For the first time this generation, EA Sports can lay claim to a monumental transformation for the annual FIFA instalment and mean it. Proudly running on the Frostbite Engine, used to power Battlefield 1, FIFA 17 claims “football has changed”; at the very least, the face of it certainly has.
The switch of service provider offers more than just the most authentic player likenesses of football’s biggest egos. It empowers them with more emotion, and a sense of actually being human, to drive the new story-based mode, The Journey. Here you forge the career of youthful prodigy Alex Hunter, signed to the Premier League club of choice alongside best mate Gareth Walker. The British besties grew up playing together, dreaming of running out side-by-side for (in my case) Liverpool. After an awkward glimpse of him as an 11-year-old, The Journey kicks off with 17-year-old Walker being signed to the club of his dreams – or a lesser known where he is more likely to get first team opportunities.
It’s a new and inventive way to play FIFA. The Journey incorporates elements of Career Mode and Be a Pro, but ventures outside the box to conceive its own identity. With a surprisingly heavy emphasis on cutscenes off the pitch, at least initially, Alex is given a strong persona alongside his mum and grandfather, who was a Liverpool (in my game) legend in the ‘60s. The official football ambassadors who acted as consultants — Anthony Martial (Manchester United), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), James Rodríguez (Real Madrid) and Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund – and the cover athlete) – make fleeting contractually obligated appearances, but it’s the characterisation of Alex, and especially his grandfather, that makes the Journey a proper narrative-driven campaign.
As to be expected, it’s a little clunky in implementation for the first outing. Stunningly rendered emotionally charged disagreements with managers are followed by generic training drills that have barely evolved and the backgrounds grow stale before he’s even made his debut. But the story itself is intriguing. There are ups and downs of professional sport, largely influenced by how you play. The key events and their influence, like signing a big name in the same position, are scripted with predetermined outcomes. Achieving objectives, like being awarded a high player rating or nabbing a goal assist, will nudge you closer to the starting XI than the subs bench.
Alex’s status within the team is simply represented in an evolving progress bar, as are his transfer value and total career earnings, which drive most of his motivation. The branching dialogue system (calm, fiery or neutral responses) supposedly impact his playing style, but I didn’t notice anything other than how many social media followers he was gaining with arrogant narcissism – yes, you play as an influencer as well as a footballer.
The Journey offers the choice to play as just Alex or the entire team. Whereas controlling a single-player always turned me away from a player career, I much preferred focusing on Alex’s game. It makes it easier to complete his personal objectives – the goal, after all – and there’s a disconnect with the other players when the narrative is so obsessed with the performance of an individual.
Of course, there are significant gameplay drawbacks to both options, as The Journey struggles slightly with forcing an individual focus on a team game. Controlling Hunter alone encourages calling for the ball selfishly and attempting to score when another player is in a better position; score assists strongly influence his player rating to mitigate this to a degree, but there’s nothing like scoring for personal glory. Even making the effort to be a team player can create problems; it’s hard to meet the match victory K.P.I. if you’re setting up scoring opportunities A.I. teammates constantly squander. But then again, that’s team sport; you have to accept the good and the bad outside of your control. Taking the reigns of all players causes the opposite problem. Creating a scoring opportunity is pointless if Alex wasn’t involved in the passage of play, and trying to get him involved all the time doesn’t make for good football. However, it does make it much easier to ensure he gets plenty of the ball. Despite struggling with the concept of being a team player, The Journey is a refreshing way to play FIFA, and offers a much needed unique single-player experience in a series that has a pioneer for multiplayer.
Outside of its marquee newcomer, the usual suspects return. Career Mode takes centre stage with refinements to extend the goals of a manger, without falling too far into the complexities of management sim. Mr Manager has an actual face (and likenesses of the world’s biggest managers are included for the first time) and given a longer term view of the club’s position. It’s not just about winning the league title anymore; your rating is determined by immediate and the potential for future success, as well as the club’s financial situation. Combined with The Journey, it’s a great year for single-player fans.
FIFA Ultimate Team is back with new challenges, like create a squad from a single country. The weekend Champions League makes things more interesting for committed players who qualify throughout the week. We haven’t had enough time to see that in its full glory before release, but you know what you’re going to get with FUT and either hate it or love it. Female players return for the second year in international teams, with a tournament mode dedicated to just that — but it’s buried deeper in the menu this year, at least while The Journey is promoted at launch.
On the pitch, Frostbite enables sweat to glisten the brow of players as they charge for the ball with more physicality (damn, they’re all extremely sweaty). The collision physics are almost akin to real life, reducing the embarrassing blunders of yesteryear. Where FIFA 15 and 16 focused primarily on enhancing defensive play, FIFA 17 overhauls attacking options with driven kicks, threaded through balls and downward headers. Free kicks, corners and penalties have all been completely overhauled, for the better. FIFA veterans may initially be discouraged by the redundancy of reliable tactics committed to muscle memory, but the changes ensure all set pieces offer players more control. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the exploits become common knowledge, and there are going to be some preposterous penalties (smack that Share button!); but they make for more fun and unpredictable gameplay.
Pacing remains familiar but FIFA 17 feels more open when you break the line of defence, especially with successful threaded through balls. The backmen are as close-marking as they have been in any FIFA game, but this year’s returning superstars Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo more often than not find a way through to bamboozle goalkeepers, who are much less inclined to make catastrophic mistakes.
FIFA 17 finally fixes the series’ irritatingly incompetent A.I… mostly (I won’t believe ‘keepers are reliable until I’ve played enough for FIFA 18 to be on the horizon). The Active Intelligence System is leaps and bounds more impressive than anything during the Ignite era, as teammates now position themselves and run in useful formations. They’re smarter at running into space — including bad positions to make room for teammates — and no longer bolt towards goal in a direct line. The improvements to A.I. creativity aren’t obvious during play, but that’s not the point. Rather, it’s not obvious at how bad it can be, as was the case in previous games, and that’s what matters. Quality A.I. in a sports game should fade into the background and become unnoticeable.
FIFA 17 is the biggest stride forward for football this generation. I can’t say it’s reclaimed the crown from PES, and for the players who have made the switch, you’ll still find the controls a little too erratic. But with vastly improved A.I. and more attacking options to complement the defensive backbone, this is the strongest FIFA this generation where it counts. The Journey is in its infancy, but makes a quality debut in what is the best FIFA for single-player fans in recent history, alongside a deeper Career Mode. With a more attacking mindset in-play, it’s specular running on Frostbite — if anything, we have to wonder why EA waited so long to make the switch. After three years and four instalments, FIFA 17 is the stride forward we’ve been waiting for this generation; thank you, Frostbite.
FIFA 17 was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One, as provided by the publisher.
Review: FIFA 17