It’s that time of year again sports fans, the annual release of one of the most enduring franchises in gaming history, EA Sports FIFA. Year on year, they release the game and the loyalty of its fans alone secures success. But let’s face it, the last couple of years have been a little disappointing, minimal add-ons being passed off as innovation, EA Sports has not delivered. Now, however, FIFA 17 is promising real change, but can the frostbite engine deliver?
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Reviewed on: Xbox One
Also Available On: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360
Release Date: 29th September
From the off, it is clear that something is very different about this version of the popular football game, from the responsiveness of the players at your control to the fluidity of the balls movement. With the first load of the game throwing you straight into the biggest game of the year, the FA Cup final, you have very little time to adjust to the new environment, it’s exhilarating – something I wouldn’t say about FIFA 17’s last couple of predecessors.
I’ve been playing FIFA games for 22 years, since the original made its debut on the SEGA Megadrive, and in terms of changes between iterations, this has to be one of the most noticeable since the jump from 2D to full 3D gameplay. Every year we get new features, slightly improved character models, and a full roster update but, in general, the changes aren’t massive. Ignoring the graphical differences, I urge you to go back and play FIFA 13/14 and you tell me if there’s a massive difference in gameplay from FIFA 16.
FIFA 17, however, feels different. The controls are the same, the basic features are the same, it’s the same buttons for the skill moves, and yet it feels sleeker, more responsive, and more realistic. There’s a certain unpredictability about the movement of the ball, the physics of the environment seem far less restricted. A number of times through my first couple of matches I found myself missing the target on the standard shots which in the past have almost always guaranteed a goal (let’s be honest, we all know a few moves which we use regularly). Rather than the ball going where I’d expect FIFA to send it, it actually goes where the real-world would expect it to go. Shooting power appears more sensitive, passing and through balls more intuitive, this is a new experience, though subtle it may be for the less fanatical players.
Corners, free kicks, and penalties have all had a slight overhaul in terms of controls and how they function – they’re still to make free kicks particularly easy but never mind. The highlight, in my opinion, is the new corners mechanic which, rather than you choosing a direction and power, you can select a specific target location. It’s not as easy as it sounds, though, there is resistance to your target movement, the more specific the location, the harder it is to hold the target there. All of these things add up to a new experience which pushes FIFA 17 far away from its predecessors and allows it to stand alone, proud.
Away from the basic gameplay, it’s FIFA 17’s new Journey Mode which really takes the game up a level. The headline feature, which has seen the most media attention leading up to realise is a breath of fresh air after years of EA turning their back on those of us who prefer the solo campaign over online multiplayer and Ultimate Team. The Journey puts you in the boots of a would-be young superstar trying to make a name for himself in the Premiership.
From the academy through to golden boy of the greatest league on the planet, the story follows 17-year-old Alex Hunter, the grandson of a fictional football legend, on his way up to the top. While FIFA 17’s family friendly rating will ensure that this is the progression that every young football fan dreams of, this isn’t just a fairytale, this is a human story which throws in some of the home truths which come with wanting to be a football superstar – you think that they get paid stupid money for just turning up once a week for a kick about?
It’s a massive jump in a new direction for the franchise, a very personable story as opposed to the corporate entity obsessed with branding everything we’ve seen on every other FIFA game this decade. In reality, what EA have done is turn existing elements from the FIFA games into something that more resembles a standard gaming single player, much like other sporting games do like WWE and UFC, essentially playing you through the season under the guise of a heartwarming story of achieving your dreams, but it works really well.
Built around this existing functionality are impressively rendered cut-scenes showing how Hunter progresses through the ranks and the interactions with his family and teammates. This acts as the driving narrative between matches and training. It adds something to FIFA that has never been seen before and kudos have to go out to the design team for the superb visuals seen off the pitch as well as on. There are times throughout the story where you get the opportunity to interact with these other characters and there is a Mass Effect style conversation structure that allows you to select possible replies to the different situation, one balanced, one egotistical and one less confident. As you choose these be weary as they do impact of Hunter’s personality and how the rest of this world reacts to him – basically, being an egomaniac might get you more fans but your teammates will hate you for it.
The skill games which have been around for several years now, the ones that crop up pre-match, they are used as Hunter’s weekly training regime, the results of which help determine whether the player is picked for the starting XI, on the bench or out of the main team completely. How you play through these and on the pitch on match day can have a massive impact on how your career progresses. With each good game, your transfer value increases with additional in-match challenges offering you the chance to earn more.
During the match, you’ll also find that you are graded on your performance, similar to the Be a Pro mode from FIFAs of days past. It’s marked out of ten and depending on what position you play can be increased or destroyed based on your ability on the pitch. This is far from the perfect system, though. Whether through flaws in the game or just being ultra-picky, there would be times when I’d lose points for a decent tackle or gain them for sitting back and watching the action unfolding. It was, however, the fact that with a hat-trick under your belt you’ll be sitting on a 10 with very little to sway that mark. Unfortunately, these are all issues that existed in the previous game mode that inspired the mechanic.
Away from The Journey and everything will be very familiar territory, Ultimate team, online seasons, friendly seasons, kick-off, etc, very little has changed apart from a few user-interface modifications. The women’s game, introduced last year as the “BIG” innovation of the year, makes a favourable comeback as well, though, it is still very restricted compared to what is available for the mens game.
Overall, FIFA 17 is a vast improvement on last year (and the year before that). This is the first time in years that I’ve been genuinely excited during play, everything feels like it’s been built from the ground up in play, from the controls and movement to the physics of the environments, everything has had some upgrade. Journey Mode is single-handedly the most innovative thing that EA Sports has introduced in at least a decade, using existing functionality and turning it into an interesting story mode is pure genius and the cut-scenes are impressive but any games standards.
The is not perfect, but it’s very close.
- The Journey is incredibly enjoyable
- Superior visuals, superior controls, superior physics
- The best FIFA in years
- Commentary during matches still contains the overly used and annoying clichés
- Womens game still more restricted than the mens in terms of mode available
- The Journey points system is a little unpredictable at times