When it comes to annual iterations of sporting franchises, it can sometimes be difficult to see what’s changed from year to year, given that we hear the same claims time and again. We’re told that gameplay is more realistic, player movement is the best it’s ever been and – honestly, this time we mean it – the new version is the absolute best that’s ever been released. This is the reason why when a genuinely major new feature is announced in the pre-release build up, it’s often met with a confused silence. People know what to expect when a new sports game is revealed and when a publisher throws them a curveball in the way that EA did with their E3 announcement of The Journey, a story-driven addition to FIFA 17, it throws them off.
With all the hype, EA failed to communicate exactly what The Journey actually was. Sure, they introduced the protagonist Alex Hunter and mentioned how you’d play as him, rising through the ranks to become a Premier League superstar. But players didn’t know how deep the mode would be, whether they’d have to sign for Manchester United (as all the promotional material suggested they would) or whether or not it was all just a big gimmick. As it turns out, The Journey is a compelling experience that is considerably weightier in terms of playing time than you’d expect.
I’ve been asked – understandably – not to spoil any of the story, so I might have to dance around some things a little, but essentially The Journey is an extension of the game’s long-standing Be A Pro mode. You play one season in the life of 17-year-old Hunter, with the goal being to be signed by a Premier League team and make it into the big time. Cutscenes starring Alex’s inner circle add layers to the story and are well done, with prompts to select from three choices appearing from time to time, with your decisions affecting your standing with the manager and with your fans. Taking part in skill games in between matches helps to get your various ratings up, which is essential as the game draws on.
To put a lot of non-Manchester United fans’ minds at rest, you can choose to sign with any Premier League team when the time comes, with their respective standing in the pecking order determining how easy or difficult your time will be. Select Chelsea for example, and Hunter will need to put in consistently world class performances in order to get anywhere. Select Bournemouth though and relatively average performances will do. After all, it wouldn’t be fair to expect a young player to suddenly be firing in goal after goal for a team who are pretty much expected to draw at best.
While that’s all been thought of, there are some wrinkles in FIFA 17 that really should have been ironed out. If you do choose to play as a side that is more defensive and only plays with one striker, you’ll be that striker, regardless of the position you chose to play at the start of the game. Not only that, but if that team also signs a big-name international player who is better than every other member of the squad and who would really help you out – especially if you choose to play as the whole team, rather than just controlling Hunter during matches – they’ll end up sitting on the bench for the entire season while your inexperienced and under-qualified self is struggling to get a shot on goal.
All the while, they’ll be nudging you on social media, talking about how great it is to have you as a strike partner. In what is a relatively believable and engrossing mode, these sorts of nonsensical breaks can really be a downer. Still, a playthrough of The Journey is well recommended and will easily provide 10 hours of play all on its own – depending on how well you do and how many matches you start – before you even branch out into the more traditional modes.
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At this point, it would be remiss of me to not mention a few key changes to those other modes. The alterations aren’t massively widespread but even though it sounds small, the addition of things such as performance targets and deeper financial management in the career mode do genuinely add more to what was already a pretty substantial offering.
In the card-collecting Ultimate Team mode, new tournaments and weekly leagues have been added in the shape of FUT Champions, which could prove to be a time sink for some. On top of that, there’s finally a use for some of those less desirable cards, with Squad Builder Challenges. Here, you’re asked to make a team that fits specified criteria, using cards you don’t want to keep any more. When you’ve tweaked the lineup to fit those criteria, you can send all of those cards into the ether, never to be seen again, with the game giving you card packs or coins in exchange. Shuffling cards around and even purchasing cards on the transfer market to beat the assigned tasks is akin to a puzzle game at times and it’s enjoyable and addictive stuff.
On the pitch, FIFA 17 has switched to EA’s Frostbite Engine, which powers the likes of Battlefield 1 and Star Wars Battlefront, and the improvements are clear to see. There’s absolutely no doubt that FIFA 17 is the most visually-pleasing football game to be released so far, with sights and sounds of stadiums and the general atmosphere of a match being absolutely beyond comparison. General presentation is right on the money as well, with competition-specific TV-style graphics and animations providing a truly authentic feel to the action.
