Alex Hunter's adventures as an up-and-coming player in the glamourous world of football continue in the Hunter Returns story mode, and while the game adds little touches to its other modes, this is FIFA 18's major piece of business in the offseason transfer window.
The story of Alex Hunter contains new choices, takes him across the globe, and introduces new characters, but its basic structure is the same. The mode is now broken up into chapters, but you still play lots of games, practice, and work your way up the skill tree. These things are not inherently bad, but the routine would be more enjoyable if its basic mechanics culminated in a more interesting destination. The match performance grading dings you for actions it shouldn't, and the menu feedback can be contradictory. Meanwhile, practicing to be in the starting lineup and having to spend points on skills you don't want (due to the restrictive skill tree) isn't an exciting backbone for the mode when you'd just rather get to the next turn in the story. All this is especially true when it feels like playing with Hunter is like starting back at square one where you struggle to put the ball on net, and a big part of the upgrade infrastructure only leads to cosmetic customization.
These flaws are tolerable because the tale itself – which ventures into serious subjects without binging on drama or hamming it up – is once again a success. I won't go into any spoilers, but family and the business of football are presented and executed believably. The inclusion of playable characters other than Hunter is smart because they not only help the pacing of the story, but they add depth to the characters involved. The script, voice actors, and Frostbite-generated graphics again deliver a great experience. As well-executed as the story is, the mode still could use some league and fan flavor. I was at a huge, global club at one point, and it didn't feel any different than if I was playing for a minnow.
Other modes don't feel as bolstered this year, despite their additions, because they don't have Hunter Returns' excellent story to provide a fresh experience. The career mode now includes transfer negotiation cutscenes (which are mute like many of Hunter Returns' characters), but this is a visual skin on the career mode's already familiar business dealings. In fact, the biggest change isn't the presence of cutscenes, but that negotiations occur in a single day, a nice (if minor) quality-of-life improvement for an otherwise static mode. The transfer network still goes dark and squad fatigue isn't the concern it is in real life, but thankfully training programs can be automated so you can easily shepherd the progress of your younger players.
The Ultimate Team juggernaut rolls on with new Icon cards that chronicle famous players at different stages of their career, but whether you land one or not, I think everyone will appreciate the new Squad Battles. These single-player matches against real-life players' squads (with variable difficulty levels and rewards) are nothing special at face value, but they form a more appetizing non-PvP grind path since you control the challenge and rewards through the difficulty level. I prefer this to Madden's Solo Challenges, for instance, which can either be too easy or too specifically demanding. Ultimate Team isn't my favorite FIFA mode, but with its loan players, squad building, and various ways to grab coins, I don't worry about forming a competitive team – on paper at least.
On the pitch, FIFA 18's gameplay shows as many strides forward as it does legacy issues. I like how it feels to run and dribble with the left analog stick, with easy, minute changes of direction letting you move into open spaces. Overall, the game seems more wide open than some previous FIFAs, which more strictly governed how you moved up the pitch.
As for legacy issues, I still encountered oddly wayward passes and weak shots; predetermined ball possessions, pathing (so many posts), and detection issues; and inconsistent acceleration, among other problems. Overall, FIFA 18's gameplay is in a good place, but there are still moments where I'm anticipating how the game will translate my intent instead of just playing without thinking.
FIFA 18 shows Alex Hunter moving into a wider world of football, and while that story experience is absorbing, it also reveals how much work areas like the career mode – which hasn't meaningfully changed in years – need. It's still worth it to play all the modes the title has to offer, but this is a title that caters to its superstar.