There’s a widespread perception (admittedly mainly amongst those who don’t play sports games) that numbered, annual sports games – the likes of Madden, NBA 2K, MLB, and most pertinently, FIFA – are the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ of videogame development, that the process of making a new game involves updating the kits, slapping a new number on the box and watching the money roll in. Whether this has ever been true is debatable. but the level of change varies each year, sometimes all that’s needed is a little polish. and sometimes whole new mechanics are thrown in that fundamentally change the game.
FIFA has generally gone in for the former, with each update changing the balance of the game, adding the odd new control option but generally offering something that, at first glance at least, looks a lot like the previous year’s edition. In this context, FIFA 17 is revolutionary, as well as offering upgrades and tweaks to its flagship Career and Ultimate Team modes, bringing pace back to the wings, and including real managers for the first time; EA Sports have also thrown in a brand-new story mode and built the whole thing in Frostbite (the engine that, amongst others, powers Star Wars: Battlefront, Mirror’s Edge, and the Battlefield series).
It’s the use of Frostbite that’s immediately apparent, with the change heralding a great leap forward for FIFA’s graphics that places it close to the level of NBA and Madden (precise comparisons are difficult, NBA only has to generate five players per team at any given time, Madden’s NFL players are far more homogenous, and neither gets close to FIFA 17’s 700 teams and 18,000 players). Player likenesses are better than ever, with these sporting avatars reacting emotionally to the passage of play, the increased level of detail means you can see every blade of grass, and Klopp, Mourinho, Conte et al. now gesticulate wildly on the sidelines at every foul or defensive cock-up. It’s the new dynamic lighting that has really elevated FIFA’s looks though, it’s hard to explain how or why, but the air now has an actual physical feeling about it, whether it’s snow swirling in the glare of the Emirates’ floodlights, raindrops splattering the lens at Old Trafford, or sunlight glinting off the players’ boots at the Bernabeu. You’ll see shadows falling on players’ faces during the match intros, and, for the first time in FIFA, individual beads of sweat running down the faces of Messi, Ronaldo, Reus and the rest. Moreover, kits move and fold more realistically than ever before, and a close look at the replay will show bits of turf fly up as you hit that 30-yard screamer into the top corner. All this together means that FIFA lives and breathes on the screen like never before and makes it easier than ever to get sucked into the game’s fiction, that what happens on the pitch really matters.
Aside from Frostbite, FIFA 17’s headline inclusion is “The Journey”, EA Sports finally having taken 2K’s hint and realised that it might be fun to include a cinematic, melodramatic story mode that attempts to show what a young star’s life is like away from the sporting stage. The result of a collaboration with EA stablemates BioWare (Mass Effect, Dragon Age) and advice from ‘authenticity consultants’ Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford and Reece Oxford, “The Journey” places you in the boots of Alex Hunter, grandson of club legend Jim Hunter (who appears complete with flat cap and solid leather ball, obviously), son to a devoted mum and an unreliable dad, whose own promising career was ended by injury. It all plays out as you would expect, and the cutscenes often feel a bit Eastenders, complete with great lines like “sometimes, life doesn’t always give you what you want,” (note to EA Sports, next time, get a better writer than the bloke who ghost-wrote David Beckham’s autobiography). The cast of clichés is rounded out by best mate turned cocky-twat rival Gareth Walker, a motormouth sports agent, and two assistant managers, one an old-school type harping on about hard work and giving your all, and the other a continental sort whose Italian accent often strays dangerously close to “itsa Mario” territory.
Despite all this, “The Journey” is actually very good, its often cringe-inducing cutscenes are at least reasonably well acted and don’t actually take up too much time, with training sessions and matches providing the bulk of your activity at your chosen Premier League club – and then your choice of Newcastle, Aston Villa and Norwich when you inevitably get shipped out on loan. Training is much the same as it’s always been (hitting targets, racing through cones, and avoiding dummies), while matches offer you the choice of playing as Hunter or the whole team. Given that Hunter’s performance is the only thing that matters, most players will cut out the middle man and simply only play as Hunter.
It’s here that FIFA 17 offers a completely new experience (well, for those who never bothered with a player career at least) of a single-player simulation of a football game. Suddenly, you’re stripped of the God-like sense of control you generally enjoy in FIFA, and you’ll need to go against all your instincts as a result, running desperately after the ball will leave your team with no attacking focal point (“The Journey” offers players the choice of striker, winger or attacking midfielder, a move which will no doubt disappoint the millions of gamers who hoped to be the new generation’s John Terry) and quickly get you subbed off. Instead, you’ll spend long periods with the ball at the other end of the pitch, conserving energy and tracking the play as you wait for your teammates to win back possession and mount an attack. More than anything, you’ll have to trust your teammates like never before and think about making intelligent runs before calling for the pass. Thankfully, no matter how poorly you’re playing, you’ll generally receive the ball when you call for it; who would want to relive those school games where you languish forlornly on the wing while those actually half-decent at football play amongst themselves? “The Journey” also brings FIFA 17’s rating system into the spotlight like never before, now those decimals really matter, with your performance continually being graded out of 10 (you start at 6 and I’ve gotten as low as a 4.1 before). Your score will go up from successful passes, tackles, shot assists, and most importantly, goals; while it will plummet from poor calls for passes, losing possession and, infuriatingly, missed tackles. This includes standing tackles, and so you’ll often just run about hoping to collide with the opposing player rather than risk pressing square in a concerted attempt to actually get the ball. Moreover, winning a throw-in will often see you being penalised for losing possession, something that makes absolutely no sense in the context of a football match.
You also have a limited degree of control over Hunter’s personality, with post-match interviews and cutscenes giving you the choice of fiery, cool or balanced responses. Whichever you choose, it’s all pretty generic, fiery options generally make Hunter sound like an arrogant tosser but will gain him social media followers at the expense of manager competence; cool will do the opposite and has him utter some variation on the ‘it’s all about the team’ tack; and balanced has him doing his best to express no emotion whatsoever about anything and won’t affect either. Despite its shortcomings, “The Journey” is a valuable addition to FIFA and should hopefully be the first step towards something really special next year (hiring a better writer and adding player creation options should be top of the list).
Once you actually get on the pitch, you’ll quickly notice that some significant tweaks have also been made to FIFA’s core gameplay. Most notably, the wings feel pacier and more important than ever before, with your teammates making intelligent overlapping runs that are begging for a through ball. This means that, for the first time in a long time, bombing down the flanks and swinging crosses in is a viable strategy, and this in turn means a better balance than ever before, with going through the centre requiring passing precision and attacking down the sides letting you terrorise fullbacks with speedsters like Walcott and Douglas Costa. There’s also a new threaded through ball (read: curved through ball) that allows you to bend passes with the inside or outside of your foot into the space ahead of a teammate. More controversially, setpieces have been overhauled, with a new penalty system allowing control over length and direction of run up, and free kicks and corners having a new target indicator for precise placement. Some will no doubt see these as unnecessary gimmicks, but personally I like the greater degree of control these new systems give, with corners in particular feeling like less of a lottery and more of a test of skill. Finally, the physicality feels more important than ever, with defenders and strikers battling for the ball, and players like Diego Costa able to hold off centrebacks and turn with ease while less hefty types will need to use intelligent movement in order to get behind the defence. The sum of these changes is that in everyday play, FIFA 17 feels like a more nuanced and authentic recreation of football than ever, with both teammates’ and opponents’ AI having been significantly improved to offer a more compelling and realistic experience.
Improvements have also been made to Career Mode and Ultimate Team, with the former including long-term and short-term goals that cover the whole range of a football club’s operations, with managers needing to focus on objectives such as expanding the club’s brand in Asia and promoting a player from the youth squad, alongside on-field success. You can also access a more detailed look at your finances, with income broken down into transfers, loans, match-day revenue, media and merchandising; and outgoings including player wages, scout payments, youth facilities, stadium maintenance and travel.
In terms of Ultimate Team, new for this year are Squad Builder Challenges and a draft mode, as well as FUT Champions for those aiming for true FIFA greatness. Draft gives players the ability to select from a choice of five elite players for each position, with choices needing to be made based on both ability and team chemistry, with this hastily assembled team then taken into four matches with escalating rewards. Squad Builder Challenges on the other hand task players with constructing and trading-in squads that meet specific requirements for exclusive rewards like limited edition players and special packs. At its most basic, this process is simple, with a team of bronze players able to be traded in for a couple of silver ones, while more lucrative rewards require a close eye on nationality, league, team and chemistry criteria, as well as some shrewd transfer negotiation.
However, while there’s an awful lot that’s good about this year’s FIFA, some old issues continue to rear their ugly heads. Chief among these is the commentary, while other sports games surge ahead with weekly updates and multiple commentators, FIFA continues to be saddled with Martin Tyler and Alan Smith, who discuss the action with all the excitement of a man reading a particularly dull telephone directory. According to this veteran pair, tightly contested midfield battles are dull and lacking in goalmouth action (having your first half described as a C- feels especially demoralising), while a 4-0 feast of attacking football is a one-sided game that doesn’t feel like a proper contest. Soon, everything they say becomes annoying, whether it’s a formation discussion that only mentions half the squad, a routine stop being hailed as a superb reflex save, or every failed cross producing the comment that “it perhaps deserved a better response from his teammates in the middle.” In career mode, scout recommendations continue to include utterly unrealistic options, the Ultimate Team UI can sometimes feel needlessly complicated, and issues with “The Journey” have already been discussed in detail.
All of these are areas to work on in forthcoming editions, but FIFA 17 remains the best entry in years, with overhauled visuals and a new story mode accompanying smart gameplay revisions and important improvements to the game’s career and Ultimate Team modes.
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS3, Xbox 360,
Release Date: 29th September 2016