Ahead of its release on September 29th, we were lucky enough to get a couple of hours downtime with FIFA 18 at Stamford Bridge.
It's pretty damn good, and has vastly improved on some of last year's frustrations. Bear in mind that this is only the tip of the iceberg based on a couple of hours' play, but here's what to look out for in the new entry:
Basic gameplay changes
More touch-sensitive dribbling
After considerable feedback from fans throughout the year that dribbling was too similar amongst all players - who, incidentally, possess considerably varying dribbling talents in real life - EA Sports have revamped dribbling for FIFA 18.
The emphasis in the new edition is less about holding down 'Sprint' and marauding, and more about delicately gliding past opponents with the left analogue stick, very often without sprinting at all. It makes taking on defenders a far more immersive experience and opens up spaces we could only have dreamt of last year.
It also rewards the real world's best dribblers. Lionel Messi, for example, will touch the ball far more times than, say, Peter Crouch across the same distance. This offers users more opportunities and directions to manoeuvre while either travelling at speed or working in a confined space. Where in previous FIFA instalments it was relatively easy to run half the pitch with a centre back before a lack of pace would put paid to your rampage, it's now far more rewarding to give the ball to your more skilled dribblers and leave defenders in knots.
One of the things the EA Sports FIFA team felt from last season's games was that crosses were generally too rigid, high and straight. The new crosses are invariably more of the whipped variety and are infinitely more satisfying to deliver. In truth, this feels like the first FIFA game in a long time in which the crossing feels 'right'.
Incidentally, the ever-popular 'triple tap' cross is no more. Well, it still exists, but it's no longer a triple tap. This can be changed in controls for traditionalists.
Last year, the middle of the park became far too congested for the game to be conducive to playing consistently expansive football. In FIFA 18, as opposed to having one or two in-behind runners while you're in possession, support players all move coherently and intelligently, dragging opposing midfielders and defenders all over the shop and opening up space for the person holding the controller.
It's the type of development which might sound a touch gimmicky in that we FIFA players hear something similar every year, but when you see it in action this year and reap the rewards, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
It results in ample opportunity to thread delicate through balls - both of the ground and chipped variety - and it produces some suitably mental counter-attacks. The triangle/Y merchants will be out in force this season.
The 'statement' tackle
I admittedly don't know how to execute this tackle properly yet having only played a handful of games, but when I pulled one off by complete accident, I audibly clapped.
It's an almost man-and-ball tackle, somewhere between a stand tackle and a sliding tackle, but it's extremely satisfying when you execute it cleanly...or otherwise. I think it's achieved by holding down stand tackle while approaching the receiver of a pass, but you'll find out for yourselves when you get your hands on the demo and crunch the man in possession.
When mistimed, the defender goes flying, and it often looks worse than mistiming a slide tackle. From my short experience, it's the closest we've come to FIFA 2002's 'R1 challenge', which was later removed due to it essentially amounting to assault.
FIFA's producers used Delle Alli's stunning volley at Crystal Palace last season as an example of a moment which the more casual player found it too difficult to pull off in FIFA 17, and explained how they've made such magical moments far more accessible to all-comers this year.
Volleys have been tuned so as to make them more achievable but not too easy, with the same being implemented in the game's skill moves. The idea is that any player can produce a jaw-dropping moment which will define a game, as opposed to having to settle for lustfully watching spectacularclips on Youtube or FIFA's social channels.
Creative Director Matt Prior explained to Balls:
We don't implement it artificially. This is a question we get all the time about scripting, momentum, rubber-banding and all that kind of stuff. I can assure you there is none of that in there. It's about allowing the users the tools to achieve those [moments] if those opportunities arise. We won't script anything like that. I would just use the analogy of real-world football; you get those moments in real world football. I'm a Man City fan and I saw plenty of games this year where we had 80% possession, and then the other team would just break down and score a goal. I've had people say to me, 'that happened to me in FIFA, it's scripted'. But that's the beauty of sport. Our game is a representation of the real sport, so you will get moments where it just feels unfair.
Last year, certain features were harder to do for the more casual users. We felt the big moments are what make football great, but they were limited to certain users who were super-advanced. So we just added more of an opportunity to do the kind of wondergoals you see on there.
Skill moves is another one where some people aren't aware of how to do them. It's only like the top-level few that do them, so it's about bringing the cool stuff more to the masses. Giving people the opportunity to do more wondergoals and the like.
Players' running styles and fluidity of movement
This year, you'll know when you're sprinting with Cristiano Ronaldo. And I know you're probably thinking, 'I knew that last year'. But this year, you'll know. It just looks great, largely because Ronaldo himself - and countless other players - were hooked up to whatever mechanical gizmo which reads such patterns of movements.
Raheem Sterling, for example, will run with his T-Rex arms aloft, while Arjen Robben's hands will be downturned in full flight just as they are in real life. It looks immaculate, and even in your first sitting, you won't find yourself checking the name bar to see who's in possession when you're controlling one of the world's best players.
Furthermore, FIFA's Frostbite engine has allowed the overall physics of player movement to be drastically improved. For contrast, the example we were shown in slow motion was a FIFA 17 defender almost metamorphing from one physical pose to another in the blink of an eye, with his legs all over the shop. It looked unnatural and glitchy. In FIFA 18, players for the most part move like human beings, and have to sort their feet out in order to find the right body position to complete a command. It might sound frustrating, but it's instead rather seamless, and it just makes the game look so much better.
Unique, regional atmospheres
The stadium tiffo game in FIFA 18 is particularly strong, but what they've mastered - for the first time, to my mind at least - is the wholly different types of atmosphere in different regions around the globe. It's never more apparent than when you play a game at River Plate's Estadio Monumental. The pitch is littered with confetti which blows around with the breeze. The noise is far more thunderous than a Saturday evening at the Emirates, and there are extravagant banners hanging from every stand. There's even a car parked behind the goal, presumably to be given away at half time. It looks, sounds and feels amazing, and for the first time, you get the sense that you're playing a game in South America.
My one regret in my couple of hours playing the game is that I missed the opportunity to take to the pitch at the Bombonera. Having seen a clip, I'm confident it'll be a fair representation of the real-life madness that is.
The Journey 2
Alex Hunter is back, and crucially for some users, his appearance is customisable.
The trailer for The Journey 2 should be landing shortly. It's a serious production, featuring stars from various fields of the sport. The mode itself, too, is far more immersive and expansive than the original.
Cristiano Ronaldo will be an interactive character within the story, which might hint as to where Alex might end up.
Matt Prior explains the rest:
We listened to the fans, and one of the things that fan feedback drove was that they felt some of the choices weren't as 'impactful' as they would have liked.
There are some big moments in The Journey 2 where there's a big decision that will change characters and outcome. So that was one thing that was driven by fans. And we kind of knew it and wanted to do it anyway, but it comes down to capacity and all this. We can't create a sort of spider web of scenarios where I pick this [option] and the story goes this way, or, you know... It's just not feasible from a capacity standpoint.
The other thing was customisation: it's something we wanted to get in last year, we just didn't get around to it. Just that element of uniqueness, just about making 'my' [Alex] Hunter is something that the fans asked for.
I'll admit I wasn't arsed with The Journey last year, and barely played it, but having gotten a glimpse as to what we're in for this season, I'll certainly be dabbling far more this term.
Bonus: 'Icons' will be available on all platforms
Legends becomes 'Icons' this year, and crucially it is available on Playstation as well as Xbox and other platforms. We know little else thus far apart from the fact that Brazilian Ronaldo will be available when the full game launches on September 29th.
Watch Live at EA Play below: