For many years now I’ve picked up FIFA, always expecting something fresh and dynamic from the developers over at EA Canada to tide me over for twelve months. If truth be told, it’s rare that each game in the FIFA series changes much at all year on year, but then when an overhaul does occur, the general reaction to it can be pretty mixed. FIFA 17 sees a change in game engine to Frostbite – most notably used in Battlefield 4 – and with that, there is a much needed change in the way FIFA looks, plays and sounds. Is it for the better, or has its identity been lost? Will the best football game crown be whipped off its head, or merely polished whilst staying put for another year?
After a ton of hours playing FIFA 17, I’m not at liberty to reveal who gets the crown, but hopefully by the end of this review I’ll have answered all the burning questions before you make up your mind on a purchase.
Perhaps the best place to begin is with one of the most important aspects of any video game – the gameplay. I haven’t noticed an obvious change this quickly since Wayne Rooney strolled onto the Old Trafford pitch with a full head of hair. It’s immediately clear that everything you once knew from the previous incarnation of FIFA was utterly useless. Just forget it completely, for FIFA 17 presents an entirely different beast.
Controlling the ball at your players’ feet has become vital to all processes on the pitch; whether that’s to shimmy past an onrushing defender on the route to goal, or touching the ball away from the crowd before laying off to a teammate, every movement feels clever and can open up a world of possibilities. To top it off, the finer touches are tricky to pull off during a sprint, just like it would be in reality. Control doesn’t just allude to the movements, but also to the fact that great control is in place throughout.
Take defending as an example. I know many a player who’d let the A.I. do most of the dirty work of marking and tackling, however, those not actively being controlled by the player won’t necessarily do that job anymore. Sure, they will shadow an opposing player in possession and make life difficult, but putting in a killer tackle is something they’ll happily leave to you. I like the fact more onus is placed onto the gamer to switch between the players and do most of the work themselves. Aside from the A.I. on your own team being rather lapse in defending, I believe on the whole it’s grown in intelligence.
There’s no bigger sign of this than in the off-the-ball movements into space from every position of the team – minus the goalkeeper of course. When it all gets rather packed in the middle, you can be confident of two things: one is that a player has found a massive load of space out-wide where a full-back has switched off, and the other is that a delightful ball to the player will cause real panic in your opponent as the rest of your team make additional movements to offer more options. You’ll even notice how superior the A.I. is on lower difficulties when its fast flowing football is parting your defence like the Red Sea.
I could go on all day about the difference in the passing, shooting etc. where there’s genuinely an attempt to prevent people from ping-pong passing game after game, and shooting requires timing more than ever. There are so many options when deciding how to hit the ball, from threaded through balls and driven passes, to low shots – which are a little overpowered – and downward headers. Kudos to the developers for broadening our choices with the ball at our player’s feet. It’s not all changed for the better though.
Goalkeepers have some serious problems to answer for; one minute they’re doing the unthinkable and palming away a world class striker from nestling in the top corner, the next they’re diving underneath a shot and not bothering to extend an arm to the side as a ball flies towards them at the perfect height. Such ridiculous inconsistency can really be a kick in the teeth during a hard fought match. It’s almost like EA modelled them all on Joe Hart and then turned up the extremities.
Whilst the gameplay certainly has a rewarding feel, even with the assists on there’s a real hefty learning curve for both veterans and newcomers to the series. After my first heavy defeat, I had to re-think my whole FIFA DNA and start from scratch, something which still doesn’t guarantee becoming a master of the ball. I can see many gamers struggling to grasp the nuances; it’s totally worth attempting to do so though.
The changes to the set pieces are definitely akin to Marmite. You’ll either love or loathe the new methods of aiming via a marker of the pitch and then deciding the pace of delivery by the length of time you hold the button of choice. Penalties are very tetchy, because the difference between a pathetic roll to the keeper’s hand and launching the ball in the stands is literally a few milliseconds of a button press.
I’ve been yakking on about the gameplay for a while now, and ultimately, it’s vastly changed and improved somewhat since FIFA 16. Without a smattering of modes, it matters little as to how good it is to play. Fortunately, FIFA 17 doesn’t skimp on modes in the slightest.
