Video game spin is a curious thing. It must be difficult for publishers and developers to turn a negative into a positive, but sometimes the excuses are so odd our eyebrows can’t help ascending skyward. The FIFA series has been a good example of this for a number of years. Nintendo fans need only cast their minds back to the launch of FIFA 13 on Wii U: it was essentially FIFA 12 with major modes – most notably the massively popular Ultimate Team – completely removed.

The game was heavily criticised for this, and gamers stayed away as a result. EA then decided not to make any more FIFA games for Wii U, citing "disappointing commercial results" despite "featuring FIFA's award-winning HD gameplay and innovative new ways to play" (as opposed to being because all the best modes were, you know, totally missing). More recently, FIFA's much-hyped story mode, dubbed "The Journey", made its debut in FIFA 17 but was only available on the Xbox One and PS4 versions: Xbox 360 and PS3 owners missed out because those editions didn’t run on the swanky new Frostbite game engine and according to its creative director, "without Frostbite a story this immersive doesn't happen".

Now here we are with FIFA 18 on Switch, the first FIFA game on a Nintendo home console for half a decade, and the spin machine’s out in full force again. This time, while the Switch version finally has the much-loved Ultimate Team mode the Wii U game omitted, fans will be curious about the fact that none of the new Ultimate Team features in this year’s Xbox One and PS4 version are in there. The reason, according to a Eurogamer interview with one of the game’s producers, is that having every feature in there "might be too much" for someone new to Ultimate Team. We’re calling nonsense on that: and we’ll explain why in a bit.

First though, let’s judge the game on its own merits. To be blunt, FIFA 18 on Switch is a fantastic game and a brilliant technical achievement. Fans of the FIFA series will immediately be able to get to grips with the game as soon as they start playing, because at its core this is ‘proper’ FIFA, not the odd bespoke versions on Wii and 3DS back in the day. The full array of abilities is available in this version, due to the JoyCon Grip (and Pro Controller) offering enough buttons to cope with it. Right stick skill moves, finesse shots, driven lobs, threaded through balls, you name it – every expert-level technique you can pull off in other versions of the game is here too. No more Wii Remote flicking, slow-mo Matrix moves or any of that other rubbish Nintendo-owning football fans have had to put up with over the years.

However, because it’s not running on the Frostbite engine, FIFA 18 on Switch doesn’t play exactly like the other current-gen versions. The pace is slightly faster and player animations and physics aren’t quite as fluid, lending the game an ever-so-slightly more arcade feel (but not to any major degree). It actually works well; as long as you aren’t a stickler for intricate animation detail, you’re going to have fun here. It runs smoother than a greased-up jazz musician too, with a full 60 frames per second in both docked and handheld mode making for a silky performance and the general feel that you’re playing a high quality product. Although its (slightly less silky-smooth) cutscenes and other close-up moments reveal that the character models are a good deal less detailed than their Xbox One and PS4 counterparts, squint a bit during normal gameplay and you’d genuinely struggle to tell the difference.

The ability to crack out those JoyCon controllers and play some two-player matches anytime and anywhere is also a welcome one, although the game’s simplified a bit in this form. If you’re playing with a single JoyCon you’re missing out on a second stick, a D-Pad and two shoulder buttons, which means things like on-the-fly tactics, threaded through balls and finesse shots are no longer possible. Consider this a more casual version of multiplayer FIFA, then, designed for quick games on the go: for more serious grudge matches on the move each player will need either a Pro Controller or both JoyCon so that they’re armed with a full set of buttons.

Every element of the game is produced to high, error-free quality. The commentary is crisp and varied, the crowd noises are a treat and load times are reasonable (with the series’ ever-present skill games on offer to keep you busy while you wait, but we found you can jump into the game in seconds anyway). If NBA 2K18 was an example of how to completely mess up a port and riddle it with errors, FIFA 18 is an example of how to do it properly. Well, on the field at least. It’s when you’re off the pitch and in the game’s menu screens that FIFA 18’s limitations start to rear their disappointing head. Again, let’s be clear: this is still a far greater suite of modes than any Nintendo FIFA game has ever had (or any portable version, for that matter).

The standard Kick Off and Tournament modes are in there. Women’s football, first introduced in FIFA 16, is present and accounted for. There’s a Career mode in there – more on that in a while – and a Switch-exclusive Local Seasons mode lets you play a five-match series against a FIFA-owning friend locally to see who’s the best when the dust settles. In terms of online, you’ve got Online Seasons – the league-based mode in which you start in Division 10 and have to play 10 games against random online opponents in an attempt to get enough points for promotion – but the most important addition has to be the ever-popular Ultimate Team mode.

For those new to it, Ultimate Team is one of the most addictive things to happen to football games, and sports games in general (which is why it’s since been imitated in PES, NBA 2K, Madden, NHL and the like). When you start it you pick a team name and are allocated a bunch of hopeless 50+ rated players and a random team badge, kit design, ball and stadium from the ones available in the game.

The aim is to play games to earn coins: these can then be traded for packs containing better players, or spent in the transfer market to buy specific players you’re looking for. And yes, microtransactions rear their ugly head here, but they’re by no means essential. This reviewer has been playing Ultimate Team since 2010 and has never spent a single penny, yet still adores the satisfaction of building a team into world-beaters through nothing more than hard graft and skill.

