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FIFA 18 preview: Striding in a new direction 11.06.17

Ronaldo is everywhere in FIFA 18. As befits the status of the best player in the world, the 32-year-old Portuguese graces the cover of the next instalment of EA's cash-cow blockbuster - for the first time ever strangely enough.

He also features as a strong cameo in season two of The Journey, the surprisingly accomplished story mode focused on the career of young Alex Hunter.

But, most importantly, Ronaldo's really in the game this time. Yes, his likeness and high skills were approximated in previous years. But this year, EA motion-captured 50 minutes of CR7 in action, those funny little ping-pong-ball suits faithfully transmuting his unmistakeable stride into pixels.

You will know it's him just from watching a few seconds of his loping gait and sizzling speed.

This matters because long-time fans will have noticed how homogenous the thousands of players in FIFA looked on the pitch during actual gameplay. Journeymen ran the same way as superstars. Frequently, the only way to tell them apart was the name tag above their heads.

In fact, EA Canada, the studio that has helmed the FIFA series since its inception in 1993, paid particular attention to the players' animation this year. Thanks to extensive mo-cap work, every one of the 8,000 players in the database (not counting Ronaldo and a few other luminaries such as Raheem Sterling) fits into one of six new archetypes - mostly based on their physical attributes, whether they're tall, short or, um, wide. 

So while the usual FIFA razzmatazz - or TV-style presentation as EA would prefer - has been subtly polished again, the developers insist the drama on the pitch has garnered the most love.

"Gameplay is the most important feature of FIFA 18," developer Sam Rivera told us at a preview event at Stamford Bridge in London last week. Well, he probably would, seeing as his title is lead gameplay producer. The team were most insistent that they've worked hard to improve almost every aspect of FIFA 17 but focused this time on four pillars - the player animation, team AI, substitutions and increasing the number of spectacular moments.

Rivera talks up the increased responsiveness of players, something he calls the "explosiveness" of their reactions that showcases their increased effort when, say, transitioning from jogging to sprinting.  He promises a greater degree of fluidity in changing between animations and distinctive "personalities", presumably among the top players at least.

"We believe the game is going to be more authentic, more fun and more emotionally immersive - that's our goal," says Rivera.

But even EA Canada realises it's an uphill battle every year to differentiate each new game from the last. This is a game played by 22 million people and had a reputed budget of $350m last year after all. EA needs that steamroller to keep on crushing the opposition at the tills.

In fact, many parts of the Stamford Bridge presentation began with (and I paraphrase) "in FIFA 17 this feature was pretty rubbish but in FIFA 18..."

Matt Prior, creative director on FIFA for several years, admits as much: "It's always the challenge because we're quite unique in the industry in that it's the same team that makes the game year on year. We're good at prioritising features that make a significant jump every year to get buyers excited.

"We always ask ourselves the same question: does it sound weird to say 'compared to last year...' From a consumer standpoint, you want to know why you'd want to buy it.

"It's not like we shipped bad things last year but there's always room for improvement throughout."

But Rivera's comparisons with FIFA 17 prove revealing as he chooses a few frames of player  action from last year's game engine. "The way this player approaches the ball is robotic. You can see the transitions between animations. He faces the wrong way. But in FIFA 18 with the same movement you can see how he steps properly and faces the ball."

Team AI now features more diversity, according to Rivera. In the past, "teams would play very similarly. We are really focusing on that differentiation.There's more styles, with teams playing counter-attack or long balls, or there are players that very good at dribbling and trying to finish themselves, like Ronaldo. You will see that personality in FIFA 18. There's also new defensive styles where, for example, all the players will wait and wait until they see the right moment to go and put pressure on.

"We are humanising the AI. We got feedback that in previous years it was a little bit boring sometimes. The AI experience is a lot more fun in FIFA 18."

Some features such as The Journey take years to implement, so back in 2014 EA created a small squad tasked with building the foundation blocks of this celebrity-laden rags-to-riches mode for its debut in FIFA 17.

"It was not just a leap in innovation but something we'd not done as a team before, the whole cinematic thing," says Prior. "Because it was new to FIFA, there was a lot of prototyping of 'who are we building this for?'. If we'd had built a mode where we were targeting hardcore career users, The Journey story would probably have been very different."

He also reveals EA has teams working on other long-term FIFA improvements rather than just the annual update. Prior knows the 12-monthly grind works against them: "One of the challenges with the yearly iterative cycle is that it doesn't give really much opportunity to experiment."

He reels off a list of items "requested" (or demanded in internet speak) by fans, including a degree of customisation in The Journey, where for logistical reasons you couldn't build your own likeness or dramatically affect the story.

"We can't create this spiderweb of scenarios where if I pick this, the story goes this way... It's not feasible from a capacity standpoint. The users felt some of the story choices weren't as impactful as they would have liked. So there's some big moments in Journey 2 where there's a decision that will change characters and outcomes. "

* FIFA 18 releases on September 29

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