There are 7.37 million more pixels on a 4K TV than a Nintendo Switch screen, but does that make it the better canvas for playing a game of soccer? Not necessarily, according to EA. For the first time in five years, since the first and only title for the ill-fated Wii U, EA is putting out its flagship FIFA game on a Nintendo home console system alongside the PlayStation and Xbox versions.
“I wouldn’t compare [the Switch version to the others] — it’s different,” producer Andrei Lazarescu told me recently. Lazarescu is an amiable Romanian leading FIFA development at EA’s studio in Bucharest, which splits work with the team in Vancouver. “These are two FIFA games standing on their own two feet — they are different experiences on different platforms made for a different audience. Sure, there may be crossovers, but i don’t think that’s going to be the majority of the people playing.
“I think the majority of the people playing have not had a chance to enjoy a proper game of football for a number of a years, and some of them have never played a game of football before.”
FIFA 18 for the Nintendo Switch, then, deserves to be judged on its own terms. And on its own terms, it’s pretty fantastic. It’s by far the best handheld soccer game ever made, doing a remarkable job of bringing the full FIFA experience to the Nintendo Switch’s screen. It doesn’t feel identical to the PS4 or Xbox One releases, but it’s much more similar than many of EA’s experiments with FIFA on prior Nintendo systems. “We wanted to make the game super responsive and super fun to play while still being FIFA, still having that feeling of authenticity and immersion,” Lazarescu says.
The Switch version uses its own modified engine rather than the Frostbite technology that powers FIFA on other consoles. The game runs at 720p in handheld mode and 1080p when docked with a TV, thankfully at 60 frames a second in both cases. Graphically, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s nowhere near as impressive as the other versions — I flipped between HDMI inputs on my TV to compare the Xbox One and Switch titles and the face-off wasn’t flattering to the latter. It does look significantly better than FIFA did on last-generation systems, with 3D grass, physically based rendering, and its own approach to vibrant lighting that gives the game a distinct style. But the gap in power is very clear.
As you might expect, however, the game feels a lot more technically advanced when you’re playing it in your hands. And really, that’s the main selling point of FIFA 18 for Switch. You shouldn’t get this version if you own a PS4 or Xbox One and plan to play it exclusively at home. But the ability to make progress on your season from anywhere and then continue on the big screen when you get back to your couch is incredibly appealing.
You can also hand a Joy-Con to a friend for a quick two-player game huddled around the screen — EA has developed a stripped-down control scheme for local multiplayer, and I conducted most of my interview with Lazarescu while taking him on in this mode. It’s not the ideal way to play the game, and there are some advanced moves that simply aren’t possible with these controls. But it’s also a lot of fun, and the kind of thing that really delivers on the Switch’s unique capabilities.
“I think this opens up an entirely new world for FIFA, for sport as well in general,” Lazarescu says. “I may be a bit biased, but when someone gets a Switch and asks ‘Hey, what are the games I should get on this platform?’ Zelda, Mario Kart, and FIFA — that’s what I think. They are different categories of games but I think all of them complete the experience of this console. And being able to play, take it with you on the go, that is the uniqueness of it.”
FIFA 18 for the Switch adds a lot of new elements to the FIFA experience, then, but there’s still quite a bit missing from this first entry. While the hugely popular Ultimate Team mode is playable on the go for the first time, it doesn’t have all the features of this year’s PS4 and Xbox One games. The career mode is similarly stripped back. And The Journey, the cinematic story mode introduced last year, is missing altogether — EA’s line is that it wouldn’t be possible to include without the Frostbite engine.
“There’s a huge list,” laughs Lazarescu when I ask if there was anything the studio wanted to get into this version. “Building more into Ultimate Team, other modes, presentation, making it look even better… With every FIFA there’s a ton of things that we’re thinking of doing, but you only have a year, so you need to make the right choices. We haven’t decided in any way how we’re going to build on this, but we did look at this as being a foundational year, just to be sure that we have a really solid base to build upon.”
FIFA 18 for Switch isn’t perfect, but it’s an excellent effort for a first entry on a new system with less than a year’s development time. It’s the deepest and most satisfying portable soccer game I’ve ever played, and it bodes well for third-party games on the Switch, an area where Nintendo has struggled quite a bit in recent years.
And while its technical verisimilitude isn’t quite enough to get me to abandon my annual attempt to lead Southampton to Champions League victory on the Xbox, I do plan to play through seasons on Switch with my second love — FC Tokyo — whenever I’m on the move. Hopefully this year’s Switch version won’t be a one-off.