There’s an old saying about cameras: the best one is the one you have with you. Unfortunately, the same is rarely said about video games. Despite rapid advances in the power of smartphones and tablets, mobile gaming has rarely exceeded relatively simple puzzlers and platformers, and are a long way from competing with console or PC iterations.
Enter the Nintendo Switch, a console that finally offers that promise, and FIFA 18, perhaps the biggest test to date of the Switch’s potential as a serious contender for gaming beyond Nintendo’s own limited if often delightful offerings and indie favourites like Stardew Valley.
On Xbox One and PS4, FIFA 18 is, yet again, the best outing of the franchise to date. It’s sumptuous to look at, including full motion capture of some bigger names, such as new franchise star Cristian’s Ronaldo. The AI is smarter, dribbling tighter; there is, inevitably, a smattering of new features, and excellent, cameo-packed follow on to last year’s cutscene-heavy The Journey, in which players shape the career of rising Premier League star Alex Hunter.
The Switch iteration was always going to be a test. Nintendo’s portable machine apparently can’t handle EA’s Frostbite engine, so FIFA on Switch has its own proprietary build – and no Journey. The graphics are simpler, particularly noticeable in textures (blades of grass; the fabric of players’ shirts) and lighting. But the graphics have a crisp, bright feel – the real player faces are all there. And although early versions are somewhat mired by graphical bugs, these are being ironed out. In short: you won’t really care, because the gameplay is all there.
On the pitch, FIFA for Switch feels remarkably similar to the full-sized console version – it’s a deep and gloriously entertaining football simulation. Any comparative limitations in graphical power are easily compensated by the ability to lift your career mode from the dock and keep playing on the go. It’s deep and satisfying; prepare for endless questions from fellow commuters (“Is that FIFA? How is it?”) as they look on in envy. Even the split Joy-Con multiplayer is a pleasingly diverting option that won’t ever replace local multiplayer on consoles, but will keep you going on a long train journey.
In fact, FIFA for Switch is a triumph, a validation of Nintendo’s vision: that, much like smartphones, consoles are increasingly all the same, separated by a few small differences in looks and power. Nintendo’s bet is that the ability to play in portable mode outweighs the lack of a 4K option. And, moreover, that gamers are increasingly divided into two subsets: the online player base who can pour hours into Ultimate Team or Elite: Dangerous, and the time-starved, mobile gamer, who may not have time for a 6 hour Destiny raid but finds too many smartphone games shallow and empty.
The challenge remains for Nintendo to sell enough consoles for more developers to follow EA Sports’ example. (And to fix its online experience. Seriously, that Wi-Fi interface is criminal in 2017 and the lack of SIM connectivity options feels like an oversight.) It’ll take plenty more franchises to close the gap with the other console manufacturers. But if presented with the option of a 4K iteration or one I can play anywhere? I know I’ll be choosing the latter.