With the usual patronising phrasework out of the way, let’s talk about football.
As I said in my Madden NFL 17 review, the thing about reviewing sports titles is that you often run the risk of repeating yourself. Many sports titles offer only incremental or purely evolutionary updates, honing the experience further but not really doing anything differently.
So imagine my surprise when I jumped into FIFA 17 and found myself in what had to have been some of the vicious, energetic matches I’ve ever played. I started getting frustrated after my third loss thinking I’d missed something or forgotten how to play, but I hadn’t. The 2017 AI is just that good. It wasn’t that I was bad at the game, or I’d gotten rusty, the other team just weren’t prepared to let me run rings around them anymore.
Jumping into the new story mode called The Journey was also an interesting experience.
The Journey has you playing as an up and coming soccer star named Alex Hunter. Hunto’s arc is one anyone who has ever seen a rags-to-riches sports movie will be familiar with — he comes from humble beginnings and rises through the ranks of the English Premiere League with his best bud Gareth. You control Hunter’s actions on the pitch and off — you’ll run around the field, but you’ll also have him make decisions with his management that will affect his career trajectory. It runs in a very similar way to how 2K Sports constructs their single-player career modes in their NBA 2K series. Come from nothing, become a superstar.
The thing about The Journey is that it makes getting into the FIFA series as a first-timer easier than its ever been on top of being something new for the franchise. Whenever he’s not on the pitch (again, just like NBA 2K), Hunter can be sent to practice where you can run drills and keep your skills sharp, boning up on anything you’re not feeling confident with. Successful training nets you stat buffs and keeps the club manager happy. It’s addictive, and you’ll find yourself getting rather invested in Hunter’s story.
As with previous FIFA games, you can control either Hunter by himself or the entire team during the career mode. While running the whole team yourself means you’ll be able to create your own opportunities with ease, its actually more fun (at least for me) to stay in your lane and only play as Alex. Goals had weight to them then, the satisfaction was somehow greater. It also made me hyper aware of Hunter’s deficiencies and told me exactly what I needed to be working on in training.
Upon completion of The Journey, you are given a version of Hunter for use in the FIFA Ultimate Team mode (or FUT as FIFA 17 still likes to call it). The card will reflect Hunter as you built him throughout his career which will make that card a value proposition tailored directly to you.
FUT itself is more unchanged from its iterations in previous FIFA titles. Following player grumblings that there wasn’t much you could do with your item surplus once it reached a certain size, this year’s installment introduces Squad Building challenges to help you burn through them. These are fairly straightforward exercises to begin with, like trading a single player from your club to another, and rewards are provided. They quickly rise in difficulty to the point ludicrousness, like entire squads made up of different nationalities, all from different leagues and all with very specific ratings that will take you months to complete. It’ll keep the hardcore going but I immediately peaced out.
There are minor alterations to be found throughout the regular game too, and I mentioned that super aggressive AI earlier as one example. You now have to really work for possession and twice as hard to keep it. The net benefit of this is that defense is now way more interesting to play than it has been before. Most FIFA games only come alive when you’re on the attack. FIFA 17 wants to be a high wire act at all times, and it benefits from this line of thinking. It ramps the difficulty considerably, but the reward when you get it right is all the sweeter.
Further, corners now allow players a better shot at placing the ball where the want it, which is great and helped me out in those moments immensely. Free kicks and penalties have also gotten a bit of attention this year but, I feel, not necessarily for the better. I remember them being more intuitive than the clunky new controls and thy forced me miss a number of important shots.
FIFA 17 also marks the first time EA Sports have used their multipurpoe Frostbite Engine in the series and as a result, it is a beautiful game to look at. It’s easy to pick players out of the scrum, even at a distance and the stadiums feel more vibrant and alive than ever before.
Taken as a whole, FIFA 17 is the sort of sports game a critic like me looks forward to writing about — one that improves on certain, familiar aspects of the series but also tries to bring something new to the table with character and flair. The Journey is great fun and the Squad Builder challenges will greatly increase longevity for the FIFA lifers, and though it feels like there’s still more work to be done, this is a big step in a very positive direction. If its been a while since you’ve checked out a FIFA title, or you’ve never played one and want to see what all the fuss is about, this is the one to play.
Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Amazing visuals; The Journey is great; Squad Challenges extend FUT playtime; Great, tactical AI
Lowlights: Some controls altered and are not as intuitive as previous editions; Aggressiveness of the AI may be a barrier for some
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: Out now
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Windows PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.
CORRECTION: This article’s headline previously listed the game as FIFA 16. It is clearly not FIFA 16, but FIFA 17. We have updated the headline accordingly.