FIFA 18 is a kick in the right direction.

Another year of course means another entry in the most popular sports sim on the planet: FIFA. A perennial STACK favourite, it’s one of the few games that I consistently play all year. Well, until I sample the next iteration at E3, and then my interest in the old version dives like Jürgen Klinsmann.

Generally, the first game of FIFA is reserved for a hotly contested office rivalry, but given one half of the grudge match-up is on holiday, I had to plough on regardless.

So what’s new this year, then? FIFA 18 is more about the subtle changes than a wholesale makeover. The pace is slower – more realistic, in fact. Blindly holding down R2 to sprint no longer has an almost unfair advantage, unless you’re Chelsea’s Willian.

The physics, too, have been overhauled. I noticed this immediately when I contested a challenge where previously, a certain – albeit unrealistic, and physically impossible – manoeuvre would always win back the ball.

Now, a player’s momentum going into a tackle is carried through, as it would be in a real game, so it takes a little time to recompose their position. It’s an excellent inclusion and a further step towards recreating an authentic football experience.

Passing has also come under the microscope and been extensively improved, adding new two-button combinations to crossing and more pass variations to open up the opposition. As a result, the overall gameplay here feels far more fluid.

FIFA 18 sees the introduction of a new gameplay feature that allows players to make quick like-for-like suggested substitutions without having to pull up a menu to choose, and suffer the lag involved in bringing on a sub. Personally, I enjoy the ritual of believing that the leftfield position choice I’m making will have a positive effect on the outcome of a game, but most players will warm to the new option of uninterrupted play.

Off the pitch, the improvements are quite significant. Atmosphere at stadiums will vary considerably, depending on the geographical location of the game. Crowds – for the most part – move independently, their chants again particular to the region. And the lighting, showcasing the Frostbite engine’s true potential, is at times absolutely breathtaking, offering almost photorealistic visuals.

The Career Mode has been lightly tweaked and as always, offers endless replay opportunities. And the phenomenally popular FIFA Ultimate Team introduces a few new modes, including Squad Battles that will allow players to take on other FUT community teams and fight it out for a position on the leader board and rewards.

Alex Hunter is back with part two of The Journey, a mode I’m actually quite fond of, even as a FIFA veteran. There are many familiar faces from the football world that make cameos here, and the story continues to chart the ups and downs of Hunter’s career. It’s an interesting narrative that’s complemented with deeper RPG elements – a welcome inclusion in the entire FIFA package.

If you’re expecting extensive changes to FIFA this year, you’ll probably be disappointed. However, it’s the subtle improvements in FIFA 18 that make it the best entry in the footballing series for quite some time.

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