The FIFA series hit the snooze button last year. It was difficult to see where FIFA 16 improved upon its predecessor as one of its main features was the fact that you could have an on-screen trainer to help you understand how to kick the ball. Not exactly the usual innovation we’ve come to expect from a series that outplayed its rivals for the better part of a decade.
A few hours with FIFA 17 tells you all you need to know about why that is: it’s a big step forward for the brand into a new, exciting direction. However, it does take a couple of cautious steps backwards in the process.
The first game in the FIFA series to utilise DICE’s Frostbite engine, it certainly feels different than it did this time last September. There seems to be more of an emphasis on replicating what you see on the television or at the match itself: animations are more “human” as the players jockey for the ball, go for a 30-yard welter, or just try to pass amongst themselves. The previous FIFA engine was chugging along like a steam train while puffing out too much black smoke, so the Frostbite update has been a blessing.
It almost feels redundant to mention the presentation gulf between FIFA and its main rival as the former runs away with it yet again. Player likenesses are more or less exceptional, the stadiums feels alive and the wide variety of licensing makes it immersive enough to continue to dominate PES in the sales stakes. For all its flash, however, FIFA lags behind Pro Evo for the second consecutive year in terms of what’s going on down on the grass.
No football game can be successful unless it feels like you’re actually kicking a ball around a pitch, and this is something that FIFA 17 doesn’t quite completely manage. Passing feels slightly hollow and a little weak, which isn’t to say that managing to play tiki-taka with Carlisle United isn’t satisfying, it’s that it has an arcade-y feel to it. In its quest to recreate what you see on Sky Sports, the game has lost some of its immersion, as if you’re not down there on the pitch yourself, but just a guy in a room making tiny digital footballers run around. It still feels good, but when compared to the revelatory passing found in this year’s PES, FIFA 17 feels lightweight.
The tempo for this year has been toned down a little, meaning that it’s slightly harder than simply putting a speed demon on the wings and watching as the goals pile up. It plays at a more realistic speed and insists that you take a breather between your forays into the opposition half. FIFA 17 wants you to ask questions about how to play football and you will do just that on plenty of occasions – it’s much harder to break defences down than previously. After a couple of hours, though, it’s second nature to chip away at the AI and exploit the cracks as they appear to have a one-track mind: get the ball and worry about positioning later. FIFA 17’s defenders sometimes feel like a squad of bloodthirsty Terminators without much nuance in how they go about their job.
Of all the changes to what’s actually happening on the pitch, the sense of greater physicality is the most impressive. The aforementioned Skynet defenders can make short work of players like Neymar and Joe Allen if in a one-on-one as they battle for the ball and brutish attackers like Diego Costa and Romelu Lukaku can effectively bully their way through the defensive line. When combined with the perhaps too effective new corner mechanic, where you use a reticule to aim your cross, you can expect to see plenty of tanks in people’s Ultimate Team line-ups this year.
FIFA’s always had great depth in its modes and this year is probably the best example, especially with the introduction of the potentially game-changing The Journey. Playing as Alex Hunter, a talented youngster who has the odds stacked against him, you must battle your way from the fringes of your team to the top, all the while dealing with frenemies, managerial favouritism, and the weight of expectation.
Despite its linearity (a pattern of play quickly sets in), The Journey is buoyed by a tight, captivating narrative, fantastic voiceovers and a palatable, realistic sense of progression. Hunter is a rough diamond and won’t be an overnight sensation; you have to fight and scrap your way towards relevancy. Whether you’re taking part in training sessions or being called upon on matchday, it never feels like you’re the best player on the pitch, just a rookie trying to learn how to ply his trade.
It’s the biggest selling point of the game and it’s easy to see why. Although it does feel like a prototype at times, thanks to the occasional lack of variety, its RPG-lite elements and story showcase what sports games are capable of when given enough time to produce. It’s still early days for the mode and plenty of stories about Alex Hunter still need to be told, so expect to see The Journey become even more captivating next year.
The FIFA series’ jewel, which has created almost an entire ecosystem around it, Ultimate Team still stands head and shoulders above the competition. As it is sports game season, I have played every one of its counterparts across multiple titles, but none do it as well as FIFA. Whereas Madden NFL 17 and NBA 2K17 had their own capable versions, FUT is still the master. Building your team has never felt quite so “professional” as you have to seriously think about who needs to go where in the formation, how you’re going to best use your loan players, and if it’s worth sacrificing skill over chemistry. I have only spent a few hours with this year’s FUT, but I anticipate that many more are still to come, such is the nature of the beast. It won’t be long before I am twitching at pack opening videos on YouTube.
However, Career still feels like the begrudging stepchild in some ways. It hasn’t had a meaningful overhaul in quite some time and doesn’t feel all that different this year. Where PES 2017’s small tweaks to its Master League are made better by the greater emphasis on tactics, FIFA 17 doesn’t have this luxury. Play styles still feel universal, so whether you’re playing as MK Dons or Real Madrid, you don’t sense much difference in the way the match takes shape. Of course Ronaldo et al are more skillful, but the AI is more uniform and predictable at times. If they have the time, EA Sports should prioritise Career like they did The Journey this time next September.
FIFA 17 is the bravest FIFA to date but also one of the most conservative. With the introduction of a single-player narrative, it’s clear that they aren’t resting on their laurels and waiting for the FUT money to roll in, but are trying to once again lead a footballing revolution, just like they did when they wrestled the crown from PES all those years ago. Gameplay itself, though, still isn’t quite as fluid or as satisfying as it should be, but don’t write them off from making something truly wonderful next year. All the ingredients are there, it’s just about how EA Sport cook it.