Also present are the Squad Building Challenges. These were introduced to Ultimate Team last year and are a series of regularly updated puzzles that ask you to put together specific squads with players you no longer need, then submit them in exchange for rewards like rarer packs of players. The whole thing is an obsession, though on Switch this excitement has to be tempered a little. The Switch Ultimate Team is a separate entity to the Xbox One and PS4 versions, so even though all three versions require you to create an EA Account to save your squads online, each edition's teams are completely different. This means you can’t, for example, play the Xbox One version on your TV then take your Switch on the train with you and load up the same team. There’s also no Switch support for the FIFA 18 Ultimate Team web app or mobile app, which let you tinker with your squads and Squad Building Challenges while away from the game.

This is the tip of the "missing content" iceberg, sadly. As you make your way through the game’s menus, FIFA 18 on Switch can just as easily be judged on what features and modes it doesn’t have as it can on what it does. Long story short, there’s a lot. The brilliant new Squad Challenges mode in this year’s Xbox One and PS4 versions of Ultimate Team? Not there. The new Daily Challenges, which give you mini-achievements (score three goals with a Brazilian player) for rewards? Not there either. The FUT Champions mode, where you compete in weekly tournaments to try and enter an elite league against the best players and win rare prizes? Nope.

And that’s just in Ultimate Team – there are many more gaping holes in the game’s feature set. All the fancy league-specific graphics packages are missing, so if you play a match with two teams from the likes of the Premier League, MLS or La Liga, you’ll still get the standard EA Sports scoreboard and timer instead of the official authentic ones. The EA Sports Football Club feature – in which you earn points as you play the game which can then be spent on historic kits, different balls, new goal celebrations and Ultimate Team coin boosts – is nowhere to be seen, meaning all that content is missing. 

Online gameplay, meanwhile, is nice and smooth: as long as you plan on playing against strangers. Even before the game was launched we were able to find Ultimate Team online Seasons matches within seconds, so that side of things works perfectly. But there's currently no way to invite any of your Switch friends for an online match. This is almost certainly Nintendo's issue rather than EA's – hopefully the still-to-come paid online service will sort out this side of things – but it's still annoying that if you want to play FIFA against one of your mates instead of a random opponent, they're going to have to be in the same room as you. Whether or not this is a deal breaker for you is down to personal taste, but we imagine that it will compromise the experience for a great many FIFA addicts.

Most telling of all, though, is the Career mode, and that’s how we managed to figure out why the aforementioned dose of spin – that the Switch version is missing modes because it "might be too much" for the players – was a load of old kippers. The Xbox One and PS4 Career mode in FIFA 18 has a new transfer negotiation system in which you hammer out a deal face-to-face with players. This isn’t in the Switch game, presumably because of the whole "this is only possible in Frostbite" malarkey. The Xbox One and PS4 Career mode in FIFA 17 didn’t feature this. It was just a normal Career mode with some new objective-based features. But here’s the thing. The Switch version of FIFA 18 doesn’t even have that version of Career mode. It’s got the one from even older versions of the game, because (drum roll, please) FIFA 18 on Switch is basically the Legacy Edition that’s on Xbox 360 and PS3.

Now, let us clarify a few things before you plug in the old pitchfork-sharpening machine. There are still a few things in here that set the Switch version apart from the last-gen games. As previously mentioned, its custom game engine means that it runs smoother and looks sharper (the developers claim it renders at full 1080p when docked and it certainly seems crisp enough for that to be true). It adds the four new stadia that the Xbox One and PS4 versions get, its Ultimate Team mode has the Icon players like Maradona, Pele and the like (the last-gen ones don’t) and you can unlock a special Switch football shirt in Ultimate Team, too.

So let’s not go too overboard: it’s clear that at least some work has gone into optimising the game for Switch and ensuring there’s at least some new content in there for the system. Our complaint here is more that it’s not enough. The Journey story mode aside, there’s no actual technical reason why any of the other current-gen modes – the Ultimate Team Squad Challenges, the Daily Challenges, the weekly FUT Champions event, the EA Sports Football Club section with the retro kits and other goodies (none of which are in the Xbox 360 and PS3 Legacy Editions either) – couldn’t have been in the Switch version. Despite the producer’s claim, we all know these features aren’t missing because it "might be too much" for Switch owners’ delicate brains to process. They aren’t in there because it was decided (be it down to lack of resources or time) that there’d be no effort made to implement them in the game.

What we ultimately have, then, is a game that – when we look at it logically rather than emotionally – is far and away the greatest modern football game on a Nintendo system and the greatest handheld football game ever made. If you don’t own an Xbox One or PS4, this still looks great and plays fantastically and is a more than acceptable version of FIFA. If you do own an Xbox One or PS4, however, you should only really buy the Switch version if you plan on mainly playing it in handheld mode. While it’s still superb both handheld and docked, the latter can’t really hold a candle to its more powerful and feature-rich siblings.

Conclusion

As a first attempt at releasing FIFA on Switch, EA has nailed the look and feel and given us a brilliant console and (more notably) handheld game. For that reason alone, Nintendo fans – especially those who haven’t owned a good football game in a while – should consider this a must-buy. This won’t be enough next year, though: a few little additions aside this is essentially a Legacy Edition port, and while EA Bucharest gets the benefit of the doubt this time as its relatively new to Switch development, if the inevitable FIFA 19 doesn’t have full mode parity with the other main versions of the game then no amount of spin will justify it.