The Journey is the only major game mode addition to this year’s title and it came with a lot of hype from EA themselves. If you were one of those who didn’t buy into it, welcome to the club, as I didn’t understand the excitement either. The idea is to follow the life of prospective talent Alex Hunter, both on and off the pitch, in a story driven mode. Credit where it’s due, the cutscenes are fantastic to the point where it’d be easy to think it was a feature film. Strangely enough, the rest of the game lacks such fine details and textures as found in The Journey. But I digress.
For all the ups and downs of being a young, talented footballer, the narrative only makes your good performances matter when it suits. The story itself is far too rigid, thus making decisions relatively pointless. Slight spoiler here, but no matter how well you do early on, you’ll get loaned out, even if you’re banging goals in for fun. Also, I’m not sure how a newly promoted Premier League team would be able to lure a top England striker from a far bigger club. And although I was interested in Alex’s life off the pitch, I’m here to play football and if that becomes a fruitless exercise then the whole thing doesn’t work. Although you could plough a fair few hours into this mode, I just don’t see the draw.
Whilst I’m on the negative warpath, the teamplay orientated Pro Clubs appears to have taken one step forwards and two steps back sadly. For all the much needed ability for customisation of kits and crests to help create an identity for your club, with a decent array of templates and colour selection, the mode has been let down by the new attribute levelling up system. Unlike the usual way of earning stat upgrades by completing accomplishments by scoring so many goals or dribbling past the other team a specific amount of times, now every single match boosts attributes in some way or another.
That would’ve worked fine if the levelling system wasn’t so eager to take players to the heights of Ronaldo and Messi in such a short space of time. After a handful of sessions – lasting a couple of hours each – and having not played too well, I was approaching a 90 overall rating for my created player. What skill was once required to become a quality player has been diminished, and takes away half the fun of starting as a new player. EA are lucky that playing through seasons to rise up the Divisions, in teams of up to 11 humans, is thoroughly enjoyable still and is arguably one of the best team based experiences out there.
Many of the regular modes have returned with little to no changes, such as Kick Off, Tournaments, online solo and co-op Seasons, and Online Friendlies. Minor features have been added to the Career mode, in order to present a feeling of more control and responsibilities when being a manager. A multitude of long term and short term goals are there to satisfy your club’s board, with some goals requiring you to sign players for the Youth Academy, or increasing earnings from shirt sales. You’re even given the opportunity to manage the transfer and wage budget yourself. Despite being small additions, they certainly bring a few little extra things to think about during the course of the Career.
Last but not least, the mode generating the biggest profits – Ultimate Team. There was no chance EA would leave FUT untouched, and in fact it’s received the biggest and best features of all. I’ve always been at a loss as to what I do with those useless Gold, Silver and Bronze players that I’ll never use. Discarding them was the standard protocol, but now there’s a feature in which they may become useful. Squad Building Challenges are perfect, asking you to swap certain cards that you don’t want or need for cool rewards. These could be as simple and easy as providing a team of Bronze players in return for a Silver Players Pack, or as complex and difficult as delivering a whole league of full line-ups from each team within it for a special untradeable player. A true purpose for the unwanted cards finally; oh it’s a joyful time to play Ultimate Team!
The other major addition is FUT Champions, where huge rewards are there for the best of the best and could eventually lead to a spot in an eSports event. Basically, after competing in Tournaments you can qualify for a Weekend League and if you can claim top spot then EA won’t think twice about throwing tons of in-game cash your way like you’re a high-class stripper. Everyone who takes part gets something, so it’s worth a pop no matter how good of a player you are. I know how I’ll be spending my weekends…
One thing I’d like to point out is how the women’s side of the game has been utterly overlooked, with just two extra teams bolstering the roster to 14 National squads and absolutely nothing new to play using them, it begs the question why they even bothered to thrown them in at all.
In summary, FIFA 17 plays completely different to previous years and it’s a refreshing change, even if it is a little difficult to get used to the sheer amount of control placed in your hands this time. There are so many modes that I’m not sure what else they could add now, but The Journey needs a lot of work if it’s to return to the series. Ultimate Team is the star of the show, whilst Pro Clubs has taken a disappointing turn. Visually it excels in The Journey, but everywhere else it lacks definition for textures during a match and looks cartoony, for lack of a better word. It’s vibrant and colourful, but without wowing as a next-gen offering.
FIFA 17 scores a screamer with the gameplay, gets numerous bookings from its mode enhancements, taps in an own goal on The Journey, but ultimately claims Man of the Match for Ultimate Team. It’s a very good game on the whole, despite missing the mark on a lot of the non-gameplay features.