FIFA is back, and there are some pretty major changes in the mix for fans.
The one that has been shouted about the most is definitely The Journey, which brings in a robust story element to build on the strengths of the Be a Pro mode.
Step into the boots of Alex Hunter, and see if you can help bring his dream to life. You’ll first see him playing under 11’s with some bored parents on the sidelines and get to line up a penalty. It’s telling that in this very first test you can absolutely fail and make a show of yourself.
EA is delivering a real sports movie in this mode, and anyone who has seen Rocky knows that they don’t always go the way you might expect. Cut scenes are plentiful and the acting is above average, and despite some stilted dialogue you’ll quickly get know and like (and loathe) the characters.
There’s also an almost RPG-like element where you get to choose from three possible dialogue options- fiery, cool or balanced. It’s fun to play with the responses but overall it seems to make little difference to the story, though it might bring in some spikes and furrows to your social media presence which is constantly monitored in the game.
You’ll find a couple of hours of cutscenes in The Journey and while success on the pitch will make a difference to how much game time you get the overall flow of the tale goes down a pretty linear path. There will be triumphs and disasters, and your mum will be supportive, and then you’ll get to play again.
Or sometimes you’ll just be training. There’s a lot of running around learning the ropes here, all of which let you upgrade Alex’s stats. That’s a nice idea in theory, letting you create exactly the type of player you want to be, but it’s a bit repetitive and the ability to replay sections for a better score feels alien to the idea of a story mode.
The Journey isn’t the slickest story-driven experience but it does hit on an element that FIFA could rarely manage- it makes this glitzy and glossy world somewhat relatable. Young Alex Hunter is a pretty normal kid and his rise (while more or less linear and swift) isn’t without setbacks. It makes the moments of success all the more sweet, and gives an insight into the actual sacrifices required to live this life.
The other big change is the move to a new game engine- Frostbite 3. This is the tech used on other EA properties like the recent Battlefield games, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Need for Speed Rivals and Mass Effect Andromeda.
In short, it’s extremely pretty and versatile and leads to very high fidelity cutscenes featuring life like animation and lip sync. Though I have to be honest I sometimes felt like the characters could take out a gun at any moment, there’s still a Battlefield sheen to the whole affair.
Still there’s no doubt that Frostbite is a truly next gen engine and one that the EA devs have been working with for several years now. That power and familiarity has led to the best looking football game ever, in pretty much every respect.
So you get uncannily realistic players from the Premier League and stadia with masses of detail- from the blades of grass to the teeming crowds. Replays are genuinely stunning and there’s a real weight to every twist and move; the bunching power before a shot and the physics of the strike are wholly gorgeous to watch.
Much of that detail is all but invisible from the regular game camera, which is why it’s just as important that FIFA 17 maintains a steady frame rate and smoothness from afar.
The games themselves feel a little speedier this year, less mired in mechanics as you move from offense to defence. Taking a shot has been much improved with the welcome addition of a way to take low shots with precision and power and muscling in as an attacker is as easy as holding down the left trigger.
Attacking and scoring feel a bit easier this year, with plenty of free flow and through balls leading to quick strikes. Defensively things feel a little less successful with tackling and blocking often resulting in failure as a striker runs straight through. Generally speaking, it’s easier to keep the ball once you have it, which doesn’t feel especially balanced. And personally I’m not a fan of the penalty-as-lottery mechanic but it’s probably a more accurate representation of the real life challenge.
Of course one of the main advantages of EA’s long running football series is how much stuff it throws at you. Without considering the new mode you’ve got the return of Ultimate Team with some extra filigree, the club management sim Career mode, Online seasons and there’s always the chance to play against other humans if the AI is starting to bother you.
Really it’s this generous package which helps to keep FIFA fans coming back year after year, put together with the level of polish which comes from being part of a massive company which has been producing the franchise for 23 years. Every element of the menus and options is just slick, and there’s a top notch soundtrack to boot.
Iterative changes have typified the FIFA brand for years, and fans will find the same tweaks here- carefully designed to avoid alienating long-time players while trying to give them an incentive to buy again. It’s a tough balance to maintain, and some new additions are more successful than others.
The marquee attraction of The Journey is the biggest element to hit the series in years, and it manages to bring extra energy which has the potential to attract new players or lapsed fans. It doesn’t hurt that it’s actually pretty entertaining, even if it mostly subsists on sports movie clichés, and could ideally serve as a cinematic FIFA tutorial for those who have never played the game before.
FIFA 17 is another impressively slick entry in the series which gets plenty of mileage out of a new engine and story-driven game mode. The other changes are mostly subtle so you’ll have to decide if this yearly update is for you.