As if you ever had any doubt, FIFA 17 is a case of the best just getting better and better. By this stage you’d think EA Sports would be running out of ideas, and to some extent I guess they are probably reaching for inspiration in some cases. Each iteration has often minute changes which have a grander impact on how the game plays. With FIFA 17 however, we get one of the biggest shake-ups in recent memory thanks to The Journey single-player mode. If you ever wondered what it would be like if BioWare made a football game, here’s your answer.
As a first iteration of an idea it's perhaps a little bit limited in scope, but the groundwork is there for a truly engrossing campaign for solo players to get stuck into. You play as Alex Hunter, taking him from a kickabout in the park to playing for his dream Premier League club. Along the way there’s deals to be made, drama to be had and branching decisions which affect your career. It’s a little too clean for my tastes; all Twitter follower counts and living the dream. It seems EA Sports had license to roam here, but not too far from the classic ideal of growing up to be a footballer. You only have to take a look at any newspaper back pages to see the truth is far grubbier than it’s often made out to be. Again, I didn’t expect them to have drugs cheats, ear biting and slurs, but it’s certainly a very clean view of the beautiful game. The most offense you’ll get is crowd chants of ‘you don’t know what your doing’.
That aside, The Journey is an incredibly neat package. Heaps of cutscenes move the story along at a fair pace, and you get to choose from any of the 20 Premier League clubs to begin your dream career. You can play just as Alex Hunter or control the entire team, with each match providing mini objectives such as achieve a player rating of 7.0. Complete these for extra cash and Twitter followers. It’s not all just matches either. There’s plenty of training and skill games to play along the game, each giving you a minor boost to your stats.
At the end of it all *mild spoiler incoming* you even get Alex Hunter as a playable character in FIFA Ultimate Team, which I thought was a nice touch. *spoiler over*
I do recognise as well that for fans around the world, getting to choose from just Premier League teams is a little restrictive. I imagine the work EA Sports has had to do these 20 worked into the hours of cutscenes was quite a hefty task, but it would be nice to see some more popular teams from across Europe and the rest of the world make the cut.
As for how it plays, throughout my time with FIFA 17 I went a bit backwards and forwards as to whether they’d sped the game up or slowed it down. In truth it’s a little bit of both. Momentum seems to play a bigger role. Run straight at a player and jink round them and they’ve basically got no chance of catching up with you as they accelerate from a standing start to full speed. It places a greater emphasis on beating your man rather than just playing pretty triangles until you can work your way near the box. This lends a more interesting dynamic to play; old tactics are thrown out in favour of brave runs and tricky techniques. Start passing it around too much and the pace of your team will slow to a crawl. Build up a head of steam on the counter and you are nigh-on unstoppable though.
There’s also a lot more weight and physicality to the players. You can jostle for the ball and the bigger players can shield it pretty effectively. At first it seems ball retention is a little overpowered but if you push up against the back of someone holding you off you can in fact toe-poke the ball away. Unsurprisingly it all lends to FIFA 17 playing a very realistic take on football, one with all the amazing moments, jammy deflections and ups and downs we’ve come to expect from the sport we love.
One of the bigger changes to be integrated into FIFA 17 is set piece delivery. I can see some folks reacting quite negatively to this, but it lends a much greater degree of control when all’s said and down. When you’re taking a set piece you can now manually alter the starting position of your player, depending on whether you want to drill the ball with a straight run up or bend your run to more effectively place it.
For corners and in-direct free kicks you now have a targeting reticule as well. This is the rough area the ball will head, with some variance depending on player pass stats. It naturally sits in a central spot however, and any variance on this requires careful stick control as you build up the power of the kick. Power level now purely applies to whether you want the ball to skim in low and hard or float it over the top.
What I found pretty neat with this system is that you can take control of a tall player in the box on a corner, manually control where the kick is going and then run onto it with your player as he bursts through the box. It can be a little finicky to get to grips with but it makes set pieces much more involved and also lends some genuine quality to dead balls lofted into the box rather than just going the easy route and playing it short.
Aside from the gameplay tweaks and the addition of The Journey mode, everything else remains pretty much exactly the same. It’s the same career modes, skill games and FIFA Ultimate Team that you’ve come to expect, coupled with some excellent online tools and modes. You and your mates can set up mini-leagues or progress through ranked season playing co-operatively. As a package it’s been difficult to fault the quantity of content you get in FIFA games these days and FIFA 17 is certainly no different. That said, if you’re not too fussed about roster updates or The Journey, there isn’t a great deal here which screams must buy compared to FIFA 16. If you’re anything like me though then it’s absolutely imperative you have the latest squads.
Visually you’d be hard pressed to notice the shift to the Frostbite engine if it weren’t for the splash screen letting you know. I think the weather effects are a little better, but for the most part FIFA 17 looks nearly identical to FIFA 16. That's still a great standard to hit though, even if EA Sports has yet to overcome the cold, dead eyes every player terrifyingly has when looking straight at the camera.
As you can probably tell, trying to conjure up faults with FIFA 17 is a remarkably hard task. There really isn't anything I outright dislike about the game, and I know it's going to keep me busy for 100+ hours over the next year. It's both bitesize fun and yet capable of consuming entire weekends. The length and breadth of the modes EA Sports has got in here is now staggering. There's always something to do or a different way to play a match, and it's all backed up by unpredictable moments that come tantalizingly close to nailing the feel of the real game.