While these changes are good, it isn’t to say that everything is flawless in FIFA’s world this time around. Far from it, in fact. Some changes appear to have been made for the sake of change, such as the addition of a “threaded” through ball control which doesn’t appear to do a great deal more than a skilled player could do with the standard through ball control, which remains. The corner kick system has been changed from the more traditional “aim and power” style to a strangely inaccurate pointer system that has you moving a cursor toward the exact point you want the ball to go and then applying power to the kick, holding the cursor in place as you do so. Whatever you do and whichever player you use, the ball seems to have a chance of going wherever it wants to, making corners less of a threat than a deep throw-in would be. This is exacerbated by the fact that goalkeepers are still over-powered when it comes to crosses. Defending an outswinging corner is often as simple as holding down the rush button and bringing the goalkeeper out to claim the ball. At the very least, he’ll get a fist on it and knock the danger away, even when the ball’s well outside the six-yard box.
The change of engine has also caused a few issues to the core gameplay. While more experienced players who play “full manual” and don’t have any of the assists turned on won’t be affected, players with less practice hours under their belts will notice that the things that helped them in previous titles will sometimes be more of a hindrance now. Short passing assistance and the through ball assist seem to have a mind of their own at times, to the point that you’ll miss several passes and waste a few chances in each match simply because if there are two players within the same relatively similar direction, the game will go for the longest available pass, rather than the simple one you wanted to play.
Player switching is also affected. If you don’t have manual switching enabled (even though switching manually should be your goal for the best experience) you’ll find that there are too many times when you’re in control of the wrong player when the ball is inches away from your non-responsive team-mate’s feet. There are a fair few occasions when you’ll find that the auto-switch changes players just as you’re getting to a loose ball, too, causing the guy who was on track to get the ball to unceremoniously spin on his heels and run away from it in the opposite direction.
There are also some strange AI decisions to be found in FIFA 17. I’ve been able to score a couple of times by performing a sliding tackle on a top-level goalkeeper who just decided to stand still with the ball at his feet. Then there’s the couple of times the AI had crafted a glorious chance through stellar play and was sitting in front of an open goal, but decided to hoof the ball back toward their own keeper.
Then there’s the fact that you can intercept at least half of the throw-ins that are taken by a CPU team, as they’ll throw it right at you if you’re stood in the way. Or the times they go to take a short free kick and play it right to you in the middle of the park and then let you run right past them to score. Or the sheer number of times where – no matter what tactical decisions you make – you get down the wing and find that you’ve got absolutely no support for a short pass and somehow also nobody to even attempt to cross to because your teammates are all hanging around on the edge of the box. If this all happened on one of the lower difficulty settings, it would almost be understandable, but this is on the top two settings.
I suspect these decision-making troubles come from the alterations made to to make the game appear to be more organic. In this area, some small physics tweaks make for big and impressive differences when it comes to the feel of the game in certain areas of the pitch. The way the ball pings around the box when a shot is blocked or deflected means that goal-mouth scrambles are fast and furious and feel a lot more realistic than before. Goalkeepers also have to react faster to these sorts of occurrences and generally do so. The addition of more variables when actually kicking the ball – something that has been promised in FIFA about a thousand times before but which rarely made any difference – is clear to see at long last. Good old CR7 might have a wicked volley, but if he doesn’t catch the ball correctly when it falls to him, it could well end up smacking a fan in Row Z in the face. That doesn’t just apply to shooting, either. Crosses, chips, through balls and even some of the trick moves have an uncertainty about them that makes things feel like a genuine evolution to the way FIFA plays.
As mentioned though, as great as FIFA 17 can feel, there are a number of times when something outside of your control goes wrong and these are more frequent than in previous years. There are plenty of improvements that will keep franchise fans happy and the playing time provided by Alex Hunter’s story is almost worth the asking price alone, but the visual evolution has come at a bit of a cost to FIFA’s gameplay.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
There are plenty of improvements in FIFA 17 that will keep franchise fans happy, and the playing time provided by Alex Hunter’s story is almost worth the asking price alone, but the visual evolution has come at a bit of a cost to the gameplay.