extent at least, aspects of the title are indeed 'custom' built.
And happily, first impression suggest that the Switch release appears to mostly deliver the full-fat FIFA experience. Aside from missing The Journey, all other key modes are present, with Ultimate Team finally appearing on a Nintendo platform, along with the latest changes expected from a yearly FIFA update. There's also online play too, though this is limited to matchmaking with random people due to Nintendo's convoluted network set-up. Regardless, it's a promising start, and it's probably the most feature-complete FIFA we've seen on a Nintendo console in years.
The overall package is robust, although the game doesn't quite deliver the complete FIFA 18 package across the board, with missing features and a different feel to the gameplay compared to the current-gen versions. For example, there are no squad battles or weekend league in Ultimate Team, while negotiations and release clauses are absent from the career mode. Additionally, there are fewer weather conditions and player formations to select, making parts of the experience feel less fleshed out. Then there's the way the game plays: the pace is visibly faster than current-gen FIFA, while the AI is more erratic when passing. The Switch game feels very much like a refined FIFA 17 as opposed to its successor, and in that sense, it is far closer in the way it plays to FIFA 18 on Xbox 360.
The visual package is also a mixture of old and new. Last-gen foundations are enhanced with higher quality effects and lighting. For example, pre-match sequences and replays use the same camera set-up and controls across both Switch and Xbox 360. Core assets are taken from the last-gen Legacy Edition, so player and stadium modelling appear very similar, as do player animations. The 3D crowds present on the current-gen builds are also pared back to animated 2D sprites - a common sight amongst Xbox 360/PS3 era sports titles.
At its core, it's clear that the Switch version has much more in common with the Xbox 360 game we tested, though the visuals are given a heathy boost in several areas that help to give the game a more modern look. The level of detail is increased across the players via higher resolution textures and normal mapping, which adds more depth to facial features like skin and hair, bringing these a touch closer to the PS4 and Xbox One versions.
Lighting and shader work are also given a makeover, adding more depth to the presentation, while the use of what looks like physically-based rendering allowing for more realistic depiction of materials on the players, and to a lesser extent, across the stadiums. The pitch also benefits from more extravagant use of 3D grass across replays on Switch, and post-processing is improved too, with a much higher quality depth of field implementation.
These changes help to position the Switch version somewhere in between the Xbox 360 Legacy Edition and the mainline PS4 and Xbox One releases, though aspects like bloom lighting are absent on Switch. We get the sense that EA has tailored the visuals to best suit the capabilities of the new console, including many of the title's visual elements but discarding others. This makes FIFA 18 an intriguing Switch release, showing that the console has the capacity to provide a nice upgrade over the last-gen versions of the game in several areas, but perhaps lacks the horsepower to scale down the current-gen Frostbite engine.
Because of its last gen roots and the limitations of Nintendo's hardware, the Switch release can't match the current-gen experience, though it still holds up pretty well in some respects. Switch's post-processing features a more refined implementation with more in common with the modern versions, while the lighting resembles that of an early current-gen FIFA title. Switch FIFA runs at native 1080p when docked, so image quality appears crisp and clear. In terms of pixel count at least, it's a match for PS4 and Xbox One, although the lack of anti-aliasing means that the presentation doesn't look as smooth. However, move over to portable mode - the area where FIFA 18 on Switch excels - and these concerns become less of an issue.
The reduction in visual quality is harder to make out on the small screen, particularly via the elevated gameplay viewpoint, while the native 720p resolution when undocked provides a sharp image on the handheld screen. The presentation is otherwise a match for docked mode too, with no visual cutbacks outside of resolution.
Performance also remains the same when playing in docked and portable modes. Just like the current-gen versions, we're looking at 60fps during gameplay and 30fps for the replays and cut-scenes. Besides an occasional single dropped frame - basically invisible during gameplay - frame-rates are otherwise solid, with the game looking and feeling very consistent as you play. Replays and other sequences aren't quite as stable compared to PS4 and Xbox One, with some dips below 30fps in busy scenes, and points where, bizarrely, frame-rate temporarily becomes uncapped.
It's a good experience when playing in portable mode, and EA also makes use of the Switch's ability for multiplayer gaming on the go. Detach both Joycons and these become a stripped-down controller for each player, allowing two people to play while using the Switch's screen to view the action. Alternatively, one person can use the Joycons while another wields the Pro controller - options that work in portable mode and while docked. For the most part, the set-up works quite well, although the simplified controls when using one Joycon mean that the move set is a little more limited.
On the whole, FIFA 18 on Switch does a good job at bringing the full console experience to Nintendo's system, with most of the gameplay features and options fans would expect. Of course, missing features in some modes are disappointing, while the gameplay straddles the line between last and this year's instalment, so the package doesn't fully match up with the mainline PS4, Xbox One, and PC releases.
Is it a custom-built version of the game for Nintendo's hardware? Well, yes and no. We feel that it would be more accurate to call it an enhanced, customised version of the last-gen Legacy Edition, with visual tweaks and gameplay adjustments new to this version. It's a solid start for the series on Switch, although clearly more could be done, such as developing a custom online mode that feature friend invitations and lobbies, which are present on the other versions of the game.
That said, we are looking at the most feature-rich FIFA on a Nintendo console, and one that we can take anywhere. From our perspective, FIFA 18 on Switch is something of a proof of concept - a first effort at somehow integrating a unique piece of hardware into a game development built from the ground up for multi-platform scalability across two console generations. There are limitations here, but there's also a solid base that could be built upon, and we would hope to see the latest gameplay mechanics and newer animations funnel down to Switch in future instalments. As it stands, the Switch version doesn't quite work as a replacement for the PS4 and Xbox One games - it's best to think of it as the best mobile football game available, and one that just happens to work quite nicely on your HDTV too.