There are some things in life that are certain. Everybody dies, politicians lie, and the knowledge that EA will make yearly iterations of FIFA until Sepp Blatter finally admits he’s greased more palms than a veteran mechanic.
This year, a number of changes come to the popular footballing franchise in an attempt by EA to keep the gameplay fresh; a brand new engine, pitch-side managers, overhauled set pieces and the inclusion of a long overdue story mode to name but a few. If you want to know more about FIFA 17‘s new ‘The Journey’ story mode, skip ahead and you’ll find a section dedicated to it further down. For now though, lets tackle (football pun) some of the big changes this year, and what they mean for the game.
FIFA on Frostbite
One of the things EA have been championing, is the fact that FIFA 17 is the first in the series to use their in-house game engine – Frostbite. In theory, this allows the game to run more fluidly, look sharper and have fully destructible dressing rooms a-la Battlefield. To the laymen then, FIFA 17 should look, sound, and play more impressively than ever before, and for the most part it does.
The dynamic lighting effects make everything pop like never before and player kits and stadiums could scarcely look any better. While most top-flight player likenesses are absolutely spot on, there are still some that are stuck on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. This isn’t a fate shared by the 20 new Premier League managers introduced to the game though, who all look superb.
Before you ask, yes, players still stare blankly into middle-distance while flapping their lips and flailing their arms when set-pieces are dished out, but now, they look a lot better while doing it. So I guess that’s progress?
On the pitch
With the on-pitch action seemingly in a constant state of flux from year to year, FIFA 17 is another year where pace beats skill and player reactions feel overly laboured and sluggish. You can now hold up play by pressing LT or L2, making it easier to keep the ball while your players catch up to you, but it also means that trying to get the ball off an AI opponent nigh on impossible with the weak tackles, even on the lower difficulty levels.
Set pieces have also been completely re-worked as people discovered in the demo. With direct free kicks and penalties, you can re-position your player to open up a new range of scoring opportunities; adding outside swerve or knuckleballing the hell out of it depending on the situation. Indirect free kicks and corners add a targeting reticule that allow you to place the ball in a specific area for your players to attack.
If it feels overly fiddly and difficult to work with, that’s because it is. While it’s perfectly possible to master the new system and score some outstanding goals, it takes you out of the game and feels like a chore to complete.
It’s a shame that it feels like such a frustrating missed opportunity, especially when PES 2017 seems to have nailed slick, exciting football matches this year, even if FIFA does still have the edge on other fronts.
Making a career of it
Like many who have enjoyed past iterations of FIFA, but couldn’t play their way out of a wet paper bag online, Career Mode is where I get most of my mileage in the franchise. Thankfully, EA have resisted the urge to tinker too dramatically with the formula they nailed down in FIFA 16, though there are a few changes here and there. Aesthetically, the mode has had a new lick of paint and a few menu reshuffles, but by-and-large everything is where you left it. If you’re going for a managerial career, there’s a few new season objectives like balancing the books and hitting a certain number of shirt sales but starting a player career is pretty much the same deal as before.
In short, if you get your kicks from Career Mode as a player or a manager, the new additions don’t break anything, and you’re still likely to have a decent amount of fun taking your favourite team to the top.
FUT is another popular mode that’s been largely left alone – thankful as it’s one of the most popular game modes for the franchise. There’s the inclusion of Squad Building Challenges which task you with hitting certain team requirements – three nationalities in one team, all players from one club etc etc – in return for rewards. It’s a useful and fun way of clearing out your club of unnecessary and unwanted bronze and silver cards, bringing in yet another element.
Probably the most exciting new feature in FIFA 17, is the inclusion of The Journey. In The Journey, you take control of an aspiring young footballer called Alex Hunter who comes form a rich footballing pedigree, and is looking to make his mark on the beautiful game. Alex isn’t alone in his race to the top, and is joined by his best friend Gareth Walker as well as family members, coaches, agents and a smattering of famous footballing faces for good measure.
It was created with the help of Premier League starlets like Harry Kane, Dele Ali and Marcus Rashford, and is supposed to be an accurate representation of what it’s like to come through the academy and into the spotlight as a young star.
EA have previously stated that the reason they made Hunter, was to add more depth and believability than if they allowed players to create their own star. To his credit, actor Tomiwa Edun does a great job of making Hunter a relatable character who you want to see succeed, and the supporting cast all play their parts with aplomb. As a result of the structured storyline, you can only pick between being a striker, winger or attacking midfielder, which is fine because who the hell plays the game as a defender anyway?
The Journey basically plays like a padded out Career Mode, with cutscenes and training mini-games thrown into the mix. In cutscenes, you’re often presented with a choice of three responses to a situation. You can be fiery, which will gain you more fans but piss off your manager, you can be cool, which will please the manager but will bore potential new supporters half to death, or you can be completely neutral and bereft of personality, living out your fantasy of being James Milner.
It’s a similar system to that used in Bioware’s Mass Effect games and is in place to try and establish more of a connection between the player and young Hunter. In reality, it doesn’t change things all that much for the starlet, but it’s a good base to build upon when branching storylines are inevitably introduced in FIFA 18‘s The Journey 2: Journey Harder.
You can track your success off the pitch by checking in on people’s reactions on social media, and by growing your own social media following for lucrative sponsorship contracts. If you’re playing like a latter-day Emile Heskey, they’ll be sure to let you know, and will similarly sing your praises if you’re tucking them away at a steady pace.
The Journey then, is an interesting and welcome addition to FIFA. It won’t be winning any story telling awards and it’s hammier than a tin of Spam, but if you don’t take it too seriously – and forgive it its many, many cliches – it’s an entertaining way to while away a weekend or two.
So, the big question; Is FIFA 17 worth buying? If you’re a dyed in the wool fan of the franchise and pick it up every year, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find much to really hate about the game – even with the soupy new gameplay mechanics. But for those looking for a more robust football game on the pitch, FIFA 17 is left wanting in one too many key areas – especially when you consider PES has been getting a lot of plaudits for its gameplay changes this year.
EA should be congratulated for their inclusion of The Journey, and it’d be great to see more of a focus on the mode next year, or even some free story DLC for Alex Hunter and the gang (though I appreciate that’s wishful thinking). But if they don’t start focusing on the core elements of what makes FIFA great again soon, they might see Konami’s underdog title steal their crown before long.