Brace yourselves as I say this, but FIFA 17 is the biggest step forward for EA’s premiere sports title in quite a few years. The shift to the current generation of consoles saw a big step up to Ignite, EA’s overarching game engine for all of its sports games, bringing with it better graphics, better AI, better physics. Three years later, and in order to take the next step, they’ve felt the need to change engines to Frostbite, the game engine behind everything else at EA, from Battlefield to Need for Speed and Mass Effect: Andromeda.
It’s almost certainly down to this shift that the first we’ve heard of FIFA 17 has been in the last couple of weeks, with FIFA announcements typically coming a little earlier in the year, and there’s quite a few more rougher edges at this time than I’m used to seeing when previewing FIFA games. Yet it does allow for a genuine step forward in some of the game’s graphics, with more realistic looking player faces in the game, more behind the scenes parts of football stadiums, such as locker rooms and corridors. Out of context, there’s very little to get excited about seeing a corridor in Stamford Bridge, but they’re important for FIFA 17 because it’s to be one of the few sports games that will try to feature a story.
Meet Alex Hunter, a young up and coming footballer who you play as in The Journey, as you try to emulate the meteoric rise of the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford. You pick you’re team from the English Premier League and, alongside other rising talents such as your childhood friend, Walker, are given opportunities to break into the first team.
Each game you play, you’re given different objectives, whether it’s to try and assist a goal, score the winner, or maintain a certain player rating. Thankfully, you’re given the option over whether you’ll play and control just Alex, a la Be a Pro, or if you take control of the whole team, as in the majority of FIFA’s game modes.
The real question is how well it will blend the story with the gameplay. One particular scene demoed to us had Alex being shovelled out on loan, with the announcement of his replacement on TV – Harry Kane to Leicester, if you’re wondering – and a bit of a motivational moment from his uncle helping to get him fired up. These scenes will twist and flow around how you perform on pitch, as well as how you choose to respond, borrowing a Mass Effect style dialogue wheel. Get a red card one match, and you’ll have to try and explain yourself to the manager in his office – there’s real world managers in the game now – or you might have the opportunity to give words of encouragement to a teammate.
Wayne Rooney’s acting ability aside, my one worry is just how situational and specific the game mode can become. The example in the demo had Hunter being brought on in a Manchester United vs. Liverpool derby, trying to look for a winner. I had 30 minutes on the pitch, but Hunter – playing with just him under my control – barely got a look in, as Liverpool pressed and my AI compatriots did little to break them down. Playing it again with the full team in my control was a much better experience, in my opinion.
Of course, for a lot of people, The Journey will be a little aside, at best, from the bread and butter of playing Ultimate Team, or guiding their favourite team in career mode. FIFA 17 makes more than a few changes to the core gameplay as well, going well beyond just adding a fancy new story mode.
The biggest of these is a complete overhaul of the game’s physical play systems. Where previous games have had things like shirt pulling, jostling for the ball, and so on, FIFA 17 unites and expands on all of these disparate elements, bringing them together on the left trigger. If you want to hold up the play and shield the ball, cut across an attacker that’s running shoulder to shoulder with you, even bring a high ball down to your feet instead of heading it on, those are all on the left trigger, and it all looks a lot better thanks to hundreds of new animations, blending and player balancing.
It’s something that’s going to take quite some time to get used to, and I’m not sure I really got the hang of it during the few hours I spent with the game. The same can be said of the new set pieces, almost all of which have been touched and changed. Corners can now be driven in and you can have a little visual indicator of where you’re aiming, and you can choose the starting position of a player for the run up to a penalty or free kick. Penalties have an added layer of complexity to them, as you now get to control the angle and pace of the run up directly, letting you perform those annoying little stutter steps that so many footballers pull off. Speaking of which, you can sneak a few yards up the touchline during throw ins, as well.
There’s countless other aspects that have been modified, as well, from AI that, among other things, now makes more diagonal runs and is better at analysing where free space is, to tapping shoot a second time to drive a shot along the ground or direct a header downward. Many of these changes are going to be very divisive – I remember just how badly people reacted to the last time EA fiddled with penalties – many of them will be very difficult for EA to balance, and there are currently a lot of rough edges, but it’s clear to me that FIFA 17 is easily one of the more ambitious updates that the series has seen.
Personally, I just can’t wait to see more of Wayne Rooney’s undeniable on-screen charm.