The following review contains spoilers for FIFA 17’s new story mode, so if you’re the sort of person who will be upset by having FIFA spoiled for them, take a long hard look in the mirror.
FIFA 17 is simultaneously one of the least ambitious FIFA games we’ve seen in a while and the most ambitious. Does that make sense? No? Let it happen.
The core gameplay doesn’t depart too drastically from FIFA 16, in fact in a lot of ways it feels like the exact same game, however the inclusion of a story mode and some questionable changes to set pieces make it seem a league apart.
The main event in FIFA 17 is The Journey, which is the story of Alex Hunter, who you first encounter playing junior football taking a penalty. As you line up the shot and either score or miss you soon realise The Journey isn’t a linear story. Should you miss the shot and blow the finals for Alex’s team, the game will carry on, there are no rewinds. Skip forward a few years and you take control of Alex as he goes through exit trials and eventually becomes drafted into a Premier League club.
It’s a rags to riches story that comes across more like a daytime soap than it perhaps should. Alex goes through turmoil with his separated parents, but is nurtured by his mother and ex-pro footballer grandfather. His best friend from junior football miraculously gets signed by the same Premiere League club, which in turn has antagonists to test Alex’s mettle as they fight for a coveted starting position in the line up. It’s a very Harry Potter mold of story telling, and it doesn’t necessarily always work.
Aside from having to kick a ball better than other people, Alex also has dialogue choices that impact his popularity with fans and his manager. There are only three options of dialogue to choose from, fiery, which is popular with fans, cool, which is popular with your manager and balanced which is boring to everyone. So considering you only have a handful of preset dialogue choices, the game is just as immersive of an RPG as Fallout 4.
The voice acting in this ambitious football fantasy ranges from passable to “holy shit why can’t Harry Kane enunciate any words at all?” It’s cool that some big name stars lent their voices to the title, but my god, some of them sound like they were recorded on a phone that was in the process of being dropped.
The real merit with The Journey is the sense of urgency you feel for Alex. At the beginning of his career, which in my case was for Manchester United, Alex starts as a sub. He’ll be brought on in the final minutes of a game and be given an objective to complete, such as score or provide an assist. Given little time to do this can be stressful, but when you pull it off it feels great. Depending on the club you pick you’ll also have base game scores you’ll need to achieve to earn a starting position or a spot on the bench.
In The Journey you can either take control of just Alex or the entire team. Taking control of the whole team in my opinion is the best move, as I’ve never been a fan of the ‘be a pro’ modes in previous games, and this one is no exception. It also allows you to feed better balls to Alex so he can tap in goals to earn favour.
When you’re not battling it out on the pitch you can progress Alex’s standing in the team through training exercises. These consist of the mini games that FIFA players have come to expect during loading screens. Nailing certain exercises will grant Alex skill points which you can use to provide him with additional perks or boosts, such as the ability to do more skill moves or give him more pace. Constantly fighting to keep Alex’s place in the first team is tough, and it’s a lot more fun than it sounds.
However the mode is brought down by its need to invoke unnecessary drama. No matter how well you play, Alex will be sent out on loan whilst his former best friend earns the coveted starting position, forcing out a comeback story as you fight your way through Championship football and back into the Premiere League. Considering I was playing well in the Premiere League I noticed that it was a tad too easy to score goals in the Championship, so an increase in difficulty was needed for the story to make sense (unless you’re supposed to be a 17 year old who scores hat-tricks every game). I know it’s a small thing but it kind of rubbed my gaming OCD the wrong way.
Aside from the shiny new mode, FIFA 17 plays out almost exactly how you’d expect it to. It has all the manager/FUT/kick off modes we’ve become accustomed to. The gameplay is more or less the same, however some nuanced additions have made improvements to the game, and others seem to ruined staple elements. Going for the positives first, player stats seem to have more of an impact, gone are the days when a brickhouse centre-back can outrun a pacey winger. Ball shielding is perhaps the best addition, as strong players can’t be pick pocketed so easily, as they use their strength to maintain possession.
Now onto the negatives. Set pieces leave a lot to be desired in FIFA 17, namely corners and penalties, which have been transformed into a monster. It’s much harder to strategically play a corner now, as you awkwardly have to pinpoint a spot with a cross hare and then play as the receiver trying to get a head onto the cross. It’s confusing at first, and those accustomed to the older system may find it ruins the flow of their game. However, after some time you can get a grasp of it, so I think after a full year of playing it’ll be okay, but whilst adjusting it is irksome.
As for penalties, they are straight up garbage now. Hitting with any sort of accuracy or power seems to be a fluke. Something which I am slowly getting more and more used to, but with mixed results. Instead of powering up your shot and pointing out a slot in the goal, you now have to control your run up, which 9/10 times snakes all over the place and results in your striker tapping the ball with the power of a tranquilized slug.
Gameplay aside the new Frostbite engine does seem to benefit the game a lot from a visual perspective, but adds very little in the way of mechanics. Lighting and details look amazing now, all thanks to the new engine. Oh, the crowd still looks pretty trash, but that’s become something I expect to see in FIFA games now, so it’s kind of welcome.
Overall it’s still the same old FIFA, and the gripes with new features will probably iron out as players (myself included) spend the next year relentlessly playing their friends until thumbs are bloody.