After years of winning the best football game title, the FIFA series has come under severe pressure from its’ old foe Pro Evolution Soccer. FIFA 17 was the latest effort by EA Sports to set itself apart as the true football simulation – but what it’s shown is that even with new bells and whistles, it’s not quite champion material.
FIFA 17 is largely the same football game you’ll know and love, with little changing in the grand scheme of things since it made it’s current-gen debut back in 2014.
The most prominent new feature in FIFA 17 is that of “The Journey”, which acts as a sort-of campaign mode where you follow youngster Alex Hunter from his days as a youth footballer to playing in the Premier League. The idea of playing as an individual isn’t new to FIFA, with the “Be a Pro” mode making its’ debut way back in FIFA 08, but this attention to detail and rounded story does make a big change to the presentation value of this part of FIFA – adding to what the series arguably does best, in terms of making football look good.
“The Journey” isn’t nearly as good as it could be though. It focusses far too much on off-the-pitch cutscenes where there is little control over the action, sans Mass Effect-style conversation wheels to respond to what’s going on around you. Sitting and watching for minutes at a time makes you a little restless when all you want to do is play a game or two, and when the wait is over and your next task is revealed to be a defensive drill, it doesn’t take long to lose the excitement.
FIFA 17 is the series’ first to use EA’s Frostbite engine, meaning that the game physics you’ll know from FIFA’s past have changed dramatically. The visuals are extraordinary, and the stadia, players and pitches all appear far crisper and more realistic than they have ever done before. The gameplay is more fluid, and it’s far easier for players (both you and the opposition) to chain together quick moves that progress from one side of the field to another.
FIFA’s gameplay problems have always seem a matter of tweaking, and it’s surprising that with millions of players each year they still seem to be unable to find the right balance. This year the series has returned to giving the AI a speed boost, meaning attackers can outstrip your full backs with ease while your forward players will struggle to win a footrace with less than a 6 yard headstart. This makes things a lot harder and doesn’t seem like a very fair reflection on team strengths at times.
Another change, although perhaps more balanced, is that defending mechanics have changed slightly to make it easier to shield the ball from attacks. This is great if you need to hold the ball up while your teammates get forward, but it’s balanced by the AI being a lot more astute at winning the ball off you. It also means you need to be a lot better at your defensive game if you’re wanting to avoid the opponents waltzing through your defence and sticking the ball in the back of the net.
The other most notable gameplay changes are in the set pieces, where EA have introduced more complexity for the sake of it, rather than leaving things be. I suppose it’s easy for them to make new visuals on screen during these parts of the game, but I pine for the days when set pieces were just as plain as the rest of the gameplay – requiring feel and judgement over hitting the right spot on a little mini game of sorts. These changes make you position yourself and control your run-ups for penalties, or show where you want to put the ball in the box for corners – which may intrigue some people, but aren’t the changes FIFA really need.
What FIFA still struggles with is a responsiveness problem at its’ heart. Teammates are nowhere near good enough at reading the game and being where they need to be on the pitch to execute that perfect move. It’s still a lottery as to whether they’ll move towards the ball when you pass to them. The game’s still unsure as to who you’re passing the ball to, making the stray pass all too common. These niggles have always been frustrating, but when the time and effort in developing the game is going into needless extras it’s all the more annoying that the flaws that bring FIFA down aren’t addressed.
In other areas of the game, much remains unchanged. The career mode takes on largely the same form as it has for years, with the simple nature of playing through a team’s season and sharing the highs and lows that come with it. The recent year additions of some levels of player management, in terms of morale and player training, do add some complexity to it – as do the scouting and “blind” transfer systems where you don’t know what you’re paying for exactly when signing a player – but there’s not much more to proceedings than you’d expect from FIFAs gone by.
The online game modes have also been largely untouched, with the money-making Ultimate Team still revolving around its’ purchasable player card packs and then going out and playing friends or strangers to continue the quest for a world-beating team. A nice touch this year at least is the bonuses earned from having played the previous year’s game, to help you along your way just that little bit. These modes don’t appeal to me as much, as traditionally for me FIFA’s always been about the offline play – either on your own or with friends – but it’s clear to see that there is lots there to dive into and that it has, much like the rest of the game, been subtly improved here and there for this edition.
All-in-all FIFA 17 is enough of a progression from last year’s outing to be worth the purchase, with increased production values making it the most realistic FIFA to date, but it’s still the same flawed attempt at a football sim it ever was – and that year-after-year feeling means it’s ever more hard to recommend FIFA over it’s rival.
FIFA 17 is certainly a change in the series, and if you’re a fan of the high presentation value about your football games then it’s still your go-to schoice. However, if it’s the actual gameplay that you’re interested in – it’s Pro Evo that you should be buying.