After a week and half with FIFA 18, I’ve encountered something I’ve never had to deal with before after long gaming sessions: a blistered thumb. Sixty hours on, this year’s iteration of the long-running series isn’t the major reinvention we saw last year, but the tweaks, changes, and new additions make it the best football game on the market.

The biggest addition to the series in recent time came by the way of Alex Hunter’s debut last year in The Journey. Its sequel of sorts, dubbed The Journey: Hunter Returns, continues its narrative on taking an up-and-coming professional football player through the big leagues.

Last year we saw Hunter make his first steps into the professional game, complete with betrayals and interactions with some of the game’s best players. This year is no different, though Hunter is now more determined, cocky, and intent on becoming one of the best players the world has seen. He wants to live it up in the suites of Madrid or Paris, and the story – while once again rather short – takes a surprisingly dark tone. It’s a nice change, with Hunter dealing with inner demons of sorts as he ascends his way towards stardom, but the way it is handled it still feels a bit awkward.

Conversation options usually don’t play much of a role in the development of Hunter and his personality, and some are just boiled down to one option that plays out over a handful of sentences, inevitably making it feel like you’re watching a rendition of another Goal! movie rather than actively involving yourself in a game. That said, FIFA 18 does a much better job of blending in the cinematics and story with gameplay this time around, and I feel it’s only a matter of time before the developers strike the right balance between crafting a story that feels fresh, fun, and plays well, and having choices that reflect consequences more meaningfully.

Career Mode sees a bit of a change this year with the introduction of The Journey-type cutscenes for negotiations. Also implemented are sell-on clauses, player bonuses, signing-on fees, and players have the chance to reject loan opportunities if they aren’t interested in your team, or if they believe it’s too much of a step down for them. These additions make the experience of being a manager feel much more realistic, though the lack of new custom manager skins means that any team you negotiate with outside of well-known leagues and teams will look generic. It’s a bit of a bummer, but something I hope will continue to be worked on and refined over the next few entries.

FIFA 18 does a much better job of blending in the cinematics and story with gameplay this time around
FIFA 18 review

Ultimate Team hasn’t had all that much changed this year, with notable additions few and far between. The biggest, however, is the introduction of Squad Battles: a single-player focussed weekly event that tasks you with playing against hand-picked FUT squads from other players’ teams with varying chemistry levels and ratings.

As you compete against teams with a rotating set of four squads available to take on every 24 hours during the week, you’ll gather a score based on if you won, what difficulty you played on, and how many goals you scored and conceded. This is then tallied and added to a global leaderboard, with every player getting some sort of reward at the end of the week. The leaderboard is tiered, too, with the top 100 players getting a bunch of coins and some valuable card packs as a reward.

I became enamoured with this mode, and spent most of my time accumulating points and building my squad to take on some of the best EA could throw at me. For someone who isn’t traditionally all that big on FUT (as I still think it’s a big cash grab with little to no reward for paying players), I really loved the fact I didn’t have to try and compete online and could relax and enjoy a different kind of challenge.

FIFA 18 review
FIFA 18 review
FIFA 18 review

I also like the fact every player that tries the mode and earns some points will be rewarded in some way, whether it’s a bronze pack or, if you manage to make your way up towards the top 100, a hefty amount of coins and some rare gold packs. The rotating teams also vary in difficulty depending on their chemistry levels and overall rating, meaning some difficulty options will be harder than what they are in other modes. It’s definitely a neat idea and finally gives some reward to players more content to sit back and play single-player but want to involve themselves in some Ultimate Team action.

FIFA’s biggest gameplay changes came by the way of the introduction of the Frostbite Engine last year, and FIFA 18 continues the annual trend of sprinkling in new additions and changing up the formula just a bit to keep things interesting. The game seems heavily focused on attacking play this year, and rewards smart runs and quick passing more than ever before. Defenders can be beaten easily with slick passing this time around, and that’s both a good and a bad thing.

Every player on the pitch has a discernible feeling of weight to them in FIFA 18, and it makes agile players like Messi and Griezmann a bit overpowered when taking on hulking defenders like Athletico Madrid’s Diego Godin or Bayern Munich’s Mats Hummels. The same can also be said in regards to quick defenders too, as I found myself struggling with pacey defenders to catch up to quick players who had pierced my defensive line and made a run on goal. That said, the game’s AI system is vastly improved, and defenders will read play a lot more intelligently, with quick interceptions and stepping up to catch players offside now a regularity rather than a rarity.

for the most part EA Canada has nailed a package that feels full of value
FIFA 18 review

Penalties are much better as well, and the implementation of a new crossing system means crossing is finally a viable option to attempt to bang in a couple of goals, unlike last year. Quick substitutions are also included this year and for the most part don’t interrupt the flow of the game, allowing for more time spent in-game rather than in menus.

As is the case every year, it’s going to take a bit of time for returning players to get the hang of the refreshed game, but all of the changes feel great when they click. FIFA 18 feels as realistic a football game has come so far, and it’s a big step up from previous iterations. Some annoyances are still prevalent, like repeated commentary lines from many years ago and animations sometimes looking awkward, but for the most part EA Canada has nailed a package that feels full of value for returning players as well as those looking to jump in for the first time.

FIFA 18 doesn’t feel like a complete reinvention of the franchise like last year’s entry did, but the subtle tweaks, changes, and additions EA Canada has made makes this year’s iteration of the beautiful game a more complete experience. It's chock full of content to explore for every kind of football fan, and the return of Alex Hunter is a welcome one. All in all, the best just got better.